Finding inner peace (with help from your smartphone)

Because unplugging isn't always realistic.

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Technology is draining. Social media networks are programmed to make you come back for more, constantly swiping to refresh, like and post. You are constantly at your PC, your smartphone, your TV. You fall asleep to Netflix or reading Twitter as it spits up funny gifs or more bad news. It can wear you down. You're no longer in college with all the energy in the world and next to no commitments or obligations. You need to know when to unwind, avoid burning out and control (at least some) of your unhealthy (perhaps excessive) tech habits.

For me, this was recently compounded with a move back to the UK from Japan, changes at work and all this political upheaval both at home and abroad. I've been feeling frazzled and have been trying to find time to relax, switch off, center myself and other frivolous terminology I take to mean "feel less shitty." Ask my friends and they'll tell you I'm constantly glued to my phone or asking for a cable to recharge it. It takes its toll physically too, in the form of tired eyes, a stiff neck and reaching for my phone when I should be sleeping.

So what did I do? What should you do? Those are probably different answers. There's no shortage of introductory guides to meditation, relaxation podcasts and devices that promise to help or offer relief. As someone who's glued to my phone, to every message, email, retweet, like, follow and Tinder match that come my way, could I somehow break free with the help of technology? Not everything will work for you, but something should. I'm new to this. As I alluded to earlier, I'm more prone to burnout (and even getting sick) when work or personal stuff bears down on me, but what follows is a roundup of the things I've found most effective.

Engadget has covered a lot of apps and devices for relaxation, but figuring out how to relax and disconnect a bit more doesn't have to involve laying down much (if anything) in the way of cash. If you have an internet connection (which you probably do, because you're reading this) and something with speakers, there's a rich free library of meditation podcasts to stream or download.

Podcasts and other listening

There are so many of them, but at least podcasts are nearly always free to try out. Personally, I found that the host's voice will either endear you to a meditation podcast or put you off completely. (For some reason, I discovered Aussie accents to be the most relaxing.)

The Daily Meditation Podcast is a good starting point. Host Mary Meckley puts out a new one almost every day, and she's almost on her thousandth episode.

Then there's white noise. For the uninitiated, white noise is the result of combining sounds of different frequencies. Why is this a good thing? It squeezes out other sounds: neighbors, the hum of your AC, traffic outside. Even if it doesn't drown it out completely, it makes it harder for your brain to pick it up, meaning you can better focus or relax. I have a former colleague who uses white noise to fall asleep almost daily. You'll find something to listen to practically everywhere, from iTunes to Spotify. Here's an entire YouTube channel dedicated to white noise.

So we have something to start with, but the challenge is often finding time to put into doing nothing (it's not nothing) into your day. When I'm stressed, I like to spend my time stressing.

The apps

This is where investing in either an app or some sort of gadget can help. Setting aside my cynicism about paying for something that you can do for free, there are a few reasons to do it. Devices and apps can help you build a habit, and they mean you're (literally) investing in it. Things you pay for will draw you to use them more, at least initially.

Many apps will also track your progress and remind you that you haven't managed to fit in some relaxation time during the day. Smartphone applications can even improve your meditation sessions, whether that's heart rate feedback or monitoring the length of your sessions. They're offering metrics on your efforts -- and I find that important.

But as with podcasts, there are so many of them: good and bad, free and paid for. From my time researching and trying things, the best advice is to explore the options, take advantage of free trials and see what sticks. That's vague, but then again, mindfulness and meditation often are.

I particularly like Simple Habit, which offers short podcast-esque guided meditations that are aimed at specific things. There's a daily catchall session but also ones for increasing focus, reducing stress, settling yourself down before sleep and more. The only catch is that it's not free: After the free trial and lessons, it's $12 per month, $100 per year or $300 for a lifetime subscription. That raises a good question: What is the cost of peace of mind? You might want to do some math, but there are hundreds of sessions to listen to and the company says it's adding more weekly. I appreciated this choice -- even if the majority of the benefit of mindfulness and deep breathing came regardless of program A or B. We all like options, though, so here's a handful of other apps worth looking into.


Possibly the most successful relaxation wearable I've tried is a well-established device that might not come immediately to mind: my Apple Watch. It's probably one of the least free things you can use for mindfulness. However, I already owned one before I set out to find my inner peace.

In particular, let's talk about the Watch's Breathe feature, which arrived as part of watchOS 3 and was a notable addition for me, a (begrudging) early adopter. It's simple, easy and unobtrusive. While you can tap the Breathe app on the Watch to launch, you can also schedule it daily so that it vibrates to remind you it's time to shut down for a few minutes.

Deep breathing for a minute or two might sound like the bare minimum of effort, but it's often enough to evoke a relaxation response. This is a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson to explain the body's reaction to deep breathing. It's like the opposite effect of stress. You can set up the deep-breathing session from your wrist; just rotate the crown to control how long. Apple's wearable also gives breathing guidance without having to look at a light-up screen. It uses haptic feedback to guide your breathing rhythm, and then a little melody sounds once you're finished. The watch rounds up your weekly efforts, tallying minutes spent doing nothing but breathing. It's simple, but I'm finding it sustainable. So far.


Pulling myself away from my smartphone, my PC and everything with internet outright was far harder. It happens on my vacations (sometimes!) but rarely in my daily life. From waking up and checking emails to falling asleep as Netflix blares from my oversized phone, connection adds distraction and comfort. There are phones that encourage you not to use them, but until they manage to reach their crowdfunding targets, it's entirely on you to cut back.

A study by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that those who read e-books instead of paper ones needed an extra 10 minutes, on average, to fall asleep. They also experienced 90 minutes of delayed melatonin onset and released half the amount of melatonin to boot. Further, they experienced less rapid eye movement sleep -- you know, the good, deep stuff.

There are also ways to make your phone more bedtime friendly. Even if you can't ban it outright from your bedside (it's my alarm clock, OK?), Apple's Night Shift and Android's Night Mode intentionally soften the blue hue from your phone. They remove the blue light, which can coax your brain into feeling alert and awake (like it's still daytime). f.lux does a similar thing with your PC and is worth trying out if you're regularly still working into the late hours. Better still: Don't use light-up displays in the hour before you go to bed -- it's what the National Sleep Foundation recommends.

I don't think all of my stress and distractedness are due to the iPhone. I asked the founder of Simple Habit, Yunha Kim, if phones were part of the problem. "Our phones can add stress to our lives with constant notifications and buzzes," she said. "But the fact that we carry them everywhere we go shows that they can be such a powerful tool for bringing meditation wherever we go as well."

Phones can be both part of the problem and part of the solution, but if you're thinking that constant screens and notifications aren't helping, then you already know what you need to do.

That's not to say it's easy. Our devices, our apps and social networks are addictive.

Tristan Harris, former Google Design ethicist and cofounder of advocacy group Time Well Spent, lays it out well: We don't miss what we don't see. His group is trying to increase the degree of humanity in software design and persuade tech companies to make disengaging from our phones and screens easier. Harris isn't immune to them and explained in an Atlantic interview how he cuts down on his phone notifications in an "almost militaristic way" and uses the first home screen of his phone for functional apps like Google Maps and Uber -- no time killers like social networks and games. He apparently hides more-attention-grabbing apps in folders on the second page. (This is something I already do with my dating apps, so I get how that works. It keeps it one step further away from my fingertips.)

My favorite takeaway, however, is how Harris launches an app: by typing its name into the search bar, raising the bar for how much effort is needed to launch something. Do you really need to check Instagram again?

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