Headspace: Accessible Meditation for Work and Life

Wednesday, April 29, 2020
Christopher Sirk

Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe was a typical college student who stressed and played too hard. Then he burned out. To recover, he chose a path most of us probably only ever considered hyperbolically — he became a Buddhist monk.

Then he came out of the monastic life and helped roll out a meditation app called Headspace. Pretty normal story, right?

Headspace is a fascinating twist on the meditation app genre. Its holistic appeal, as a work, stress, anxiety, and sleep all-in-one app, puts it in a different orbit than much of its competition. It has cute cartoon characters too.

But does the app meditation promoted by Headspace really work? And will it help you at work?

Getting into Headspace and app-based meditation

Meditation today is beyond in vogue, it’s everywhere.

Case in point: legendary weirdo filmmaker David Lynch has his own transcendental meditation (TM) society, the David Lynch Foundation. Jerry Seinfeld has apparently been meditating for 40+ years and is now on Lynch’s all-star TM spokesperson team. Who would have thought the creator of a show ‘about nothing’ would also be into an activity that is ostensibly ‘about nothing’?

Confronted by the contemporary, secular version of meditation, it’s easy to forget where the practice comes from. Meditation and the accompanying notion of mindfulness grew out of Buddhist and Hindu spiritual traditions, dating back thousands of years. Then in the 60s… there were hippies.

But after that groovy scene loved itself out, the mainstream slowly came ‘round to realizing that the ideas behind meditation and mindfulness, separated from counter-cultural agitation, dogma, and religious baggage, were actually really good. Science backs that claim hard.

You don’t have to change that much about yourself to meditate effectively, it turns out. You can make it work around your life and routine, whether you’re a developer at a startup, a freelancer writer-editor, or a humble accountant.

These days, there are lots of meditation apps on the market. All of them have features like session timers, progress tracking, and lessons structured into broader programs. The Mindfulness App and Calm are two big ones.

Headspace differentiates itself from the pack with its breezy manner, disarmingly cartoonish, approachable art direction, and great design. If you’re the type of person who gets alarmed by things like harem pants, gurus, and healing crystals, this might just be the meditation app for you.  

The co-founder and voice of Headspace, Andy Puddicombe was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in India, but he also studied Circus Arts in Moscow and London. That last part seems key to understanding, in some strange way, why the Headspace app succeeds in being performative and playful, yet rooted in rigorous teachings.

The app also holds no trace of racial, religious, or geographical reference points, which broadens its appeal and side-steps any possibility of awkward intercultural issues. It’s modern and secular through-and-through, looking and feeling totally contemporary — with a touch of swaggering whimsy. It is, dare I say, millennial-ready.

The user interface is intuitive and responsive, with quirky animations whisking you from lesson to lesson. It’s a refreshing, airy and light-hearted approach to a subject often addressed with great earnestness or a patronizing teacher-student dynamic.

What meditation in Headspace actually entails

In the app-makers’ approximation, Headspace is made to help deal with “just about everything.” Quite the claim, but what does it actually mean?

Well, in practical terms, the big four issues the app targets are sleep, focus, stress, and anxiety. Branching out from that, some of the more discrete things Headspace lessons deal with are self-esteem, commuting, doing better in sports, appreciating nature, improving your health, and maintaining good relationships.

Some of the meditation techniques it teaches are breathing exercises, visualization, sitting still, achieving focus, and performing body scans inch by inch to generate bodily awareness, all while reducing stress and tension.

Headspace runs as a web-based app and on Apple iOS and Android mobiles, so you can use it at home, at work, on the bus, subway, at the park, et cetera, et cetera.

In terms of how this content is structured, Headspace is reminiscent of Duolingo and other gamified pedagogical learning apps. You master the basics first, then advance in complexity.

On that note, if you’re a meditator with some experience, you might be a bit put out to find you have to go through the basics first, regardless.

The free trial of Headspace, the ‘Take 10 Program’, gives you 10 sessions, which are 10 minutes each. After that, you can get a monthly, annual, or even lifetime plan. If you buy it for a year, it’s $7.99 a month.

Once you meet the first goal of staying still for just 10 minutes a day, you can move onto a huge selection of themed meditation sessions (over 300 of them, actually). There are guided meditations for those short on time, and SOS exercises for when the serious breakdown hits.

The app automatically collects statistics on tracked meditation time and session completion. Content can be customized to suit your personal needs.

It’s also got child-friendly offerings too, with its “Headspace for Kids” zone. They’re designed to get your kids learning how to live with healthy, happiness-building habits early in life. The kid content focuses on five themes (so far): Calm, Focus, Kindness, Sleep and Wake Up.

While there is truly no such thing as ‘fast meditation’, Headspace comes close to offering something like it. The basic idea is “a few minutes can change your whole day”

The app’s creators believe their app can aid in training your mind and living happier and healthier day-to-day. So let’s start where we start and stop each day — in bed.

Headspace meditation for sleep

When we lay down to go to bed, we finally resolve to stop moving, talking, and doing and end our day. But sometimes this moment of stillness is when thoughts finally have a chance to bubble up. When that happens, it can be hard to switch your brain off and get some rest.

On top of that, many of us carry our cell phones and laptops to bed with us, zoning out with social media, video games, or some escapist Wikipedia before bed. Or we go in for the classic routine of pointing a TV at our bed and leaving it on.

The Headspace sleep tools can be used with Alexa and Google Home (although it’s audio-only).

In order to rest the body, it’s necessary to rest the mind. Meditation can lower your heart rate, slow breathing down, and start up the parasympathetic nervous system. When that happens, you increase the likelihood you’ll have a good night’s sleep. If you have a sleep disorder of some kind, are going through a rough patch, or are just inexplicably unable to catch a few Z’s, meditation can be a lifesaver.

Headspace provides sleep sounds, guided meditations, and ‘sleepcasts.’ Sleepcasts are about 45-55 minutes each and start with a ‘wind-down’ to help you chill out a bit, in body and mind. After that, you’ll hear a spoken word description of a relaxing place. A light ambient sound persists in the background throughout.

A better night’s sleep will mean a better day, from working hours to personal time.

Headspace meditation for work and focus

The notion that meditation can help your productivity, and advance your career, is something that will perk up a few skeptical ears.

What might perk those ears even higher is the fact that Headspace is used by people at Adobe, Delta, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Spotify, and United Airlines. At LinkedIn, Michael Susi, Director of Global Wellness, teamed up with Headspace to launch a mindfulness initiative. Since 2015, the company has offered the app to employees as a tool for health and happiness.

A research study, cleverly titled ‘Putting the app in Happiness’, published in 2014, showed that completing 10 Headspace sessions increased positive attitudes and reduced negative ones.

Lest you think the seriousness of that study is invalidated by its goofy title, there’s some other peer-reviewed academic research to backs up Headspace’s claims to workplace efficacy. Mindfulness apps like Headspace have benefits for employee engagement, performance, and endurance, according to research studies whose results were published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and Mindfulness.

When it comes to meditation for focus, Headspace seeks to help you declutter and sharpen thoughts under pressure. Whether you’re trying to code something, write something, or nail a presentation, being able to stop freaking out and get the thing done, and done well is key.

By learning to direct your attention in a rigorously specific and simple way, Headspace’s sessions offer help in defining focus and the purpose of that focus. When you’re multitasking and stressing out, you’ll have a tool for regulating and re-directing your attention.

Meditation for stress and meditation for anxiety

Speaking of that, Headspace offers meditation for stress specifically. Visualization technique, for example, is used to engage and occupy the mind, while also unwinding and moving up to a place of calmness.

Stress has cumulative negative consequences on us, on our health, relationships, and work performance. Headspace’s bite-sized lessons work to let you distance yourself from the object of stress and re-establish yourself by shifting attention and gaining clarity of motivation.

Related to stress, and often overlapping, is anxiety. When you’re anxious, you shut down and stop dealing with the issue that initially triggered the anxiety. Anxiety feeds on overthinking a situation, anticipating every worst-case scenario before anything truly bad has even happened.

It’s an illogical reaction sustained by the momentum of its own tailspin, and it can quickly make a whole lot of things worse if not stopped. The strange part about anxiety is how we often fight anxiety with more anxiety — we’re anxious about being anxious. We try to attack the feeling we have by thinking about why it started, rather than accepting it.

Headspace’s lessons promote the disruption of the anxiety cycle by letting you “witness the mind, to witness both thoughts and feelings from a place of neutrality or objectivity.” Rather than piling on thoughts into an anxiety heap, you’ll learn to deal with them separately and let them go.

With some skill in meditation, it becomes possible to cut down the torrent of anxious feeling by accepting them and giving up without giving in.

The smartphone meditation trend and finding a work-life balance

As life accelerates and we mysteriously end up working more, not less as a result of technology, it becomes more necessary than ever to find slow-down time.  By turning down the speed, you change your mentality, perceiving things differently and getting a chance to ‘change the channel’ on problems you might be in a tailspin about.

There’s a longstanding stereotype of meditation as an attempt at achieving ‘nothingness’ of thought — or some kind of pie-in-the-sky transcendence. While the stereotype still exists, more people are getting wise to what the ritual is really all about. Focus and refocus.

At heart, meditation is about observing your thoughts, feeling, and problems without judgment.

The intent is to produce a feeling of mindfulness, of being-in-the-world and being-in-the-moment. You know, rather than being-in-Chrome-with-thirty-tabs-open and thinking about the next thing to do, always.

For some, meditation is coming home from a long day of work and unwinding with a Hungarian art house film about cows slowly doing cow stuff. Others might find cueing up a Headspace lesson on their phone more to their liking.

It’s ironic, or maybe totally appropriate, that the smartphone and laptop — the screens where we burn up most of our waking hours these days on work, play, and willful distraction — would also be a new place to find peace and personal enlightenment.

An app like Headspace is definitely not a one-shot replacement for a therapist, psychiatrist, and/or any other relevant -ist. Yet it does offer a daily tool that might just help you cope and live better, readily accessible with a couple screen taps.   

Success and failure aren’t really that relevant — the point is to live well. The holistic benefits of meditation, in sleep, focus, stress, and anxiety, and whatever else, are definitely real. Are they for you though?

Well, Headspace is definitely a good place to check out the scene, and maybe pick up the habit.