Welcome back to Life Well Lived: an ongoing conversation around how we can use technology to improve our lives. In this installment, we sat down with Headspace's Head of Science Communications, Sarah Romotsky, to chat about the intersection of mindfulness and technology, get tips for meditation, and learn why noting might be worth a spin.
Illustration by Daiana Ruiz.
Andy Puddicombe had a mission. After being ordained as a Buddhist monk in a Tibetan monastery in the Indian Himalayas and traveling the world, Andy wanted share what he'd learned and make meditation accessible for more people. The result is Headspace, a meditation app with over 20 million downloads in 190 countries. Simple animations, a soothing voice, and timed-sessions tailored to your needs have helped make Headspace a hit, but the real knack has been in demystifying the process and making it tech-friendly fitting easily into your daily routine.
Foursquare's Head of Communications, Dorothy Chang, sat down with Headspace's Head of Science Communications, Sarah Romotsky, to chat about the intersection of mindfulness and technology, and hear a few tips on how to get started in your own mindfulness journey.
How do you each define mindfulness?
Dorothy: I think of mindfulness as being present and aware of what's happening right in front of you, and kind of letting yourself be less distracted than a lot of us come to be in the digital age.
Sarah: I would agree with that. I would add that, beyond thinking about being present, I think of mindfulness as a skill that helps you react and cope in different parts of your life with regard to your feelings, your thoughts, your bodily sensations. I think it's often thought of like something that happens in the present moment, but it's the ability to learn how to handle certain moments in ways that can be beneficial and improve your interaction and your experience with events and moments in life.
The Headspace app
Why do you think there's been such a focus on mindfulness in the tech sector?
Sarah: We all have our busy lives with a ton of things on our priority list all the time. The ability to access mindfulness training through technology is, I think, what makes it more accessible to everyone. It seems like a natural fit just the way that nutrition and fitness and technology have merged. This is the next piece of the wellness puzzle.
Dorothy: I think that, merely speaking for the tech sector, a lot of times there's this desire to create solutions through problems that entrepreneurs and founders are facing themselves personally. One of the things that a lot of founders are interested in is figuring out how to optimize their own minds. Mindfulness and meditation are very much a part of that. They're creating technology-oriented solutions to figure out how to take advantage of that more in their lives, to train their own minds to change.
Foursquare specifically has started making an evolution towards being more introspective, versus being a more social app. It wasn't necessarily intentionally lead with the thought: how can we make this more mindful? It was a natural evolution of how people were using the Swarm app. We're seeing that our users are actually getting more introspective and wanting to understand more about themselves and where they go, and take the time to take it in wherever they are. To stop and note, “Oh, this is where I am." This is something I need to think about for a second, versus just going through their busy days and trying to find a photo to snap for Instagram. This is more about taking up time for themselves.
One of the tools that Headspace teaches is the technique of Noting, which sounds very similar. What is Noting and how does it work?
Sarah: Noting is a technique that allows for the ability to not be distracted from thoughts that are happening. It teaches us to acknowledge that thoughts are there, but not let them take us off and wander us into distraction. We don't assign any analysis or judgment to the thought. We just give our current experience a label. So, for example, if we Note something, we say this is a feeling or that's a fear. Noting the thought helps to place it in an area where we can then exhale and feel think: okay, we've Noted that and we can no longer be distracted by it. It helps keep the meditator present and anchored into the present. And then, if our mind does start to wander during the practice, Noting can make it easier to get to that mindfulness place again.
I find for me when I'm Noting, it helps me better acknowledge or recognize what is occurring. You can put a name to it, and strengthen it by recognizing it. I think it's a really powerful tool.
Dorothy: It's funny, because I think that our app Swarm is a very literal interpretation of Noting though it was not designed with this understanding in mind. Swarm asks the user to literally mark down where you are, check in, maybe take a photo if you want to, and to Note what you're thinking and who you're with, and then put your phone away and don't have to think about it again so you can focus on the present.
Now you're here. Later on in life, you can go back and see where you've been, and you have the record or journal of your journey in life. We're trying to encourage users not to spend a lot of time on the phone, to use it as a tool for what you need it for, take that step to acknowledge what you're doing, and then put it away and be present.
What are the scientific benefits of using a technique like Noting, or of starting a meditation practice?
Sarah: Headspace does an amazing job at taking something that seems complex or out of reach — something that many people place in the realm of the spiritual — and brings it to a place that's accessible for everyone.
But, Headspace also has an amazing commitment to science, and to showing the benefits of meditation. We've done studies that show that Headspace can affect mental health benefits, and certainly mindfulness, meditation generally has been shown to decrease anxiety and stress in general.
In one study, we asked participants to use Headspace for four weeks versus four weeks of another brain training exercise. We had them perform a task in front of a computer screen by responding to different stimuli at certain times. Their response to stimuli, or their non-response to stimuli illustrated their ability to focus and not be distracted. The people who used Headspace showed a 14-percent increase in their performance on those tasks. They were able to be less distracted, and there was a significant decrease in mind wandering. I think that can have huge implications for our work and personal lives. Even a small increase in our ability to have sustained attention can be massive.
Meditating is also a skill that can help you learn how to relate better and have better relationships, not only with yourself, but with other people in your life. We've conducted studies that show that Headspace increases compassionate behavior. People we tested for three weeks increased their compassionate behavior by 27-percent after our experiment.
Something very simple like mindfulness training that only takes 10 minutes, or even three minutes, or some of our SOS sessions, which are only a single minute long, can have really large repercussions in your life, in terms of a range of health benefits.
Do you have any recommendations for how to start a meditation practice?
Sarah: I'm actually a nutrition scientist. In my career, I try to help people instill healthy habits in their life, and adopt new ones. My experience with getting people to change their behavior, to move toward healthier options — it is so hard, and it's even harder when you're asking them to go against the grain of something that is already instilled in them. Technology is already there, so if we don't use it as a resource, we're going to miss the mark completely. I think that's the first step.
Another thing that can be challenging when you're starting a meditation habit is your expectations for how you're going to feel: what it's going to feel like when you start meditating, and how quickly you're going to feel a change. I know when I started, I felt a little relaxed after the first time, but I didn't know what was really changing. I couldn't really measure whether I felt more focused. You have to be open to every experience and any outcome that comes from starting your practice. It's not about having rigid expectations of what you should and shouldn't feel. Just be open to the possibilities of different experiences that can come from a mindfulness practice.
But, I think the best recommendation is to find something that's already part of your daily life, and then attach meditation to that. Eventually, it just becomes automatic. The best successful practice is something where it is triggered automatically within you, and not something that feels like a chore.
It takes a while for that to happen. The average time to build a habit is 66 days. Finding whatever works for your individual life is actually the best way to sustain it, so there's no right or wrong answer. Just do what's best for you and try to stay present.
The is part three of a four part series where Foursquare explores how technology shapes and changes how we live our lives. For the other installments see here: part one, part two, and part four. Or, follow us and never miss a beat!