The Best Mindfulness Apps 🧘🏽♀️ Calm vs Headspace vs Waking Up vs Reflectly
Blog: The Process Street Blog
Inhale… Exhale… Inhale… Exhale…
Why the deep breaths?
Perhaps because of the pandemic, its subsequent lockdown measures, and the impending breakdown of life as we know it?
In the midst of the global crisis, people are increasingly turning to mindfulness and meditation to regain a sense of calm in their lives.
This means that while the world goes bust, it’s boom time for the mindfulness app industry.
Downloads of mindfulness apps have doubled since mid-March and the digital mental health market is projected to reach $4.6bn in 2026; a massive jump from its value of $1.4bn in 2017.
Continue reading to take a look at the two key rivals in the mindfulness app game: Calm vs Headspace. We’ll also examine why people are turning to mindfulness as a means to cope with the pandemic, and check out two other alternatives beyond the Calm vs Headspace feud: Waking Up and Reflectly.
To skip to a specific section of this Process Street blog post click the appropriate link below:
- Why mindfulness and why now
- How to be more mindful?
- Mindfulness Apps: Calm vs Headspace (the top dogs)
- Beyond Calm vs Headspace: Waking Up and Reflectly
- It’s not a question of Calm vs Headspace, the question is: Are mindfulness apps for you?
Take a breath… Now let’s get started!
Why mindfulness? Why now?
According to a report from the app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the world’s 10 largest English-language mental wellness apps saw a combined 2 million more downloads in April 2020 (the height of the pandemic) compared with January. And the total amount of downloads for April reached close to 10 million in total.
Why the surge in downloads?
The coronavirus pandemic.
Just to clarify, this post focuses solely on mindfulness apps rather than apps in general. It is worth noting that downloads of all mobile apps have seen a massive spike since the onslaught of the pandemic.
App store intelligence firm App Annie found that in the second quarter of 2020 (Q2), consumers downloaded nearly 35 billion new apps and mobile app usage grew 40% year-over-year. In April 2020, usage reached an all-time high of over 200 billion hours.
Nonetheless, despite the rise in overall downloads and usage, meditation and mindfulness apps were (and still are) becoming increasingly popular.
Top of the leader board is the app Calm with 3.9 million downloads in April, followed by Headspace with 1.5 million downloads, then Meditopia, with 1.4 million. Of those, Calm saw the largest number of installs, with over 911,000 more downloads in April compared with January, a rise of approximately 31%.
What is mindfulness and why are people using it?
“Mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.” Professor Mark Williams, What is Mindfulness?
According to Professor Williams, an important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our body, our senses, and the sensations our body experiences. This means being aware of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the present moment.
An example of bringing awareness to the present moment could be enjoying the sensation of the sun on your face as you draw the blinds in the morning, or noticing how it feels to hug your loved ones goodnight.
This leads us to another important part of mindfulness: an awareness of your thoughts and feelings as they occur from moment to moment. Mindfulness isn’t solely about actions; an important part of being mindful is developing a direct awareness of your thoughts and feelings, so that you’re better able to identify and understand them.
By incorporating a sense of awareness into your daily life, you become more attuned to the present moment. And in being more present, you begin to appreciate things that you may have been taking for granted or have become accustomed to.
In the words of Professor Williams:
“It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”
Where does mindfulness come from?
The techniques used for cultivating mindfulness stem from Eastern introspective psychological practices. Buddhist psychology made reference to this concept over 2,500 years ago.
As the practice of mindfulness was slowly introduced into the Western arena, there was an underlying assumption that mindfulness and its associated meditation practices (more on this later) were abstruse and bound to religious beliefs.
However, decades of research and scientific discovery have debunked these myths, and mindfulness is now considered to be an essential aspect of human consciousness.
This means that mindfulness consists of increasing your capacity of attention and the amount of awareness you bring to the present moment. Whilst it is true that levels of mindfulness can vary between individuals, the reasons for this are independent of religious, spiritual, or cultural beliefs.
How to be more mindful
Taking notice of your body sensations, thoughts, feelings, and the world around you is the first step to being more mindful.
The UK’s National Health Service’s website provides a more in-depth look at how you can go about achieving this:
- Notice the everyday Stop running on autopilot and pay attention to the little things, like the taste of the apple you’re eating or the breeze on your skin as you walk.
- Keep it regular Keep mindfulness regular by building habits. Building habits is a mindfulness principle that has gained substantial traction of late, a reason for this could be Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” – a New York Times Bestseller. The key here is that you want to be building positive habits rather than build on existing ones that can contribute to autopilot-ing and a sense of rigidity.
- Try something new Say “yes” more often and be open to trying new things. By exposing yourself to new situations and experiences, you are allowing yourself to see the world in a different light.
- Watch your thoughts How can you watch thoughts? Imagine every thought you have is a cloud that you see pass by as you stare up at the sky, focusing on nothing but the passing of clouds. You cannot control the clouds, cannot slow them down or speed them up, so you simply watch them coming and going. By watching your thoughts, you begin to realize that your thoughts do not have to consume you. You can choose whether to run with a thought or let it go as though it were a cloud passing you by.
- Name thoughts and feelings While watching your thoughts may help you be able to name them, naming your thoughts can help you to develop an awareness of your feelings. Say a thought enters into your mind, then you would silently name it. One approach is to name it by describing it, for example: “Here’s the thought that I might flunk the interview for my dream job”. Another approach is to label the thought: “This is anxiety”. It is important to note that the idea isn’t to define the thought as good or bad, but rather to identify with it objectively.
- Free yourself from the past and future Have you ever sat pondering on past problems or future worries for minutes on end? And when you eventually do return to the present, you feel as though you were trapped or lost? By practicing mindfulness, you help yourself to let go of the past and the future by remaining in the present.
- Set time aside for a formal mindfulness practice Mindful meditation involves being aware of your thoughts, sounds, and sensations of your body in the present moment. A good technique for this is to listen to guided mindfulness meditation; this is where the value of mindfulness apps come in. Another formal mindfulness practice is regularly journaling your thoughts, feelings, and daily experiences.
Mindfulness apps are often used to set reminders, listen to guided meditations, or practice journaling. Let’s now compare the two top dogs in the industry: Calm vs Headspace.
Mindfulness apps: Calm vs Headspace (the top dogs )
In the United States, Calm generated the most downloads out of all of the mindfulness apps. In April, the app witnessed 1.6 million first-time installs, an increase of 30.7% month-over-month, and up 36% compared to January.
Meanwhile, Headspace ranked a close second (in April). Whether it’s in the U.S or the English-speaking world as a whole, the battle for best meditation app is firmly between Calm vs Headspace.
As the top dogs, how do these apps stand out from the rest?
Calm vs Headspace: Calm
Calm, which launched in 2012, aims to help its users cope with anxiety, stress, insomnia, and similar mental health issues. It was set up by British entrepreneurs, Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew and was recently valued at over $1bn.
This means that Calm will be joining the ranks of 312 other start-ups who have been valued at a billion dollars or more (a.k.a. unicorns). However, the app is not just any ol’ unicorn, but the world’s first (ever) mental health unicorn.
Once downloaded, Calm introduces you to the basics of mindfulness meditation with the “7 Days of Calm,” a guided course consisting of seven 10-minute sessions. By completing the first session, you unlock the next in the series. And on completing the entire course, users can progress onto the “21 Days of Calm” and gain access to the app’s full capabilities with a paid subscription.
The free version also offers a taster to some of Calm’s extra features:
- Sleep stories Offers listeners bedtime stories for both adults and children, read aloud by celebrities like Harry Styles, Keegan Connor Tracy and Matthew McConaughey.
- Music A collection of soothing sounds and melodies, for sleep, relaxation, study, and more.
- The spark A bite-sized conversation meant to engage and inspire fresh perspectives. The feature is a quick dose of motivation, humor, comfort, and wisdom.
- Check-ins Daily check-ins for your mood, sense of gratitude, and a daily positive reflection.
- Breathing exercises Breathe work techniques using a “breathe bubble” to guide you.
- Calm kids Meditations, sleep stories, and other content made especially for children of all ages.
- Calm masterclass A series of lessons on how to be more mindful in your daily life, taught by world-renowned experts.
- Calm body Short movement sessions, that guide you through gentle, accessible movements designed to create the balance of mobility and stability that your body needs.
- Free introductory 7-day program plus additional content.
- Meditation and progress tracking along with optional daily reminders.
- Customizable audio and visuals to support the mediations and relaxation.
- Mediation sessions can be downloaded and experienced offline.
- A broad curriculum including stories to help with sleep.
- “Daily calm” offers a new meditation on a variety of topics daily.
- “Calm kids” provides content suitable for families and children.
- Full access (beyond the introductory sessions) to all of Calm’s features is subscription-based.
- Requires user engagement and commitment to achieve results and progress.
Choosing to sign up for a 7-day trial, means you’ll automatically be enrolled in Calm Premium, which costs $69.99 a year or $14.99 a month. You can cancel up to 1 day before your trial ends to avoid being charged. Calm also offers a lifetime membership for $399.99 and has a ton of promos such as a partnership with American Express.
Calm vs Headspace: Headspace
Headspace, which launched in 2010, is a Los Angeles-based mindfulness meditation start-up. Like Calm, it was founded by two Englishmen, Andy Puddicombe and Richard Pierson. In 2019, the company had raised a total of $75 million and in June 2017, the company confirmed it was valued at $320 million. In February 2020, Headspace, locked in a competitive struggle with Calm for leadership in the mindfulness app world, raised new capital to try to win the top dog position.
On downloading the app, you are introduced to the basics of mindfulness and meditation with the “Take 10 Free Trial”. This is a guided foundation course featuring 10 sessions (10 minutes each), with six accompanying video infographics to illustrate concepts.
As is the case with Calm, completing a session unlocks the next meditation in the series. On completing the sessions in Level 1, users can opt to continue to Levels 2-3 by paying a subscription. Progress is tracked by giving the user statistics on session completion and time spent meditating.
As you build your mindfulness practice with Headspace, you will find an everyday meditation, which is a short, guided, daily meditation. The meditation is front and center on the home screen – this is something you will also find in Calm.
Here’s what else you’ll find:
- Themed meditations Headspace offers hundreds of guided meditations that cover topics like: cravings, finding focus, dealing with regret and difficult conversations, and even creative writing. You can access these as single meditations or grouped courses.
- SOS section This section offers meditations to help you manage intense experiences. Choose a guided or unguided meditation based on how much time you have, or browse tips and techniques to deepen your practice.
- Mindfulness workouts These focus on intention, awareness, stress relief, and much more. Performance mindset meditations for mental fitness are inspired by NBA and WNBA players.
- Sleep section Browse Sleepcasts (storytelling in a range of soothing voices), meditation and breathing techniques to wind down and prepare for sleep, or guided exercises if you find yourself waking up at night. Sleep music, soundscapes, and sleep radio (nonstop, 8-hour mixes of sleep audio) are also options.
- Free introductory 10-day program with reminders and cues.
- Sophisticated and user-friendly UI and UX with customizable content.
- Engaging animations and infographics to explain concepts.
- Mediation sessions can be downloaded and experienced offline.
- Practical, modern, and secular approach to mindfulness.
- Scientifically supported and additional research is continuously carried out.
- “Headspace for Kids” makes the app family and child-friendly.
- Full access is subscription based.
- Requires discipline, time, commitment and regular practice for results.
- Experienced meditators must complete basic content before advancing.
You can upgrade to Headspace Plus for the monthly cost of $12.99 with a free 7-day trial or get 14 days free with a $69.99 annual subscription. There are also plans for students and families and a promo with Spotify (I definitely recommend checking this out).
Calm vs Headspace: Who takes the crown?
One thing is for sure: both apps have a lot of happy users. I, for one, use Calm every single day and truly believe it has a positive impact on my mental health, relationships, and life in general. In a message describing my experience of the app to a friend, I wrote:
“The mediations go deeper; they start you at the basics and then coach you so that you are constantly growing and improving in your practice. I use it to keep me focused and prioritize work, help little Loris (the little boy I was nannying at the time/my all-time favorite human) get to sleep, and to bring some positive structure into my life”. Molly Stovold, Content Writer at Process Street
My colleague at Process Street has used both Calm and Headspace. This is what he has got to say:
“The UX/UI is better with Headspace. I also preferred the meditations – more variety and it generally felt more professional. I vaguely remember being irritated by the voice in Calm as well. That’s wholly subjective, but you want the person telling you to relax to encourage relaxation. Overall, Headspace inspired more confidence, and by extension willingness, to give it a shot.” Leks Drakos, Content Writer at Process Street
Both Headspace and Calm are designed to help you live life with more ease, by stressing less, sleeping more, and improving your overall approach to daily life.
Headspace’s use of fun illustrations in-app can mean that customers prefer its UX/ UI and general experience of the app. Whereas the broad range of guided meditations in Calm can allow users to broaden their practice by delving deeper.
Ultimately, in the toss-up between Calm vs Headspace, both are good options, and both have lots to offer. They are both designed to help you live a better life, and only you can choose which app is best for you.
But hold up a little longer before making your choice because there are heaps more players in the mindfulness app field – two of which are Waking Up and Reflectly.
Beyond Calm vs Headspace: Waking Up and Reflectly
As I said, there are tons of mindfulness apps out there, unfortunately covering all of them would keep you reading this post all day. So, for now, let’s take a brief look at two of the more popular and niche alternatives.
Beyond Calm vs Headspace: Waking Up
Launched in 2018 by Sam Harris a neuroscientist, philosopher, and best-selling author, Waking Up helps you learn the science, philosophy, and ethics behind mindfulness meditation. The lessons and meditations the app offers consist of short audio lessons with Sam and conversations with other recognized teachers and scholars.
Its features include:
- Guided meditation Practice sessions for the morning, day, or evening meditation, suitable for beginners, intermediate, and advanced meditators alike.
- Introductory course A progressive introductory course that will teach you the basic principles of mindfulness meditation, along with more advanced practices.
- Daily meditations After completing the introductory course, you can continue to practice with a growing catalog of daily meditations.
- Lessons Listen to short lessons on science, philosophy, and the nature of mind.
- Conversations Lengthy conversations with a wide range of teachers and scholars.
- Meditation timer For tracking and monitoring progress.
Waking Up could be your preferred choice if you’re looking for a more intellectual experience to ground your mindfulness meditation practice.
Waking Up costs $14.99 for a monthly subscription and $119.99 for an annual plan (this is for US citizens; prices may vary depending on you location).
*The free version of Waking Up gives you access to five audio meditations and five lessons from Harris.
Beyond Calms vs Headspace: Reflectly
Reflectly, founded in 2016 by Jakob Brøgger-Mikkelsen, Daniel Vestergaard, and Jacob Harboe Kristensen, is a journaling app. Journaling is a key part of mindfulness as it helps you to structure and reflect on your daily thoughts and problems (think back to the section “how to be more mindful”).
As you’d imagine, this app is structured differently from the others due to its focus on journaling – rather than meditation.
Here’s a brief introduction to how you would go about using the app:
- Journal Write down how you feel every day and receive morning daily motivation quotes & challenges, evening daily insights, and whenever you need to vent.
- Track your mood Using AI & smart tech, Reflectly has a mood tracker that shows you your mood in correlations and graphs.
- Question your thoughts The app asks personalized questions based on your diary entries, so you can reflect a little deeper.
- Read and recollect Read and edit your previous journal entries.
- Reminders Receive daily, weekly, and monthly overviews with personalized insights and reminders.
Reflectly is very different from the other apps we have looked at in this post, but this should not take away from its value.
Journaling is a great mindfulness option and alternative/ accompaniment to meditation. It’s great if you are looking to start journaling as it offers valuable guidance. Also, having a journal stored on your phone is super handy as it means you can journal on the go with ease, and won’t have to worry about leaving your journal around for prying eyes.
It’s not a question of Calm vs Headspace, the question is: Are mindfulness apps for you?
So there you have it. By now you should feel clued up on all things mindfulness; the competition that is Calm vs Headspace and the alternative apps – Reflectly for journaling, and Waking Up for a more intellectual approach to mindful mediation.
The question now is: Are mindfulness apps for you?
Considering the recent humongous surge in downloads of mindfulness apps, I’d say it’s definitely worth giving them a go. All of these people are surely choosing them for a reason… right?
In my opinion, mindfulness apps are a productive and positive way to stay occupied while inside. And (more importantly) in the midst of a global crisis, a little bit of calm wouldn’t go amiss.
Calm, Headspace, Reflectly or Waking Up? Which would you choose (or have you chosen) and why? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts about mindfulness and about the apps you use.