How Meditation Helps Creativity with Dr. Megan Jones of Headspace

Dr. Megan Jones

Dr. Megan Jones is the chief science officer at Headspace, the company behind the popular meditation app of the same name. Meditation offers several benefits for entrepreneurs, leaders, and creatives.

In this interview, she explains:

  • How meditation enables creative thinking
  • How to get started meditating even if you have no time
  • What happens when you practice for just three weeks
  • The type of meditation creatives should start with

And lots more.

You can read more about this interview in my Forbes article here.

I start by asking Megan to explain how meditation can help someone become more productive.

Listen

Transcript Below

Bryan Collins: If you could tell me about the benefits of meditation for somebody who wants to get a bit more done.

Dr. Megan Jones: Absolutely. So the mindfulness meditation is really about training yourself to have present moment awareness, which is naturally associated with more focus because you’re essentially training your mind to be more aware of presence, better able to let what could be distracting thoughts come and go rather than kind of going along for the ride with them and, which causes distraction. So there’s training which can be very brief. What we found with Headspace is that using the app for just 10 minutes a day over a period of either a single session, we see an increase in focus associated with just 10 minutes. We also see what I would consider a compound interest effect of meditation practice over time with improvements in attention and focus.

Dr. Megan Jones: We’ve also done some very large studies, one recently that was published with the College of Policing, which had about 1,300 participants across five different police forces. And we found that Headspace was associated with improved job performance and increased wellbeing, increased resilience. These are all important because we know that when we are stressed when we have a feeling of being burned out, that’s associated with difficulty in productivity or decreased focus. So it’s really this combination of being in a healthier overall emotional state, which comes from a practice of meditation as well as this training in attention and awareness that is really core to meditation.

Bryan Collins: So if somebody wants to get started with meditation but they’re having trouble finding time for it because they’re busy at work and they have a lot of stuff going on in their personal life, how will they fit it in?

Dr. Megan Jones: So my recommendation is as an entrepreneur myself, start by layering mindfulness on to a routine that you already have. If you walk for 10 minutes, you could take a mindful walk. It doesn’t need to start with eyes closed meditation. You can start with it if you lay down in bed for the night rather than checking your email to the moment where your head it’s the below which is going to make it harder for you to fall asleep. You could try a wind-down exercise that has a short mindfulness-based activity and technique that helps you kind of turn your mind off for the evening. You could start by integrating even like a five-minute meditation into your morning routines such that you start today with a healthier mindset and be more present, more focused, more equanimity, which means a bit more emotional stability.

Dr. Megan Jones: And I think that what you see is when people add a mindful lens to their daily life, it could be taking a mindful run with one of our audio-guided runs that we’ve made with Nike. There are multiple front doors into this practice and I think where we ultimately want to guide people to is through a routine that they can maintain over time. Whether that be a 10 to 30-minute eyes closed seated meditation or a mindful activity. There’s not a right or wrong way to practice. Our goal is to make this ancient technique that is extremely powerful at improving our health and happiness more accessible for people.

Bryan Collins: So one, maybe not a criticism of people who perhaps haven’t meditated that much would say that it seems like a practice that’s very focused on the self or on the individual rather than people around that individual who’s meditating. So what would you say to somebody who says that meditation is too focused on the self?

Dr. Megan Jones: Well, I think anyone who’s actually used Headspace as a product, I’d be surprised to hear that criticism from one of our members because our definition of mindfulness is about awareness and compassion. And Andy Puddicombe, our founder and a former Buddhist monk who is our meditation authentic teacher in the app really talks about compassion as being, you first apply that to yourself and it increases your capacity to have compassion for those around you. And that is really a foundational aspect of meditation. It is about being more aware of yourself, which is a capability that inherently can be applied to being better able to sit with the suffering of other people, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to have empathy, to have awareness of how your actions impact others.

Dr. Megan Jones: And we see these benefits associated with Headspace. We’ve done a few different studies where we’ve looked at the impact of three weeks of Headspace use, 10 minutes a day on people’s behaviour towards others. One study found that people were more likely to help someone else in need, meaning they were more compassionate to a stranger who needed help after three weeks of Headspace. Another study showed that people were less aggressive in response to provocation after three weeks of Headspace use. So I think a lot of these benefits that we often talk about around reduce stress, reduce burnout, improve focus, there’s another layer of benefit is that when we’re healthier ourselves, we tend to show up in a more compassionate way.

Dr. Megan Jones: In the world, we’re more likely to open the door for someone. We’re more likely to listen when someone else talks and read their nonverbal cues around how they’re reacting to what we’re saying. So I think, our goal is that we can invest at an individual level and create a change around us, this ripple effect.

Bryan Collins: Yeah. I was on mute there. So one of the courses that I took on Headspace first was about creativity, and I was particularly interested in this Headspace course. So I was just wondering if you could describe some of the benefits that meditation can have on somebody who’s perhaps writing a book or working on a piece of art or music.

Dr. Megan Jones: Yeah, that’s great… It’s one of our favorite use cases and we see a lot of enormously creative and talented people use the app. I think one of the ways in which this can be helpful for the creative thinking process is, and I think often if you’re sitting down to write or create, there can be a sense of stress and pressure of, “This is the time to be creative now,” which doesn’t necessarily create the conditions for expansive, open, creative thinking. And so when you are better able to distance yourself or set aside those pressures, those expectations, the stress that might come along with needing to produce something for a deadline, you’re better able to create the right conditions for creativity to occur.

Dr. Megan Jones: And that’s really what we see with focus as well as when we’re better able to notice our thoughts to kind of quiet the mind, we can create the right conditions for creativity to happen.

Bryan Collins: What about somebody who’s finding it difficult to sit still while meditating because they’re having recurring thoughts about something they need to do at work or elsewhere. How can they get into a practice where they can sit for five or 10 minutes?

Dr. Megan Jones: Well, I think it’s a couple of things there. One, I would start and build up over time. If 10 minutes feels too long, start with three. If sitting for three minutes feels like too much try a mindful walk. Our guidance around mindful walking is to start walking to match your walking speed with the speed of your mind, such that you are not forcing your mind to slow down. You are meeting yourself where you are, accepting that, not trying to change that and then as you walk and as your mind starts to quiet to gradually slow your pace.

Dr. Megan Jones: So I think we often find people who are new to the practice feel a sense of tug of war with the mind and what we would recommend is that you are training a muscle. If you feel that tug of war, drop the rope and be where you are. It is just about being aware that your mind is active. It is not trying to force your mind to be free of thoughts. It is really about this exercise of noticing and observing. So if you’re restless and your mind is very active, that’s okay. You might be even more aware of it when you’re sitting and meditating in that state. If that’s uncomfortable, there are other tactics like actually moving your body at the same time, which I think is helpful for many people.

Bryan Collins: Headspace, advocates one, I think you’ve described as mindful meditation. Is that right?

Dr. Megan Jones: That’s correct.

Bryan Collins: So what would you see as the difference between what Headspace is teaching versus other meditation practices? One that came to mind when researching for our interview was transcendental meditation.

Dr. Megan Jones: Right. So one is the duration of practice, the other is transcendental and other forms of meditation can involve the mantra, whereas the meditation techniques that are offered in Headspace are techniques that include a body scan. So that’s kind of scanning your body head to toe, kind of checking in with your body, breathing techniques, visualisation, noting, which involves kind of labeling a thought as a thought and labeling an emotion as an emotion that can be helpful at starting to create some space between your thoughts and not take them on truths.

Dr. Megan Jones: But the main difference is we’ve distilled a set of techniques that we think are very approachable for the majority of people. Given that our goal is to make this practice more accessible, more mainstream, and approachable for people who might find it a bit daunting to sit for 45 minutes or an hour.

Bryan Collins: Headspace is on flights now, is that right?

Dr. Megan Jones: That’s correct. We partner with quite a few airlines to integrate it into the inflight experience.

Bryan Collins: Okay. Very good. Very good. What about somebody who is in a difficult position at work, perhaps they’re managing a large team and they’re facing a lot of different challenges. What does mindful leadership look like?

Dr. Megan Jones: Well, that’s a great question. So I would think about mindful leadership is it’s when we are better able to be present and we are less stressed ourselves, more resilient ourselves, we are actually able to show up for our teams in a more authentic way. Meaning that we can align our day to day behaviour as leaders with our values and our intentions. Meaning that our stress doesn’t spill out on those around us, on our team. We can reduce it and manage it more effectively ourselves. We can be more intentional in every kind of micro-interaction that we have with our team throughout the day. One of the benefits that I think is particularly important for a leader is by training your mind to be calmer, to be more focused. You can more easily toggle between putting out the fire of the moment and the bigger picture.

Dr. Megan Jones: And so this kind of dual focus of being able to be in the weeds and the details, but also see where I’m trying to go, where I’m trying to take the company or the team. That dual focus is really important for a leader and to guide the team, help people through the day to day challenges while anchoring to that bigger goal. I mean I think that’s a lot of where resilience comes from is if you’re in a company where you believe in the mission or you’re working towards a big goal together, being able to hold that in your present moment awareness is really helpful for navigating challenges.

Dr. Megan Jones: We do see that leaders who practice meditation tend to be seen as more authentic leaders. We’ve done a study actually demonstrating that Headspace specifically improves authentic leadership.

Bryan Collins: So Headspace is offered through a mobile app and people are going to have complicated relationships with their phones because they can be a massive source of distraction. And yet with Headspace is advocating mindfulness to use in your phone. So how can somebody kind of reconcile the bridge between something that’s distracting versus something that can help them become more present?

Dr. Megan Jones: Well, I actually love the irony of this. It’s ironic at the surface, but so one, our belief is the phone is inherently neutral. Technology can be used and the service of our health and happiness, it can certainly be used in the opposite as well. And mindfulness is really about helping us be aware of how things make us feel. If I can look at the photos of my family and feel a sense of happiness and joy and meaning. Or I can scroll through my email you feel a sense of stress and overwhelmed.

Dr. Megan Jones: If we can create the experience that we want to have with technology and we’ve actually shown that Headspace use just for a two week period, in an academic research study is associated with reduced compulsive internet use. Meaning that people actually are less addicted to technology, are better able to modulate their relationship with it when they use Headspace. Why we provide Headspace on all of the different tech platforms and the phone, in particular, is because we want to meet people where they are and give them an alternative to the things that they might do on their phone, which take them away from their wellbeing and health and happiness.

Dr. Megan Jones: So one, it’s really about access, meeting people where they are and helping empower people to create an experience with technology that they want to have.

Bryan Collins: So I use Headspace in the morning time. Do you have an idea of learning morning routine at the moment?

Dr. Megan Jones: Do I personally have an early morning routine?

Bryan Collins: Yeah.

Dr. Megan Jones: I do. I use it in the morning and we actually have a 10:05 meditation every day at our office. We use everyday Headspace, which is the meditation course, which changes every day. There’s a new topic. So I actually really enjoy using it with my team and so that shared experience in a group, we also use it at the beginning of many larger team meetings in Headspace, that we’ve tried to integrate it into our workplace experience as well.

Bryan Collins: It must be a pretty calm office place.

Dr. Megan Jones: I’m sorry I just missed what you said.

Bryan Collins: Oh, it must be a pretty calm office place.

Dr. Megan Jones: We still can’t believe. Yes, it is. It is pretty calm. We were quite fortunate in that we really do try to practice what we preach.

Bryan Collins: Okay. I was just curious, Megan, you’ve mentioned some reports and academic papers that you’ve been involved with. So from a writing point of view, how do you balance writing academic papers, which I’m sure take a lot of time versus your role in a company like Headspace. How do you find time for it all?

Dr. Megan Jones: Well, it’s a good question. Actually to reduce conflict of interest and make sure that the research on Headspace is completely unbiased and of the highest academic caliber possible. All of the papers I’ve mentioned are done by external academic collaborators. So we’re not actually involved in the execution of those studies. We consult with them on the design of the study to make sure that they are using the most rigorous designs and we can help them with that given our team has a lot of experience in digital health research.

Dr. Megan Jones: But for me, I think in terms of balancing it all, as running two of our businesses and having a young family, it is really about being present in every moment that when I’m home, I’m 100% home. When I’m sitting talking to you right now, I’m not thinking about the next meeting I have to go to. So I personally, I use Headspace actually when I was starting my first company and so I’ve used the app for about six years now. Find it enormously helpful and enabling me to be as focused and intentional as I can be, really showing up at my best in each moment. But my day does involve quite a bit of just that being in terms of might be talking to you, then I need to go address an issue with a person or go into our management meeting.

Dr. Megan Jones: And I think that’s what a lot of entrepreneurs’ lives are like. But I personally believe I’ve benefit tremendously and feel like I do show up as my better self at work and at home when I am maintaining my routine of at least 10 minutes a day.

Bryan Collins: And finally, Megan, if somebody wanted to get started with Headspace, I know there is an introductory course, but aside from the introductory course, what would you recommend they take or do you have any personal preferences based on what way you think you’d be useful for somebody who wants to become more creative or productive?

Dr. Megan Jones: Well, I think that our basic course is designed to be an onboarding to meditation. I think that’s a great foundational first 10 days at least. I would say at a minimum start with basics for 10 days. That’s what we actually include in all of our research studies. If we’re trying to research the effects of Headspace for stress reduction or authentic leadership, we still begin with that foundational course and then we go into more topics, specific courses. If that feels like, “Okay, well, I still have to sit down with my eyes closed and not so sure about that.” Then I would look at some of the mindful activities that we have, because there’s a wealth of different ways that people can start to understand what mindfulness is all about in a way that is maybe more approachable for them. So that could be through one of our sleep offerings.

Dr. Megan Jones: We have quite a breadth of different sleep offerings. Even our sleep casts start with a wind-down, so that can be a more approachable way for many people to start a mindfulness-based experience. Whether that translates into meditation is for each person to determine for themselves, but it could be starting with a mindful walk or one of these audio-guided runs. I generally encourage people, if you’re going to start an entirely new habit, try to anchor it to something that is an already robust routine so that you’re not rebuilding the mountain from scratch. And if you can do it with another person even better.

Dr. Megan Jones: There’s a lot of research showing that when you are practicing this with another person, you have an accountability buddy. We do have a buddies capability in the app where you can kind of cheerlead each other on. That also helps people get started.

Bryan Collins: Yeah, that’s good advice about linking into another app or another habit that you might already have. It was very nice to talk to you today Megan.

Dr. Megan Jones: Likewise Brian, thanks so much.

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