How to Meditate When You Have a Million Things on Your Mind

Maybe you’ve heard all about the benefits of meditation—stress and anxiety relief, reduced blood pressure and improved mental and emotional health, to name just a few—but haven’t yet stuck your toe into the Zen waters. "It sounds nice," you might think, "but I’m way too busy."

Perhaps the word "meditation" brings to mind sitting cross-legged in a quiet, dark room with soft music playing, maybe a fountain trickling softly in the corner, your eyes closed as every last thought, worry and concern magically exits your brain, leaving your mind peacefully empty and serene.

In other words, an impossible scenario.

When you’re juggling a job, a family, a busy household and personal obligations, your never-ending to-do list has a way of migrating to your brain, serving up a constant stream of niggling reminders, questions and musings. How are you supposed to achieve anything close to proper meditation with all of that noise going on in there?

The short answer: Meditation is easier than you might think.

An Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation

Julie Frischkorn, LCSW and founder of The Pittsburgh Wellness Collective, teaches and practices mindfulness meditation. This type of meditation can take many different forms—and it can be done practically anytime, anywhere.

"Mindfulness meditation can help people better manage the stress at hand, so they can ultimately feel more successful in reaching their personal and professional goals," Frischkorn explains. "It brings our attention to what is happening for us, as individuals, in the present moment. When we don’t get caught up in dwelling on the past or thinking about the future, we are able to unpack what is happening for us so we can choose how to respond."

Mindfulness meditation in and of itself won’t solve life’s stressors—those will always be there. But it does help you respond to them from a place of thoughtfulness and intention and to be proud of your choices, Frischkorn notes.
And if your mind starts flooding with thoughts every time you try to meditate, it is not an indication that you aren’t built for meditation, she says. "This happens to all of us when we begin to slow down and pay attention to what is going on in the moment," Frischkorn says. "Our minds are like a jungle and our inner monkeys are always swinging from tree to tree. We just usually are not conscious of this because we are operating on autopilot. Mindfulness meditation makes us aware of this and begins to rewire the brain for focus."

And don’t expect to suddenly become a master meditator on your first try. "It’s called practice for a reason," Frischkorn points out. "It takes time and patience to learn to slow down, notice our thoughts in real time and see them clearly to determine how to manage them."

4 Examples of Mindfulness Meditation for Busy People

Practice #1: Body Movement

As Frischkorn points out, it’s a myth that meditation has to be still or calm. If you have trouble remaining quiet and focusing on a traditional breathing practice, moving meditation could be a better fit.  

Frischkorn suggests doing a progressive muscle relaxation, where you clench and release each body part starting with your toes and moving all the way up to your forehead. "When your thoughts start to wander to your to-do list, simply bring your focus back to the body part that you are focused on and tense and release those muscles," she says.

You could also try a walking meditation, where you focus on the feeling of each footstep as it makes contact with the pavement. "Each time you get distracted, say to yourself ‘right’ or ‘left’ as that foot lands, or feel the weight of your body pressing onto the ground," Frischkorn suggests.

Practice #2: Visualization Exercise

Instead of fighting to keep your thoughts away, Frischkorn suggests using them to your advantage by making them part of your meditation session. With your eyes closed, begin to focus on your breath, slowly breathing in and out. Next, instead of trying not to think, simply allow your thoughts to come up. These can be anything from what you have to do that day to a tropical destination you’ve been dreaming of visiting. Now, imagine that you are watching a movie screen and each of those thoughts is being projected onto it, then simply watch the thought as it is projected. Try not to stay with each thought for too long—when it passes, allow the next one to arise.  

Practice #3: Counting 

Another alternative to a traditional breathing practice is allowing counting to be an anchor for your focus. Frischkorn suggests doing this by taking 10 good breaths—breathe in and out, count to one, then breathe in and out, count to two, and so on. If you lose your focus and get distracted, simply start from the beginning.

"Another way to incorporate counting is to breathe normally and focus on the length of your inhale and exhale," Frischkorn says. "Notice the count or length of your inhale and see if it matches your exhale. You don’t need to change it—just notice it."

Practice #4: One-Minute Meditation

To start your day with a sense of calm intention, Frischkorn suggests doing a one-minute meditation after parking your car and before walking into the office. Perhaps you’ve been stewing over a big project or work deadline, which is causing you to feel emotionally overwhelmed. You might even notice that you are clenching your jaw, holding tension elsewhere in your body or feeling the effects of too much caffeine.

"Now that you have this deeper awareness, brought on by peeling back a layer of the onion, you can ask yourself, ‘What do I need in this moment, before I start my day?’" says Frischkorn. "Do you need to ask for help? Do you need to take an early lunch break? Would a mid-day walk be helpful?"

By the end of the minute, you will likely feel calmer, more centered and more in touch with your feelings and needs.

18 Easy Ways to Practice Mindfulness in Daily Activities

Overall, Frischkorn says, the best types of mindfulness meditation for busy people are the ones that can be done on the go. So that it doesn’t end up feeling like just another chore, she suggests introducing mindfulness meditation as something you can do WHILE you do life.

"An informal meditation practice can be done during any of your daily activities," Frischkorn says. "Choose a behavior and make a conscious choice to use mindfulness skills, bringing your full attention to the present moment over and over again during that set period of time."

The secret to an effective informal practice is to choose an activity that you do regularly, she says. "The challenge is to stay focused and observe. When you find yourself having thoughts of the past or the future, judgments about your current state or mild physical discomfort, consciously bring your attention back to what you are doing in the present moment."

The two biggest benefits of this type of meditation? "You don’t have to take time out of your schedule to have a regular mindfulness practice, and you don’t have to be enthusiastic about it to yield positive results—you just have to do it!" Frischkorn says.

Frischkorn shares some of her favorite ways to incorporate mindfulness meditation during regular, everyday activities.
  1. Showering: Be fully present while taking a shower. Don’t allow your mind to wander to the day’s to-do list. Pay attention to the smells of the shampoo and soap as they fill the air. Feel the pressure and temperature of the water on your skin. Notice each activity as it happens: washing hair, conditioning hair, washing face, washing body, shaving, etc.
  2. Brushing your teeth: Pick up the toothbrush, pay attention as you put the toothpaste on the toothbrush, bring it to your mouth, notice the smell of the toothpaste and then the taste as it enters your mouth. Mindfully observe each brush stroke. Your mind will want to wander, as this may be one of the most common daily activities. Bring your awareness back to each sensation.
  3. Getting dressed: Be mindful of putting on each sock, putting your arm in each sleeve or your foot into each pant leg. Notice how your clothes feel on your body. Focus on texture, temperature and pattern. Bring all of your awareness to this activity as if it is your only job in that moment.
  4. Eating a meal: Put away any reading materials or technology and try this at a time when you can eat alone, without needing to carry on conversation. Eat your meal one bite at a time. Notice how it feels to slowly chew each mouthful of food. Draw your attention to the different smells and tastes of each and every bite. Develop an awareness of the different temperatures of each food item. Be aware of your feelings of hunger before, during and after the meal.
  5. Cleaning: Notice the movement of your body and the changes in your breath patterns as you engage in this activity. Do this without music to bring all of your attention to the activity. Pay attention to any thoughts that arise as you are cleaning. Bring your focus back to the activity. Notice the difference between pleasant and unpleasant smells.
  6. Waiting in line: Using this time to develop your mindfulness practice means you never have to be bored in line again. Pay attention to the feeling of your feet on the floor. If you are standing, notice your knees stacked above your ankles, your hips stacked above your knees, your shoulders in line with your hips and your long spine. Open yourself to the awareness of any thoughts, feelings or judgments that you are having at the moment.
  7. Driving: Turn off your phone and your music. Notice your attitude while you are driving. Drive at, or around, the speed limit. Keep your focus on the road, the cars around you, the sounds you hear and the road signage. Use traffic and stop lights as a way to check in with your breathing.
  8. Washing dishes: Stay in the moment, avoiding thoughts of the past or of what is to come next. Feel your body standing at the sink. Notice the temperature of the water. Pay attention to the filling of the basin, the sudsing of the soap. Bring awareness to the shape of each dish. Observe each item as it is washed and then rinsed.
  9. Folding laundry: Notice the colors, patterns and textures of each article of clothing. Are they warm, just out of the dryer? Is there a scent to the clothes from the detergent or dryer sheets? Notice the movement of your body with each fold.
  10. Waiting at a red light: Resist the urge to check your phone or distract yourself. Instead, use these few seconds to look around and notice your fellow commuters, pay attention to the changing light, notice your breath and observe the details of the car in front of you. Feel the weight of your body in the seat. Grasp the wheel and notice the temperature.
  11. Checking your email: Many people hold their breath while checking email. As you sit down to your computer, take three full breath cycles. Notice what feeling emerges as you view your inbox. Notice which emails you open first. Pay very close attention to any emails that evoke strong emotions. Pause and take three more breaths. Perhaps you make the conscious choice to stand up and take a short walk before sitting back down to respond.
  12. Using your phone: Notice each time you put your hands on your phone. Pay attention to when you are using it and why. Be aware of the feelings that arise when checking email, using social media or receiving a text. Try an experiment: Each time you turn to pick up your phone, take three breaths and decide if you truly need to check it at that moment.
  13. Walking your dog: Feel each footstep on the ground. Notice the smell of the air, the surroundings and the season. Pay attention to your body, your increased heart rate and respiration. Notice your dog’s present state. Continually return to the activity at hand when you become distracted.
  14. Talking with a spouse/friend/co-worker: Use the person as an anchor for your attention. Whenever you become distracted, return your attention to the speaker. Notice their facial expressions. Develop awareness for their emotional state. Check in with your own need to anticipate an answer.
  15. Exercising: Give yourself a mindful minute while exercising. Notice your heart rate, pay attention to your respiration and observe your full body. Develop awareness of your thoughts (positive or judgmental) and feelings before, during and after the session.
  16. Reading: When you notice you have become distracted, go back to the point in which you lost attention. Notice the light and words on the page. Underline and highlight points of interest. Look up words that you may not know. Take notes.
  17. Listening to music: Pay close attention to the words and notes of the song. Notice the feelings and thoughts the music evokes. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the music. See if you can identify specific instruments. If it’s safe at the moment, wear headphones. Put down/away all other activities.
  18. Cooking: Stay as present as you can with each part of this activity. From chopping to placing things in the skillet to following a recipe, allow yourself to enjoy each step, without getting too hung up on the outcome. Notice all of the smells. Feel the different food items in your hands. When your mind begins to wander, bring it back.