Smartphone relaxation – apps for switching off.

Considered by many the number one distraction device of the modern world, the smartphone of all things is increasingly being used in conjunction with apps designed to aid relaxation – with promises of more downtime, inner equilibrium and improved sleep. Millions of potential users have downloaded these apps, but do they really deliver on their promise? We put a few to the test.

Yvonne Schmedemann
Marie Sophie Müller

A male voice with a slight British accent tells me to breathe in through my nose, then out through my mouth. With my eyes closed eyes, I am encouraged to use my hearing to focus on the sounds of the room I am in. In total relaxation, completely at ease. The voice I am listening to is that of Andy Puddicombe from Los Angeles, co-founder of the meditation app Headspace, which has seen the former Buddhist monk become a millionaire in just a few years since its launch in 2014. In February 2017, around 500,000 people had signed up for a monthly subscription to the app, paying between eight and 13 US dollars (depending on the duration of their membership); some 12 million more have downloaded the app to try out the first ten meditation programmes free of charge.

The secret of the app’s success lies in the apparent paradox: using a smartphone as an aid to switching off and winding down. The very people who once considered meditation to be esoteric nonsense are now some of the app’s biggest fans. The design is simple and user-friendly, nothing overly esoteric, a perfect complement to Puddicombe’s voice and demeanour. With his toned body, long-sleeved shirt and shaved head, his appearance is reminiscent of that of a lithe surf instructor.

Investment from Hollywood

“No chanting, no lotus positions,” promises the 44-year-old. Instead, the app offers short, seated meditation programmes that can be done anytime, anywhere. All you need is your smartphone. Ten minutes a day is all it takes to improve your focus and inner equilibrium, assures Puddicombe. There is also a three-minute SOS option for those in need of a quick fix, as well as aids to improve sleep and meditation while you walk, work out or take a Tube or taxi ride.

For Puddicombe, 1994 was a year of personal tragedy. After the deaths of two of his closest friends, then his sister and a former girlfriend, he abandoned a sports science degree in England in order to train as a Buddhist monk in Asia. He returned to his British homeland ten years later and during one of his meditation programmes in 2010 he met marketing expert Richard Pierson, with whom he cofounded Headspace. The two surfing enthusiasts launched the app in Los Angeles in 2014 and by the following year had attracted 35 million US dollars in investments – including backing from such Hollywood stars as Jared Leto and Jessica Alba. Puddicombe and Pierson appear to be unfazed by the irony that their app exploits the smartphone – that most absorbing of all contemporary digital devices – as an aid to mindfulness. And why would they? Using a smartphone to help switch off is precisely what has made Headspace so successful.

Digital overload

Adam Alter, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at New York University, published a book in March that looks at how and why digital media are so addictive: its title is Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Studies on the use of smartphones reveal that users typically check their phone an average of 39 times in a 24-hour period and spend around three hours per day looking at the screen. And that doesn’t even include using the device as a telephone. Apps that generate feedback or monitor progress in some way – involving “likes” and “followers,” a game or a meditation challenge – are particularly likely to make us want to return to the screen again and again. 60 per cent of adults sleep with their phone beside their bed. “These days we’re checking our social media constantly, which disrupts work and everyday life,” said Alter in a recent interview with the New York Times.

Whilst writing this piece, I’ve been checking recent articles on the subject and having a quick look at e-mails and Facebook again and again – not just for the purpose of research. “Techno stress,” as researchers call it, works both ways: on the one hand, we are overwhelmed by the flood of digital information and the actions they (apparently) require of us; and yet, on the other hand, we feel stressed if we accidentally leave our mobile phone at home or cannot locate a Wi-Fi signal. So perhaps it’s okay to try to break this never-ending cycle of smartphone activity by using our smartphones.

Breathing exercises, wave motions and tales to help us sleep

At least that’s the belief held by the creators of the various apps designed to analyse, curb or perhaps refocus our smartphone behaviour. These include Checky, Moment and Offtime, background apps that count the minutes and hours we spend on our smartphones and what we use them for. Checky and Offtime even show you where you’ve been using your device. Rather like a digital pedometer, the data generated is quite compelling, heavy on the battery and not a little scary; and after monitoring a couple of days’ usage it really starts to make you think. In my case, I clocked over one-and-a-half hours of screentime a day, not including telephone calls. But will these findings change my behaviour? If nothing else, they’ve raised my awareness of the need for products like Headspace or Calm, another meditation app developed by Alex Tew, the inventor of Checky, which features breathing exercises, wave videos and stories to help you fall asleep. Which, of course, brings us back to having our phone next to our bed.

The app Offtime, a service launched by Alexander Steinhart from Berlin in 2014, not only monitors smartphone behaviour, it also regulates device usage. The user can decide, for example, who can get in touch during any given period, when e-mails can or cannot be received, when the mobile phone should be switched off completely and whether to block tweets but allow Instagram notifications (or vice versa). As the start-up’s website puts it: “Offtime lets you control your connectivity so you can do the things that matter. Unplug and focus on your work. Be with the people you care about. Or simply enjoy some peace of mind.”

“Never get high on your own supply” is one of the messages of Adam Alter’s book, which looks at the approach to digital media taken by many Silicon Valley titans in the education their own offspring. Both Steve Jobs and Evan Williams of Twitter refused to let their children play with touchscreens. Although curbing media activity is becoming increasingly difficult to enforce, a starvation diet is probably the most effective – though clearly not as profitable.

To find out more about relaxing with the help of your smartphone, as well as the apps featured here, check out:

For further information on Adam Alter’s book, go to: