Wednesday, September 28, 2011

App Review & Interview: Equanimity -- A Better Meditation Experience

Equanimity, an iPhone app, is a beautiful timer and journal for meditation. Its functionality (timers, logs, charts), sounds and visuals support, in an appropriately non-intrusive way, your meditation practice. As one reviewer noted: "Meditating is all about letting go of your frustrations and achieving peace of mind. ... [Equanimity] is easy to use and everything about it is focused on offering you a calm experience."

Developer Robin Barooah explains what led to its creation and the impact it has had.
Q: How do you describe Equanimity? What is it?

Barooah: In the most basic sense, Equanimity is an iPhone app that I designed to help me meditate regularly.  It does this in two ways. First, by providing a timer that’s easy to use and not distracting.  That helps with the meditation sessions themselves because it provides a well-defined end time so I don’t have to worry about going on for too long and disturbing my daily routine.  

Secondly, and to me more importantly, Equanimity keeps a log of the meditations it has timed, and provides clear graphical feedback on how frequently I meditate, and how long and how consistently I’ve maintained my practice for.  It also provides a gentle reminder in the form of an indicator that shows whether I’ve meditated yet that day.  The idea behind these features is that they provide an honest reflection of my meditation practice, and that this reflection influences my behavior.  

Before I used Equanimity, I found that I would meet resistance in my practice and have an inaccurate perception of how much I was meditating.  I found it easy to think I was meditating every other day, though actually only doing it twice a week, if I didn’t keep a record.  I’ve found it’s even possible to forget during the day whether I’d done it or not.  Since I do actually want to meditate each day, this kind of gentle feedback is enough to help me keep on track in a way I found very hard before.  It’s basically an antidote to self-deceptive or inaccurate thoughts.

Q: What's the back story? What led to it?

Barooah: I had gone through a particularly stressful couple of years and even though the stress was over, I found that I was experiencing anxiety and lowered concentration. Meditation is associated with spiritual benefits and self-knowledge too, but at the beginning of the project I was just looking to recover.  I had previously meditated in various classes and knew that meditation could help me, but I hadn’t managed to establish a practice outside of a class.  I knew that I wasn’t the only person who had trouble making meditation part of their routine, so I thought that if I could solve the problem for myself, my solution would be useful for others too.  

I’d experimented with keeping track on paper and using a coffee timer in the past, without success.  That would often break down because I wouldn’t have the paper and timer with me when I thought of meditating.  I experimented with building a web application, but it became clear that an iPhone app had the potential to be much more personal, and was more likely to be with me when I needed it.  Also, having a computer sitting in the background didn’t feel right.

Q: What impact has it had?

Barooah: I think I can now say that I meditate every day.  It took much longer for me to get to that point than I anticipated, though -- something like 18 months.  Over that time, by looking at my meditation history I was able to learn about things that disrupted my practice and make adjustments.  Doing meditation early in my day is much more reliable than later, for example.  More interestingly, I could see from the annual chart that things like traveling, illness, and minor depressions all had the potential to significantly disrupt my practice.  They still do have an effect but now typically only for a day at most, because I understand what’s happening and can adapt my routine accordingly.  

I think it’s also helped me grow significantly in patience with myself, by revealing what I would probably have thought of as a series of independent failures to be a slow learning process leading to success.

As far as other people go, it’s a little harder to say. I don’t collect user data because I think that would interfere with the sense of meditation being a private experience.  There are thousands of users, though, and I have heard from many people who also say that it’s helped with their practice. There are also regular meditators who had no trouble practicing regularly before, but use Equanimity because they just like the design.

At some point I would like to ask people to sign up for a study so I can learn more about the range of experiences, but I never feel good about  software that persuades people to give up personal information, so that will be a separate project that people can volunteer for.

Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?

There are a few other well-produced meditation apps available for the iPhone.  Each has a different focus.  I think Equanimity is unique in being directly focused on solving the problem of cultivating a daily practice. 

I use it myself every day, so I’ve removed all the friction I can from the daily meditation process.  The feedback charts are carefully designed to provide information that is useful at different stages in the process of developing a practice without needing any work.  For most people it’s self-explanatory and doesn’t need any setting up.  The more advanced features only come into view when you need them.  As I learn more, I’m steadily developing the app while maintaining its simplicity.

Q: Anything else you'd like to say?

Thanks for asking me about this project!  It’s nice to have a chance to reflect on it.  I think that now that we have truly personal computing devices we are starting to learn how to use them to learn more about ourselves as human beings.  To me, this presents genuinely new and optimistic possibilities for improving our lives.  I’m looking forward to learning more about the stories behind other projects as you continue this series.

Product: Equanimity
Platform: iPhone
Price: $4.99

Monday, September 26, 2011

Why I Love Tonic: Michael Nagle, Somerville, MA

"I first saw Rajiv's app Tonic at the Quantified Self Conference. What impressed me about it there was its flexible design -- Raj noted that the majority of chronic illness patients have 2 or more conditions, yet most apps are designed for a single-condition. Tonic appeared to me to be unique in that it let people still keep track of a daily health practice, especially complex ones, yet let people input their own schedule (rather than have to use an exercise app, a diabetes app, and so on to keep track of their various care practices.) I've since become interested in the possibility of using Tonic as a way to help people keep track of health practices that are especially individualized -- like treatments for back pain, where the stretches and exercises you do are very unique to the individual. I suppose to sum up I'd say that the design in Tonic from a user experience point of view was by far the most impressive app I saw at the Quantified Self conference. I'm a fan and hope to work with it more!" -- Michael Nagle, Somerville, MA

Friday, September 23, 2011

Study: Insomnia’s big toll on your work

You may already know that difficulty sleeping – meaning falling asleep, staying asleep, waking too early, or some combination of these – is a rampant problem for many Americans. A study of over 7,000 workers earlier this month reported that nearly a quarter (23 percent) had some form of insomnia at least three times a week during the previous month. That translates into a big impact at work: Insomniacs lost the equivalent of nearly 8 days of work each year as a result of their impaired sleep. What was perhaps most surprising about the study is how sleep deprivation affects productivity: Because most of us don’t treat chronic sleep deprivation as an illness worth staying home for, we still come to work even when we’re dragging from too little sleep – but we definitely don’t perform at the level we should (what’s called “presenteeism”). Add that up, and it totals a loss of over $63 billion from the US economy annually.

Insomnia is a notoriously intractable problem, but there are a few methods that seem to help most people. The website crunches data from a wide variety of people about a range of health issues to see what real people say helps them most. Good solutions for easing insomnia include exercise; turning off the TV and reading; sleeping in a dark room; getting rid of caffeine; melatonin and other options. – Lorie A. Parch
TELL US: What do you do to ease insomnia?
Photo: Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

Monday, September 19, 2011

How Tonic may help kids with cystic fibrosis stick with exercise

Getting enough exercise can be a struggle for most of us, but for some it's particularly challenging — including children with cystic fibrosis (CF). Now doctors at the University of California, San Francisco, and Stanford University, led by Mona Luke-Zeitoun, are trying a new approach: They're providing personalized exercise coaching and the Tonic self-care app to kids with CF in the hope it'll make it easier for them to stick with their workout regimen.

Here's how the study will work: A personal trainer will work with the children and their families to design an individualized exercise program and teach the kids various exercise techniques. For the next six months, the trainer will check in weekly to monitor the children's progress, modify the exercise program as needed, and provide support and positive reinforcement.

Where does Tonic fit in? "The patients will use the newly developed iPhone app Tonic, with the help of the personal trainer, to define, monitor, and maintain their exercise," explains Dr. Luke-Zeitoun. "From our experience, and based on prior research, patients' adherence to exercise was significantly influenced by frequent contact with and reminders from their personal trainers. We therefore think that Tonic has the potential to play a crucial role in helping patients adhere to their exercise regimens in the long term, even after termination of their 6-month training program."

The children's health will be evaluated several times over a 12-month period. The researchers will look at how well the kids are breathing and their lung function, their strength, and their overall quality of life. These measures will be compared with a control group (similar children who won't get exercise coaching and aren't using Tonic) to evaluate the effectiveness of INSTEP, or individualized non-supervised training exercise program. "If INSTEP is successful, this could be used as a method to improve the overall health and well-being of these children," says Dr. Luke-Zeitoun.

We'll report back when the study is done to let you know how the kids are doing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Save $3 Off the Tonic App!

From September 17 to 30, to celebrate Health Innovation Week in San Francisco, we're taking $3 off the price of the Tonic self-care app, dropping the price from $4.99 to $1.99. We hope you'll download Tonic today, and share it with anyone you know who cares about their health!

Tonic: Winner of "Best Mobile Health Solution for Behavior Change" at Mobile Health 2011, and a "5"-rated app in the Apple iTunes Store

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why I Love Tonic: Joost Plattel, Netherlands

"Tonic helps me with daily medication and exercises. The iPhone app makes it easy to build a habit with custom reminders and warnings if things are due. For the days it takes to build a habit, Tonic is a good help." -- Joost Plattel, the Netherlands