Dr. Schueller is the Executive Director of PsyberGuide and an Assistant Professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. He is a faculty member of Northwestern’s Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies (CBITs) and his work focuses on increasing the accessibility and availability of mental health resources through technology.
Headspace is arguably the most popular and widely used mental health app. Headspace’s website reports having over 15 million users. Andy Puddicombe’s, one of Headspace’s founders, TEDTalk has nearly 8 million views. On our PsyberGuide site, the information about Headspace is one of the most visited pages (behind just our home page and product guide). Because of this, we’ve decided to take a deeper dive into Headspace, using it as an example to learn more about digital mental health tools, and providing more content for those of you using Headspace or wanting to learn more.
First, though, I have a small confession. Of course, I’ve heard of Headspace, I’ve downloaded Headspace, I’ve looked at Headspace, but admittedly, I had never really used Headspace. That is to say, I’ve poked around the free content. Listening to the basics, watching the videos, playing around with the reminders. But, I never committed to practicing Headspace on a consistent basis. So, for the past month I’ve used Headspace. I logged 3 hours of practice through 28 sessions (sorry, I didn’t make it to 1 session each day, some days I really struggled to find the time and motivation, although it appears I’m not alone in this1). Through this month, I learned a few things and I wanted to share those thoughts with the PsyberGuide community.
Content. Headspace is one of the deepest mental health apps I’ve seen in terms of quantity of content. The audio tracks address diverse targets. This includes health issues covering all aspects of life, from pregnancy and cancer to stress and depression. Our professional lives and hobbies are noted in tracks on work & performance and sports. Headspace Pro provides content for those who want to take it to the next level (I definitely did not see myself as a “pro”). Headspace kids for ages grouped 5 and under, 6-8, and 9-12 (sadly I couldn’t get my 2-year-olds to sit through any of these so no opinions here). Content is meant to fit the structure of your schedule, your attention span, and your skill with tracks ranging from 1 to 10 minutes. I really liked the shorter meditations and my average duration ended up being 7 minutes. I would have loved a couple without that British accent though, no offense to the British, it just didn’t work for me.
Making it a practice. Here’s one place I would have liked more help. Headspace has a lot of features to make the app more “sticky.” Notifications, streaks, a play button prominently displayed when you start up the app. But I really struggled with transforming my use of the app into a true practice. And this is definitely a skill I have other places in my life. I’m a runner and put in about 2,000 miles each year. I’ve run 9 marathons and one 50k. Doing this has required me to train my body and my mind to tolerate runs that last a long time and long distances. However, my early days of running were short distances, alternating periods of running and walking, and I still have to boost my weekly mileage by about 40% to gear up for a race. As I began my month with Headspace, the 10 minute meditations really challenged me. I slogged through the Basic pack before I started to utilize the minis. This isn’t just a feature of Headspace, starting the practice of meditation is challenging no matter how you come to it. If I hadn’t committed to try this for 30 days, then I probably wouldn’t have been able to do even as much as I did. I would have loved to have someone or something help me better figure out ways to better use the tools to slowly build me up. Alternate minis, packs, and singles.
Focusing on why I’m doing it. Maybe I missed a feature, but I felt the metrics Headspace reflected back to me (e.g., number of minutes, number of sessions, streaks), were more about what Headspace wanted me to do (continue to use the app) rather than what I wanted to get out of Headspace. My goals are to improve my focus, reduce procrastination, feel more relaxed, along with all the things I set out to accomplish in my life. I would love to track progress on the things I care about or connect to what I hoped to get out of Headspace.
So for 30 days Headspace simplified the practice of meditation. It put it in my pocket and allowed me to take it with me wherever I went. To my office, on trips. It’s hard to say if I’m more mindful, more productive, or happier as a result of it. But I also think I realized early on that Headspace was not for me. I stuck with it because I wanted to see where it would go. It has a lot to offer and given its popularity it’s obviously doing a lot right. We’ll have another take on Headspace in a few weeks here and we’ll put up some more material regarding the app on PsyberGuide. I hope you find it useful and as always, feel free to post your own thoughts and experiences in the comments below or on our social media.
- Laurie, J., & Blandford, A. (2016). Making time for mindfulness. International journal of medical informatics, 96, 38-50. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2016.02.010