Toolmaker Talk: Robin Barooah (Equanimity)
October 19, 2011
This is the first post in a new series of “Toolmaker Talks” we’re starting on the Quantified Self blog. There are many conducting personal QS projects, and much of what is featured on the QS blog is about: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned? Now, we want to also hear from those closely observing all this QS activity and developing appropriate tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences?
Equanimity, an iPhone app, is a beautiful timer and journal for meditation. Its functionality (timers, logs, charts) and design support your meditation practice in an appropriately non-intrusive way. 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.
(If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact email@example.com)