It is a classic joke that if you do not have time to meditate for twenty minutes, you should meditate for an hour. Admittedly, there’s a germ of truth there. But the joke is perhaps not so funny for an overworked single mom or nurse pressured by understaffing.
In the most scientifically studied mindfulness program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), participants are supposed to meditate 45–60 minutes, six days a week, for eight weeks.
But for many, 45 minutes a day is too much of an obligation.
Short and sweet
So what does the science really say? How much do you have to meditate to notice results in everyday life? Here are some studies that give us a clue.
Anxiety and associated problems are a common target for mindfulness programs, and studies show good results. But you do not need two months to get some relief. Even for beginners, just a single one-hour meditation session may be enough to significantly reduce cardiovascular risk in those with moderate anxiety.
In fact, a few twenty-minute meditation sessions on separate days may be just as effective as a continuous hour. In a study on meditation and pain, four such sessions yielded a clear reduction in pain experience.
Nurses, an occupational group with a lot of time pressure and emotional demands, have much to gain from improved mental health. They have frequently been studied with shorter mindfulness methods (so-called brief mindfulness). One systematic review of twelve studies on hospital nurses showed that brief mindfulness worked well, especially improving life satisfaction, relaxation, and self-compassion, and reducing stress and burnout. On average, participants practiced 105 minutes of meditation spread over four weeks.
The scientific study of meditation with the shortest sessions of all looked at stress and job satisfaction among nurses. It showed results with just five minutes of meditation a day for one week.
Even shorter: Psychological micro-interventions
Micro-interventions in psychology are simple, very short exercises performed in everyday life to create an immediate positive effect. They may be regarded as forms of brief meditation.
Various micro-interventions include noticing and changing negative thoughts, increasing levels of activities by focusing on pleasant ones, relaxation, increasing self-confidence, and so on. Such micro-interventions have been shown in studies to work quickly for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, poor self-esteem, stress, and even psychotic symptoms.
In a meditation context, we often call micro-interventions micro-practices or micro-hits. Micro-interventions/practices that find, create, and reinforce positive thoughts and emotions are part of the meditation path Nurture Positive. Relaxation micro-practices are from the meditation path Focus on rest.
There are also micro-interventions for the body, for example micro-breaks to help with discomfort and health problems from long periods of sitting in a chair.
Our recommendation: Consistent, short, and sweet
In Unified Mindfulness, we generally recommend practicing for at least ten minutes every day — or almost every day. At this level, most people will notice the effects within 14 days. And often much faster.
When working with chronic pain, we also recommend a minimum of ten minutes of mindful movement every day.
These practice sessions can be done in one stretch or divided into shorter sessions of one or more micro-practices. It does not matter how you divide it up. The most important thing is to be consistent and constantly practice.