Typically when you think of “mindfulness” and “meditation,” you think of a dim space lit with candles, a quiet room—turning your phone off and throwing it across the room. (While you do this, you imagine yourself throwing it off a mountain at the monastery where you’re learning to eschew earthly possessions.)
The phone, and screens in general, are often associated with not feeling calm, or centered, or at peace in any way shape or form. And that’s, obviously, for good reason.
But we’ve learned this lesson before and we’ll learn it again: we cannot fully uncouple ourselves from the digital domain, unless we truly do want to go all the way, shorn-headed and robe-cloaked on the mountaintop.
Not only are these devices vital for how we work, play, and connect, they also make it easier to access specific services that were once hard to find. Yoga instruction. SAT prep. A vault to hold your passwords. An AI assistant to write your emails. A productivity coach, time tracker, and data wrangler. (Oh, those last three are all found within RescueTime? Isn’t that convenient!)
All that leads to the most obvious statement of all time: phones and apps are useful. So why not allow it to make everyday tasks easier, more fulfilling, more accessible, and more fool proof? If it works it works, right?
And so, weirdly enough, nothing has provided a more effective, if perhaps at first unnatural, pairing than the practice of meditation and the meditation app.
Headspace, Calm, Waking Up—there are ever-increasingly more of these apps out there on the marketplace that purport to offer a sort of all-cause, all-affliction, easing of mental and emotional discomfort. And the crazy part is (and if you’re someone who has ever given these apps an honest try, you’d likely agree) they kind of actually do.
It’s not like you flip a switch and become 100% happier. But with just a little bit of regular practice (and that’s what practitioners of meditation call it: practice) you’ll start to feel anxieties and irritating proclivities melting away. Over time you may even become, unironically, 10% happier.
And now, as more and more of us are sporting wearables that monitor heart rate, and apps that check different vitals, sleep patterns, and cycles, you can even see from an objective standpoint how your life is improving. Productivity and happiness go hand in hand, some might say.
So let’s explore how this new constellation of mindfulness and productivity arrived in our lives and how we can use it to our advantage.
It’s simple now
In today’s patently insane world, finding moments of calm amidst the chaos can feel like a luxury. Being able to carve out time, maybe even in a space or a room in your house, to sit quietly and do nothing? Cross-legged on a pillow? This might feel like an impossibility. Many of us are still trying to find time in our routines to floss.
You may also be able to remember the times before meditation went mainstream, thinking, “I don’t even know how to do that.” We heard of people that did it, and knew about monks and things like that, but it still felt like an activity that needed an instruction manual we didn’t have.
But once meditation apps hit the scene, it felt like there was much less of a barrier to entry in all senses of the word. Didn’t know what to do or where to start? You had your choice of any number of kind, soft-spoken men or women who would walk you through it. Didn’t have time in the day to stop and breathe? Count to 60 seconds in your car before you walk into the office, and you now have enough time.
It was always in your pocket. That old cliche from the infomercials—“you can do it anywhere! In the park! In your car!”—well, in this case, it turned out to be very true, and very compelling.
Headspace famously offers meditations ranging anywhere from two hours to one, two, or three minutes. There is no getting around it—you have time for a one-minute meditation every single day.
Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe even proved the efficacy of a micro meditation like that by performing a two-minute meditation, short enough for the boundaries of network television, live on air on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and the studio audience.
The excuse that we didn’t even have ten extra minutes in the day was now gone.
What the apps offer
There are a few specific ways that these apps can be used to heighten your practice instead of distracting from it.
As a baseline, each offers a variety of courses and single-session meditations, along with separate categories for breathing exercises and, after popular demand, the ever-important sleep aids (where nice quiet people talk in dulcet tones describing calm and sleepy scenes over sounds of relaxing guitars or crashing waves).
But there are also other categories that the apps have started to branch into:
- Personalization: Apps like Headspace and Calm use algorithms to curate meditation sessions tailored to individual goals like reducing anxiety, improving sleep, or enhancing focus.
- Gamification: Many apps incorporate gamification elements, turning the slog of practice into something a bit more fun. Users can track their progress, earn rewards, and set personal milestones. Headspace at a minimum has a helpful “streak counter” that will incentivize you to turn meditation into a habit.
- Integration with wearables: Some meditation apps seamlessly sync with wearable devices, providing real-time feedback on heart rate, stress levels, and even brainwave activity. Many of these apps have companion onboard apps for wearables like the Apple Watch and the Pixel Watch.
Which brings us to this: wearable devices for mindfulness.
If you haven’t been keeping track of the development of wearables, let us catch you up: wearable technology has recently and quickly evolved far beyond just fitness tracking. Today’s smart wearables are equipped with sensors that monitor various physiological parameters, offering insights into both our physical and our mental well-being, especially as they increasingly intertwine.
- Biofeedback and stress management: Wearables like the Muse headband and the Oura ring provide real-time biofeedback, helping users understand their body’s response to stress and guiding them towards a state of relaxation. (Many women swear by Oura ring in particular: it tracks body temperature to provide illuminating insights about fertility and menstrual cycles, among other metrics.)
- Focus-enhancing: Some wearables employ something called “neurofeedback techniques” to improve focus and cognitive performance. By detecting brainwave patterns, these devices can offer personalized suggestions to change daily behavior in an effort to optimize mental clarity.
- Seamless integration into your everyday: Wearables are designed to be worn throughout the day, seamlessly integrating mindfulness into our routines. They offer gentle reminders to take short breaks for breathing exercises or quick meditation sessions. And now that so many of them ship with robust sleep-tracking mechanisms, many users report only having one problem with their smartwatches: not having a convenient time to charge them, because they want to wear them constantly.
The science behind the tech
It would be understandable to be skeptical: after all, it was only a few years ago that these things, especially smartwatches, weren’t useful for much more than sending an emoji to someone. But this growing strength of mindfulness tech is supported by a growing body of scientific research.
Wearable devices equipped with biosensors have been able to provide researchers with scores of data on the physiological changes that occur during both meditation and general moments of focused attention throughout our days. This information won’t only help advance our understanding of the mind-body connection but also may help guide the development of more effective mindfulness interventions.
Of course, myriad studies have shown that regular meditation practice can lead to improvements in attention, memory, and cognitive function. Additionally, mindfulness has been associated with reduced stress levels, improved emotional regulation, and enhanced overall well-being.
Don’t turn back into a tech zombie
While the benefits of mindfulness tech are clear, it’s understandable to retain concern about the potential pitfalls of relying on digital tools for mental well-being—if we can’t meditate without our phone, (and some of us even use our phones to track our sleep now, too) can we do anything without it?
It’s important to keep these concerns in mind as we walk through life, keeping the risk of tech overuse top of mind on a daily basis—almost like an addict at risk of relapsing.
- Watch your screen time: Striking a balance between digital engagement and unplugged mindfulness practices is crucial. Mindfulness tech should complement, not replace, traditional forms of meditation and self-reflection.
- Privacy and data: As with any app that does anything on any device you own, you should be mindful of tech’s capacity to collect and potentially distribute data—especially personal and biometric info. Research the company behind your product before you dive headfirst in with them. (For what it’s worth, Headspace and Waking Up seem to be founded and led by some standout and well-intentioned people.)
- Keep the motivation coming from within: Mindfulness tech should be viewed as a supportive tool, not a crutch. Ultimately, the goal should be to develop self-regulation and self-awareness that can be applied independently of digital aids. It’s cool if Headspace can tell you you’ve meditated 30 days in a row. But the reason you’re coming back for day 31 is you, and only you.
Healthy mind, healthy work
Now, let’s get into why you’re reading this on a productivity blog.
A calm mind can achieve more. A clear mind can see more of the expanse of possibility in front of it. A happy mind can envision a productive day at the office, and even motivate to the body to the point that you’re sitting in the chair, doing the thing.
The mind, if you haven’t gathered already (and as if you didn’t already know) is the key to everything. It’s where every journey worth embarking on begins.
So it’s where you should start, too.
Get your mind right using the tools outlined above, and watch things come quicker. Roll off the tongue easier. Feel less sticky and halting and hard. Things just flow when your mind is right.
So download your app of choice and block out a few minutes. See what can happen. Spoiler: it’s only good things.
Staying mindful against the odds
The rise of mindfulness tech represents what is honestly a pretty pivotal moment in our quest for balance and well-being in the digital age. It’s normal to see it at first for the contradiction it is—taking a device that has been systematically shown to shred our brain at high exposure levels, and using it to heal our minds.
But that’s what achieving higher levels of health and capacity in this age will look like—making the most out of what’s available to us instead of trying to persist without it entirely.
And it’s true: wielded intentionally, these tools have the potential to revolutionize how we approach mental health, providing accessible, personalized, and data-driven solutions for enhancing focus, reducing stress, and, at the end of all of it, improving many areas of our lives, including productivity.
As we continue to navigate the complexities of modern life, integrating mindfulness into our daily routines through technology can serve as a beacon of calm amidst the storm. And by using these tools carefully, we might be able to thread the needle between the would-be luddites and the hopelessly tech-addicted—where mental well-being is not only prioritized but also seamlessly integrated into our digital lives.