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Updated: Jan 3, 2020
Many of us exist in a state of seemingly perpetual distraction. Flitting from this device to that screen, from this app to that email. Work has become hopelessly intertwined with the same platforms that perpetuate this web of distractedness. As a business owner, it’s vital to be able to achieve optimal performance, maintaining focus on varied tasks and avoiding unwanted distractions at all costs.
So how should one do that when an entire attention economy is consuming the world, from wearable devices to connected automobiles, pinging notifications and a dizzying array of screens and interfaces?
One way to tackle the problem is to simply calm down and meditate. A few smart apps have sprung up to help you do just that. Is it a bit ironic that the very same devices which enslave our attention and threaten our productivity are also being utilized to provide the cure? Sure, but let’s set our skepticism aside for a moment.
I’ve tried meditation off and on throughout my life. I always kind of almost sort of like it. But it’s never quite clicked. I really want to want to do it, but even though I kind of hate myself for it, I don’t really want to do it. Like any good habit, making a change does take a bit of effort. Luckily, these apps seem to promise that they’ll simplify everything for hopeless cases like me.
The reason I keep trying is that the people who do it often cite it as the one thing they do that is the most responsible for their ability to handle daily stress and improve their focus and performance.
There was even a recent Onion article parodying the trend: Annoying, Well-Adjusted Friend Even Fucking Meditating
Proponents of meditation claim the practice lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, reduces risks associated with cardiovascular disease, helps with depression, enhances creativity and makes you more kind, among myriad other touted benefits. Some studies appear to confirm many of these findings, though there is some debate around the fact that participants in the studies usually come from the meditation world itself and their involvement is considered biased. Still, just about anyone who practices meditation claims to enjoy at least a few of the aforementioned benefits because of it.
With outspoken advocates like David Lynch, Jerry Seinfeld, Russell Simmons, Oprah Winfrey, Ray Dalio, Rupert Murdoch and Jeff Bridges, we can certainly agree that at the very least, the various disciplines of meditation on offer have some very strong marketing muscle.
So what’s up with these apps?
There are more meditation apps popping up in the app store every day, but I’m going to focus on the two that I find most interesting.
Headspace was developed by a British man named Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk who left the Himalayan monastery where he was ordained, to study with the Moscow State Circus, before returning to London to finish his degree in Circus Arts at the comparatively mundane sounding Conservatoire of Dance and Drama. Yes, that’s all true. During that time, he had the idea to take his mindfulness training and figure out how to secularize it and make it accessible to people like me and you.
Headspace is appealing because it packages techniques associated with the Vedic tradition of Transcendental Meditation in a way that doesn’t require a Yogi (meditation teacher) or a mantra (secret word given to each student by a Yogi, used to focus the mind in meditation), or any of the other ritual trappings of formal meditation study. Meditation isn’t religious, and it doesn’t even have to be spiritual. It’s just something you can do to make yourself feel and be better.
Headspace is very well designed. The onboarding process instructs you in how to use the app in a few short minutes with just a couple swipes and presses. They ask if you need a little nudge to remind you to meditate each day – a notification for your phone’s homescreen — which I highly advise as it will help you develop the habit.
Headspace is a subscription service, but it starts with a free 10-day program called Take 10. You’re shown a quick animated intro that explains some meditation basics. It’s cute, a bit like the Virgin America safety video retooled for a flight inward. It emphasizes that the most important aspect of successful meditation is to find somewhere where you can remain undisturbed for the duration of your session.
Andy walks you through your first meditation session, which consists mostly of alternating body and environmental awareness, breathing exercises, counting and moving focus from the external to the internal. His voice is pleasant and persuasive, one might even say sonorous. Unless you’re British, in which case you might simply describe his voice as ‘a man’s voice’.
If you progress past the initial program and choose to subscribe ($12.95 per month), various meditation programs, called Series, will be unlocked. There are packs focused on health objectives, such as depression, self-esteem, stress, anxiety, sleep and pregnancy. Other aspects of relationships and performance are covered in their own Series.. Interestingly, the only other freebies apart from Take 10 are two Singles (the term they use for single-serve meditation sessions not part of a Series, ranging from 2 to 60 minutes) dedicated to helping you overcome a fear of flying.
Headspace feels good. When you come out of it, you feel ready for whatever you’ve got to do next. It’s really easy to try it out, so I can’t recommend it highly enough. I don’t just kind of sort of want to like meditating now, I actually really love it.
The reason I want to talk about Pause is that it’s vastly different from the other meditation apps available, most of which are like inferior versions of Headspace. Pause uses an entirely different approach.
Pause was created by interaction designer Peng Cheng and the insanely great creative technology studio Ustwo (creators of the game Monument Valley and a bunch of other really cool stuff). Cheng was struggling to cope with a crippling bout of stress and depression. He embraced Tai Chi meditation and found relief.
Whereas Headspace asks you to focus on breath and your body, Pause asks you to focus all of your attention to moving your finger across your screen. It’s accompanied by a not at all cheesy ambient soundtrack. It’s oddly satisfying to move your finger slowly, focusing all of your attention on it until the world fades into the background. The app tells you to close your eyes, and continue to slowly move your finger. I usually spend about 10 minutes in the meditative state. When I stop, I feel surprisingly refreshed.
“The movement was inspired by Tai Chi,” Cheng told Tech Insider. “A kind of deliberate, slow, continual body movement.” The idea being, “What if we could move that movement quality down to the fingertip, and the phone could sense that?”
One of the things I like best about Pause is that it’s so easy to slip into. It doesn’t require me to carve out time or find a quiet space like Headspace or other apps do. If you’re anything like me, as soon as you have a free second, you whip your phone out of your pocket and check your email, or social media, or whatever it is that you do. Lately I find myself opening Pause instead of those things, and I really feel better off because of it.
At just $2 in the app store, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Practicing meditation is one of the most risk free things you can try to improve your performance. If it doesn’t work for you, nothing gained and virtually nothing lost. If it does work for you, it could make a huge difference in your daily success, happiness, and work in general.
Samantha Novick is a senior editor at Funding Circle, specializing in small business financing. She has a bachelor's degree from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. Prior to Funding Circle, Samantha was a community manager at Marcus by Goldman Sachs. Her work has been featured in a number of top small business resource sites and publications.