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.
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?
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a subject matter that I've written about extensively on this blog.
The book has a lot of insights based on Dr. Watkins extensive medical and consulting work with business leaders, as well as brining together a lot of other science related to behavior and personal growth.
It's a powerful book and worth reading, even if you aren't interested in mindfulness or meditation. If you're interested in being a more effective leader, this book is for you, though it will almost certainly challenge your preconceived notions of what leadership consists of; how one approaches making improvements as a leader, and what a leadership book consists of.
You have never read anything like it.
One of the primary, liberating insights of this book is that time management is unimportant comapred with energy management. Our ability to be our best selves, project constructive energy, and unlock the discretionary efforts of ourselves and others is what matters as a leader in business. Managing a calendar pales in comparison to this.
How do you do this? And what are the revelatory insights presented?
You probably need to read the book to really understand them, but I will give you a brief glimpse.
Before you even begin to look at behavior or think about business results, you must consider the physiology and emotional components of our human bodies. Our higher brain functions and behavior rest on top of these foundations. If you ignore them then you are ignoring key pieces of the puzzle that affect our behavior and the behavior of others.
The book provides positive, concrete steps and exercises that can help you understand these things and use them to your advantage.
Happiness is very different from survival. The human machine - our bodies and minds - evolved to increase the chances of our survival and the continuation of our genes and our species.
The mechanisms that helped us to survive don't promote happiness. In fact many mechanisms that helped us survive do just the opposite - they make us unhappy. They also promote illness and a loop of perpetual stress. Here are some examples:
Negativity Bias - this is the tendency to see or seek out possible dangers in any given situation. The mind evolved this capability in order to protect us from danger - real or imagined. Better to imagine a danger that isn't there than to miss a danger that is. By being ever vigilant to danger, we prevent ourselves from being eaten by bears. We also increase our own tendency to see the negative side of our client's request for changes and that new corporate policy.
Fight or Flight Hormones - These are hormones that are put into the body when you are under stress. They help you handle short term bursts of danger, but they cause long term break down of the body's systems. They were designed to be introduced when very significant immediate stressors were placed on an individual to power survival, they did not evolve to meet the demands of day-to-day stress of the modern work place where fighting or fleeing is not terribly useful.
Chaotic Heart and Breathing Rhythms - this was also part of the fight or flight response and it evolved to AVOID the use of higher brain functions in times of immediate physical danger. When heart and breathing become chaotic they suppress higher brain function, this is why we may feel like our brain is not helping us out when we are 'on the spot' or 'on stage'. This is because the stress is causing erratic heart and breathing rhythms which impair our higher brain function.
The good news is that we understand all of these things now. We know that it is happening and we can do something about it.
The trouble is there isn't a traditional class you can take or procedure to address these things. They're emotional and physical and you must practice self-awareness in order to be aware that they are happening to you and do something about it.
The last two points come from Coherence by Dr. Alan Watkins, which I am currently reading. It is an excellent book and I recommend picking up a copy if you are interested in the human condition, physiology, business leadership, and the overlap of all those things.
When I sit down to meditate or do some type of mindfulness exercise I often find that once my mind is not occupied with some other task, it begins to race.
It's as though, once I stop occupying it with the million other things required in a day (driving, watching the kids, writing blog posts, managing a team, writing emails, meeting with clients, etc), the first thing it wants to do is tear into all those topics and unfinished to-do list items at light speed.
The end result is that I can feel less calm at the end than when I began. Yes, it is helpful in practicing recovery and improving awareness. And I understand that these are important skills and I am happy to practice them, understanding that this is not failure.
However, I'd like to be able to settle in more quickly and bring such mind racing a little bit more to heel. Or just get better at noticing and recovering faster. Which I think is an OK thing to want to do. Here is an example from the Muse app of what I am talking about:
In the beginning at the blue arrow, I actually start out fairly calm. Think, "I'm sitting down to focus - I'm relaxed and happy I'm making time to do this in my day because it's important." This is a nice feeling.
But fairly quickly, between the blue and red arrows, and during all of the session after the red arrow, my mind begins to race and I have a hard time feeling calm or staying calm for any length of time. You can see this in the upward trend of the line between the blue and red arrows. Also in the fact that the line does not trend down anywhere, but stays at the higher level through the duration of the exercise.
I'm currently using three techniques in order to manage this:
Noting - by taking note of this tendency and also using basic 10-count breathing (in the Headspace-style) I simply try to remember that within each breath and between each breath I am staying focused on my breathing. Also, for one reason or another I have much more of a tendency to stay focused on the 1-2 and 9-10 breaths, and therefore I make special note on the 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8 breaths to stay focused on breathing, while allowing my bookend breaths (1-2, 9-10) to flow more naturally and without note. This means that even if the exercise doesn't particularly call for it, I need to try to incorporate the 10-count element.
An Inner Appeal - Another technique (this one a more recent development) is that when I notice I seem to have a 'mind-racing' challenge on a particular day, I make an internal appeal. Something along the lines of, "Dear Brain, It's important to integrate the whole body and make room for emotions and other types of awareness. I'm really focused on breath in order to make space for this in my life so that I can be healthier. Can you please help me out with this by also focusing on the breath?"
I'm using the coherence techniques from Dr. Alan Watkins' book Coherence. The goal of this is to get into a coherent biofeedback loop where you control your stress level by directly managing your breath in a fairly specific way. I'm not going to describe it exactly - you can buy the book or use their app: link to website that can get you to either iOS or Android. The app costs money ($7) and requires an external heart rate monitor, so it isn't exactly a cheap thing to use. You don't need the app, you can read the book and follow the instructions in the app - no app or heart rate monitor required.
When I actually write down number 2 like that it is a bit strange and implies some boundaries and distinctions between mind and self that I'm not sure I agree with or endorse. Nonetheless, it helps so I do it.
Number 3 has started to yield longer term results - i.e. I feel calmer from doing it. However, it hasn't helped much directly on the problem of racing thoughts that seem to happen during a session. But I've only been doing it for a few weeks and it is a skill that takes some getting used to. Also, I'm not sure that it is fair to judge the technique against something that it was never specifically prescribed to do. It just seems like it should work as the racing thoughts definitely cause the opposite - a negative loop where the racing thoughts causes stress that leads to more racing thoughts which leads to more stress.
I have no idea if any of these techniques are tried or supported by anyone besides me. I know of the idea of noting from reading something about it on the internet. Here is a link to article about it, though it is not the original one that I read: Noting. I included a link to Dr. Watkins' book above. If you are interested in mindfulness, mind-body connections, mindfulness and leadership, or stress management you should read that book.