Careful Tech 100: Screen scratch zen


Mindless: the sorry state of meditation apps on the Apple Watch

When the Apple Watch first launched in 2015, it wasn’t clear exactly what the device was for. Was it a mini-iPhone, intended to replicate its big brother’s features on your wrist? Or was it a tool for informal communications, punctuated by scribbles and heart beats?

Eventually, the device’s purpose become more clear. Apple sells the Watch as a fitness and wellness tracker with some convenient peripheral functions (e.g. notifications and quick replies).

Given this emphasis on well-being, it’s surprising to me that there seem to be no great meditation apps for the Apple Watch. Oh, these apps exist; they’re just really bad.


Well, not all of them, I guess. Apple’s first-party Breathe app is well-designed and fun to use for quick hits of mindfulness. But it’s not really designed to serve as a full-featured interval timer. For that, I’ve turned (without much success) to a variety of third-party apps:


Take Headspace, for example. It’s the king in the mindfulness space, raking in tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually. You’d think they’d have the resources to deliver decent Watch app; the company has two dozen open engineer positions at the moment.

But, no, Headspace’s Apple Watch app is pretty sad. Even though its iPhone app is whimsical and well-designed, on the Watch, it’s ugly and weirdly spartan. It boasts two underbaked features: a "Touch" exercise that doesn’t quite work and "SOS", a single guided meditation for emergencies (e.g. panic attacks).

In an ideal world, Headspace offer its rich library of guided sessions on your wrist; at the very least, I wish I could continue a meditation series from where I left off last time.

Insight Timer

Like Headspace, Insight Timer offers its own diverse library of guided courses, but I prefer to set up my own meditation sessions using its interval timer. I love being able to assign different bells to different stages of my meditation practice: high tones for preparation, deeper chimes for focused breathing, and even a gong to round out the exercise.

On the Watch, Insight Timer offers none of these features. I wish I could launch my preprogrammed sets of bell-marked intervals. Instead, the app offers generic timers for meditation and yoga, alongside a shortcut to launch their guided, seven-day introduction to meditation.


The Watch app that comes the closest to meeting my needs isn’t actually a "mindfulness" app at all. It’s an interval timer called Seconds. Its target audience is fitness buffs who want to time complex workouts like high-intensity interval training.

But Seconds also supports interval sets for mindfulness sessions. Unlike with the other apps, it allows you to create any number of intervals of arbitrary length and sync the program to your Watch for "playback."

Unfortunately, it has a few fatal flaws as a meditation timer. First, it really is meant to be a workout app; at the end of the meditation, the app shows the calories burned—hardly a relevant statistic for pillow-sitting. More problematically, custom alert sounds on the Watch seem to be broken. Seconds will play both my custom "Tibetan bell" and a harsh mechanical beep—a dissonant combination that I find distracting.

Closing thoughts

The dearth of Apple Watch meditation apps may be a symptom of a deeper issue. There are plenty of other app categories in which there isn’t a single decent option, and many high-profile companies have removed Apple Watch support altogether. Three and a half years after the device’s initial launch, the Apple Watch app ecosystem may be getting worse, rather than better.

That’s harshing my zen. ■


The unscratched itch (why I meditate)

<!––>Every morning before dawn, I roll out of bed, stumble through the dark to our living room, and plop myself down in front of a massive light box. This suitcase-shaped panel blasts 10,000 lux of faux sunlight directly into my face. “Light therapy” serves as a sort of reality check, realigning my body clock to an earlier sunrise than we enjoy here at our northern latitude.

To stave off boredom during these half-hour light box sessions, I practice mindfulness meditation. These two practices, meditation and light therapy, are similar, in my mind. Just as bright light realigns my body clock to a healthier rhythm, meditation realigns my thought life to healthier patterns, too: from anxiety-driven obsessions to the steady rhythm of my breath.

Context: prayer as listening

I came late to the mindfulness party. In the evangelical tradition of my childhood, prayer was more about talking than listening. Every day, during my “devotions” (Christianese for bible-reading and prayer), I followed a familiar script: recite a list of God’s best qualities, confess where I screwed up, thank God for the good stuff in my life, and, finally, ask God for what I wanted—or what I felt I should want.

By the time I hit college, this daily prayer regimen had grown tiresome. I would often spend hours a day talking at God, churning through a long list of required topics. I came to dread that time, spent locked my dorm’s study room. The burden grew so heavy that I stopped praying altogether, save for hurried recitations before meals.

Fortunately, I eventually met faith-minded mentors who approached their spiritual practices less rigidly, more humbly, and more thoughtfully. They demonstrated how “quiet time” is better spent being quiet—i.e. shutting my mouth and stilling my mind—than babbling on and on.

Adopting the practice

Along these lines, seven or eight years ago, a close friend introduced me to mindfulness meditation and shared how it helped tame his anxiety. As he framed it, the practice was simple: just focus on your breath. When your mind wanders, return your attention gently to the breath. Repeat.

At first, I was suspicious. It seemed almost too simple—like some sort of trick. Eventually, though, my curiosity won out. I gave meditation a try, and, before long, I was hooked.

Reflections & results

What makes meditation “sticky” for me? In short, meditation provides a reliable way of short-circuiting anxious thought cycles.

Here’s what I mean: I occasionally find myself haunted by uncertainty. I wonder whether I said something dumb in a past conversation (“Did I offend her?”). Or I worry that my haircut looks stupid (“Is my head weirdly shaped?”). Or I fret about my health (“Does that bad test result portend a medical disaster?”). I retread the same mental territory over and over again, trying to think my way out of the problem. That never helps; instead, rumination makes me more anxious than when I started. It’s like scratching an itchy rash; in the end, the sensation only gets worse.

In meditation, I resist the temptation to scratch that mental itch. Instead of ruminating on an unanswerable question, I focus on something else instead: my breath. The sounds in the room. The physical manifestation of anxiety itself. Anything but that troubling question. As many times as it pops up, I acknowledge it, but don’t pursue, gently returning to my focus object instead.

In this way, meditation is “practicing the turn”: rehearsing the shift from unhelpful thoughts to steadier sensations. In my morning session, I repeat that cognitive move, again and again—so that I can perform it later that day and and derail circular trains of thought in “real life.”

There are signs that it’s working. I’ve noticed at least two encouraging improvements that I attribute to my meditation practice: first, I’m more aware of my own emotional state. It’s a subtle change, but I often find myself thinking, “Man, I’m really anxious” (or tired, or hungry, etc.). Somehow, the simple act of acknowledging those feelings loosens their grip and makes it easier to act charitably, in spite of them.

A second hopeful development? I no longer dread my morning “quiet times”; I actually look forward to visiting the meditation pillow. That was rarely the case when I dedicated that time to talk-heavy prayer.

Getting started with meditation

If you’re interesting in trying mindfulness meditation, I would highly recommend checking out an app called Headspace. The program was designed by a former Buddhist monk and provides an entertaining, novice-friendly introduction to the technique. The full program requires an incredibly expensive subscription, but the first ten sessions are free—and that might be enough to get the hang of things.

Once you’ve established your practice and feel comfortable meditating with less guidance, consider transitioning to an app like Insight Timer. It provides an intuitive interface for scheduling chimes to mark your meditation stages. ■


The maddening glitch in the “Breathe” app on Apple Watch

Last year, Apple added ‘Breathe’ to watchOS 3. This simple app invites the user to pause for mindful meditation, bringing attention to the breath for a few minutes at a time. The exercise is accompanied by a slick little animation: translucent teal circles that expand and contract along with your breathing’s steady rhythm.

Animation start and end frames
The first and last frames of the Breathe app’s animation. I’ve bumped up the contrast here to make the difference easier to see.

I like Breathe, but the animation has an annoying little hiccup. At the very end of every breath, the graphic resets to prep for the next inhale/exhale cycle. Watch the contracted circles at that point, and you’ll notice the glitch: a jarring ‘jump cut’ from one gradient fill to another.

Yes, it’s a subtle niggle. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. After all, we’re talking about an app that requires you to focus intently; any distraction, no matter how small, is magnified by close attention. I notice the cut with every breath. It’s a distraction that undermines the very focus the app is designed to foster. It as if the air catches in my lungs.

It wouldn’t take much to fix this; even a linear fade between the last frame and the first would ease the animated transition. But, so far, there’s been no sign that Apple has even noticed the problem; the choppy cut’s still there in watchOS 4. ■