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Mindfulness Biometrics Technology

Spire Stone - A Wearable Device with Instant Feedback on Stress and Breathing

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In my continued quest for biometric insights and stress management, I recently picked up a Spire Stone. It monitors respiration and it can give you real-time feedback on your breathing patterns. Very handy for identifying and managing stressful moments throughout the day.

Breathe less than 14 times in a minute? You are calm. Your breath is full and consistent. Feels pretty good, doesn't it?

Breathe more than 22 times in a minute? You are stressed. Your breathing has become quick and shallow.

If this happens, the Spire device gives you a small nudge in the form of vibration to let you know.

The great news? You can do something about it. Take deeper, more normal breaths and help your body relax and feel less stressed-out.

I like it because, like FitBit, it gives me a way to impact my health that I can make conscious choices about. Breathing? There's always time for that. And improved awareness leads to small changes that can have a big impact.

With the HRV, brain wave, and sleep devices I've tried, you just don't control those things as directly as breathing or steps.

Spire gives you control over your stress level. Changing your breathing helps you feel less anxious and it can help you BE less anxious by sending a calming signal to all the other systems in the body.

It is a really good device. I've noticed that I don't always agree 100% with its breath count. During meditation I think it over counts, slightly, depending on the position of the device.

I also have had a few false positives on the 'stress vibration'. But not more than 1 a day.

These are very minor flaws in my opinion, and the value it provides more than outweigh these (small) negatives.

The additional awareness it provides to your current breathing pattern is very helpful.

They also have an app with some nice features. They have helpful guided breathing exercises and stats on how much time you were calm, anxious, active, and focused.

Spire has a new product coming out called the Health Tag which is designed to be attached to clothes, more or less permanently (it can be washed). In addition to respiration it also monitors HRV.

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Mindfulness Technology

Making a Simple 'I Love You' Button with the Amazon IoT Button

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The article below is specifically about using the AWS (Amazon Web Services) IoT button to create a simple 'I Love You' button that my kids could use to send a text to their mother while they were staying with me.

While that was a specific idea, the concept could easily be extended for children to send a message to a grandparent, a friend who has moved away, or a cousin who lives in another city. It's not strictly limited to the situation I describe.


As a divorced parent, you often find yourself trying to make the divorce have as limited an impact on your child or children as possible.

One thing they teach you as you are going through that process is that your child ultimately views each parent as key to understanding themselves, and any time you do anything to tear down your ex you're really only hurting your child.

So, last summer, shortly after my divorce was finalized I happened to come upon the AWS IoT button, which is basically an unbranded programmable Dash button. I've written about using it at work here.

As I was working on the pitch for that project, it occurred to me that the button could be used to solve another problem. My children are too young to have phones (my opinion), but it would be nice if they had a way, when they were staying with me, to send their mother a text to say 'Hi Mommy! I love you!' or something similar.

This is easy with the IoT button. Here are the steps involved.

Step 1 - Order Button from Amazon All you have to do is order them from Amazon here.

Step 2 - Use the mobile app to configure the button to communicate Download the setup app for Android or iOS. Next, use the setup app to put your button on your wifi and configure a basic function.

Step 3 - Change the message to your custom message The last step is a little trickier. You need to edit the Lambda function created by the setup app. I won't go in to the details, but it is possible for a person with limited technical expertise to pull off. Certainly, anyone with a technical friend or relative could do it with help.

Essentially you change this:

PhoneNumber: PHONE_NUMBER,
Message: 'Hello from your IoT Button ${event.serialNumber}. Here is the full event: ${payload}.',

To make it look like this:

PhoneNumber: PHONE_NUMBER,
Message: 'Hi Mommy, I love you.',

The change itself is as simple as what I outlined above. It's just getting to the right place that takes a little Googling/spelunking if you haven't done it before.

For kids, this is also a nice, simple introduction to coding where a simple change can be made simply, and without needing tons of additional explanation, deployment, or other fanfare. Just make a change and hit the 'Save' button.

Once done, my boys were able to send their mom a short message and have her know that they were thinking about her. In return, I knew I was helping them build connections and self-esteem and not tearing that down. Here is our completed button, plus decorations:

-iot_button_custom

This is extendable to other situations - absent friends, geographically distant loved ones, parents who might be travelling. Even adults could benefit from having a dedicated 'I love you' or 'I think you're great' button to press from time to time.

Who doesn't need the occasional reminder/short cut to tell our friends and family that we think they're great?

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Mindfulness Leadership

Tools, Brains, Obsolescence

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I just finished watching 2001: A Space Odyssey with my kids and it's a good reminder that technology and tools may not always be what we expect.

Not every tool looks like a cell phone or an AI algorithm. Sometimes a club is a tool also. Hopefully, as business leaders, our use of clubs (both literal and figurative) is rare.

It is useful to consider the club in the following way: A club is different from a spaceship, but they are both tools. Perhaps, as the movie suggests, both rudimentary tools in some sense. If not today, then tomorrow.

People will always make more tools and they can use them in new ways. So people are the real asset in the long run. Humanity.

Humans are tool makers and the mind, while itself a tool, is capable of not only altering the world around it, but of altering itself for the better.

Today's spaceship is tomorrow's club and humanity today is not the same as humanity 1000 or a 100 years ago.

This is our challenge as humans and business leaders - people evolve. Customers get more sophisticated. Spaceships become clubs. Humans persist.

How will you use this to motivate and unlock discretionary effort in your organization? Hint: not like the picture.

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Mindfulness Technology

Mindfulness, Gadgetry, Quantified Self

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I've been thinking about my earlier post related to mindfulness and gadgetry. And I believe it is possible that gadets and quantified-self measurements really can help us live more mindful lives. There's evidence to the contrary, of course, but that doesn't have to be the path that we follow.

To think clearly about the relationship of mindfulness and gadgets, let's start with a definition of mindfulness. I like this definition from mindful.org:

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

Here's a link to that quote.

So, we're trying to be fully present in the moment.

We all know that gadgets can distract us. We've had plenty of experience with important work emails arriving at dinner time and social media posts that draw our attention. Look around most any public place you go and you will see people who are mentally elsewhere.

So, how do we use our gadgets to the best effect to help us be present in the moment?

Part 1

Technology can help us if we are using them to be conscious of ourselves.

What are some things that get in the way of this? If our quantified self goal is about the future. Something like "My resting heart rate needs to be X and I need to make a plan to achieve that." Or "I want to be in a calm state of mind for 80% of the time when I meditate, and I'm not getting there now." Well, then you are not present.

You may be making yourself more healthy, and that's good, but you are not present now. You are looking at now and reflecting on how to improve.

If our gadgets and measurements allow us to be more aware of the body. To lead us to make choices in the moment. "I"m going to go for a walk now because I'm aware of my stress." Or "It's time to go to bed because my body needs rest." Then we are more present because we're aware of how we're doing.

Gadgets and quatnitifed self measurements can help you into this awareness.

In reality, most of us probably do some of both. There's a healthy element to looking ahead and making plans. You just don't want it to overwhelm you or for it to become the only thing that you think about, or to continual make it about goals down the road and never appreciating the moment that you're in.

Part 2

If you are using some type of gadget or device to actually measure or evaluate your meditation practice, then you have an additional way that a gadget can help you.

There are risks here, too. If you are too focused on the gadgetry or the goals, it detracts from the meditation. It's happened to me before.

But if you incoporate into your routine and you don't make it ABOUT the gadget. Then it's worth reflecting on the patterns that you see.

A different kind of visualization of what your mind is doing when you're at rest is interesting and can be revealing about how you are really doing.

I mentioned my own particular challenge in this blog post. I have a challenge sometimes where my mind becomes MORE active when I am meditating. I actually start out calm and relaxed and it's during the meditation itself (when I am not distracted by other things) that my mind activates around stressful things that may have happened that day.

Here is another example - this one the app actually granted me the 'Wanderlust Award' for. This badge was awarded because my 'mind began to wander near the end of this session'. No kidding:

Screenshot_20180406-121530_Muse

Well, someone did a nice job of naming it 'Wanderlust', but that is not as fun as it sounds.

It's not that you don't know that your mind is wandering, it's something that you learn to recognize when you're meditating. It's the pattern:

Start Calm
Mind Wanders
Get Less Calm
Mind Wanders More

The gadget and app aspect has helped me to recognize this, and this is helping me be more aware and think about that situation when it happens.

It's a bit different than the 'I know I am not calm but I'm meditating anyway', because it's a bit sneakier.

Conclusion

I think there are slippery slopes in both of these scenarios. The gadgets can overwhelm you and the apps often inject elements of gamification that I am not interested in and that I think tend to draw you out of the moment. Be wary of those things.

But if you can avoid the traps and stay present, the tools are there and they can help you build your practice and stay focused in the present.

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Mindfulness HRV Quantified Self Heart Rate Variability

How to Improve Your Brain and Have Fun Doing It

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As I have been pursuing my journey related to mindfulness and stress-reduction, I've been applying things to my life and seeing what helps and what doesn't.

If I divvy up 20 - 30 minutes of meditation time and use 3 different biometric devices, am I getting the same value as if I just sat there for 30 minutes and meditated?

I'm probably not.

I think that a lot of meditation and mindfulness practitioners and experts would probably take exception to what I'm doing.

At the same time, it's fun for me to do it this way, I get to play amateur scientist and try out technology I'm interested in.

I also get to look at different signals from the body and understand a bit better how they work.

This is fun for me.

Also, I get to write blog posts about them and that is also fun.

On the subject of playing amateur scientist and HRV and mindfulness, I've started using Welltory.

When it comes to HRV, Welltory does a great job of providing interpreted results and education. They provide a lot of information and integrate with a lot of other products that I use (FitBit, Google Fit, Qardio).

Welltory very much encourages the 'try it and see' or 'amateur scientist' approach to quantified self, which aligns well with how I do things. They encourage you try things and see if they help.

All of this puts me squarely in the realm of 'Quantified-Self Nerd'. Which is OK with me, I think. I'm turning the stress and stress management into a fun and interesting activity, which helps reduce stress.

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HRV Heart Rate Variability Leadership Mindfulness

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and You

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Looking at HRV is not like looking at basic bio-data data like steps, calories, or resting heart rate.

As a measure of variability over time it is both more powerful and a bit harder to understand.

I'm currently using two different app/hardware combos to look at information related to HRV.

The fist app is called Biostrap. It provides hardware and software for looking at sophistcated biometric data including HRV. I'm currently only using the wristband, and only looking at HRV.

I'm also using Complete Coherence's Android App with a Polar H10 heart rate monitor. The Complete Coherence app doesn't provide you with direct information on HRV, but offers you insight on how well you are using their breathing exercises which are designed to improve HRV.

As a result, the Complete Coherence application is a little bit more intuitive, though not as clean or modern looking as Biostrap. Because you are measuring coherence (their term) and not HRV directly they're a bit freer to make it easier to consume. It's a simple 1 - 100 scale with color coding from bad (red) to good (green).

Here some example graphs that it produces after (not during) a session:

The one challenge is that it is sometimes hard to tell why I'm getting the scores that I'm getting. I'm doing the breathing exercises and mostly that makes the score go up, though sometimes it doesn't. If it doesn't, there isn't a strong indication of what I could do better. With a bit of trial and error I discovered that playing with the breath-timing settings allowed me to get more consistent results. Presumably this means that there was a breathing pattern that better suited me and changing it (changed from 6 breaths-per-minute to 5 breaths-per-minute) produced improved HRV.

But I can't actually see that directly in the app.

In contrast, Biostrap is designed to provide you directly with HRV readings. This is considerably more involved process than just strapping on a writband and having it count steps or give you your resting heartrate.

The Biostrap hardware uses a clinical-grade photoplethysmogram (PPG) to gather much more precise heartbeat data than other PPG-based fitness bands.

Because the hardware is more purpose-built for heartrate it looks a bit more utilitarian (no displays or buttons) and it requires a little more handholding. You have to explicitly tell it to do a biometric session and when you are going to sleep.

The data that comes back is much more detailed and the analysis gives you a much clearer picture of the HRV measurements the app is taking. It isn't transmuted into a user friendly number or code.

As a result I can see what my HRV measurements are: I can see averages, I can see individual data points, and I can see trend information over time. The app has a clean, modern look which you can see here:

Yes, but what does it all mean you ask? What's good? What's bad? What's average?
The first answer I found was, 'It depends' and then, 'You're better off comparing against your self over time.'

And then I found this article that at least provides some guidance.

After all is said and done, my average is a tiny bit above the average for my age and gender, so that's good, I guess. Now I have a goal to work toward which is to improve on that.

Of course, Biostrap doesn't provide me with guidance on how to improve.

For that, I'm going to continue to use the Complete Coherence system for improving HRV, along with regular exercise and meditation. Hopefully I will see long term improvement in my averages. I like the Complete Coherence program (which extends well beyond HRV into other mindfulness-related areas). I am sharing it with some colleagues who are interested in improving health and new ways to manage stress and improve energy.