I tried two of the most popular meditation apps, Headspace and Calm, for a week. One app was the clear winner for starting my workday with focus and mindfulness.

I tried two of the most popular meditation apps, Headspace and Calm, for a week. One app was the clear winner for starting my workday with focus and mindfulness.
·11 min read
Headspace meditation app
Jens Kalaene/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
  • Many people swear by meditation to start their days with a moment of mindfulness and clarity.

  • I put the popular meditation apps Headspace and Calm to the test to see which worked better for me.

  • Calm was the clear winner in giving me a better meditation experience to begin my day. Here's why.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

I've often heard people tout the benefits of meditation, but I'd never tried it myself. Having worked remotely for roughly a year and a half now, like millions of other people, I've settled into a pretty calcified morning routine at home.

So I decided to finally give meditation a shot, both to change up my routine a bit and to see if it would give me more focus and clarity throughout the day, as so many people who meditate report feeling.

I'd heard good things about Headspace and Calm, which are two of the most popular meditation apps on the market, so I put both apps to the test. After two weeks, one spent using each app, I found that Calm was better by a long shot.

Here's how Headspace and Calm stacked up for me:

On Day 1 of Headspace, I followed the default morning routine from the "Today" section of the app.

three panels of activities in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

It included three steps: a short breathing exercise, the morning video of the day, and a meditation.

The breathing exercise was simple enough: Take a few deep breaths.

an animated blue sky and clouds in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

Next up on the morning agenda was The Wake Up.

an animated orange sky and clouds with the text "The Wake Up" in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

This is Headspace's daily bite-sized video series.

Then, I did the third and final step of the morning routine: the daily meditation.

a meditation called "Missing Out on Life" in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

I've listened to several of Headspace's daily meditations since this one, and overall I found them kind of disappointing.

Headspace meditations offered much less to keep your attention, so I found my mind frequently wandering off. For example, Headspace's daily meditations don't tend to have things like anecdotes, quotes, or action steps, unlike what Calm offers. (More on that later.)

Because there is less variety across the daily meditations, they started to feel very repetitive and monotonous. I started to feel that if I'd done one, I'd done them all.

One bright spot, though, was that the app lets you choose between teachers for many meditations, including this one.

two teachers' names in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

I didn't like one teacher over another, but having the option could be useful for those who find they do respond better to one particular teacher's style.

You're also able to choose the duration of the daily meditation. This flexibility is probably one of my favorite parts of Headspace, but it doesn't entirely work as advertised.

different options for the duration of a meditation in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

I expected the duration of the meditation would be exactly three, five, 10, 15, or 20 minutes, depending on what I chose. In the time I've used Headspace so far, though, I've found that the time a meditation actually takes almost never matches the duration you choose. For example, if you select three minutes, the meditation can really end up being nearly five minutes, which is the next duration option.

This discrepancy never affected me, but it might affect a Headspace user on a really tight schedule.

On Day 2 of Headspace, I checked out what was under the "Meditate" tab of the app.

five panels with different mindfulness activities in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

Even my cursory scroll through the "Beginning meditation" section gave me some valuable information about the different techniques common in many meditations, for example. Throughout the week, I increasingly found that one bright spot of using Headspace is that it's very beginner-friendly.

Before long, I had wound up looking at Headspace's course library.

various colorful panels of meditation themes in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

I liked that you can filter your search based on emotions or areas of your life that you'd like to work on; I also appreciated the fact that Headspace has courses for such a wide variety of topics.

Headspace's library is also a great showcase of what I think is one of the app's strongest assets: its look.

several colorful panels of meditation themes in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

Headspace's visuals are clean, colorful, and fairly minimalist.

After some digging around, I settled on one of the courses in the "Focus at Work" section: Productivity.

a meditation course called "Productivity" in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

Besides courses, the Focus at Work section also includes single meditations, music designed to promote focus, and animations showing techniques at work for Headspace's cute characters. There's also a small subsection here that's designed to help students.

Overall, I was disappointed with the first lesson.

ten circles in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

I found that very little of the session was actually specific to productivity and, if you took out those few minutes, you could have easily believed the session was about any number of other topics.

To Headspace's credit, I did feel slightly more focused after the session, and I only tried out one of the 10, so I certainly couldn't have expected a miracle from that alone. Also, Headspace often says one of the ways you can improve your meditation is to simply do it over and over again, so repetition is part of the process.

Regardless, I found the first lesson nearly indistinguishable from many of the other Headspace courses I went on to try later.

I skipped over the "Sleep" tab in the app because my main goal with my meditation experiment was to better start my days, not end them.

five panels for various sleep-promoting activities in dark mode in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

However, a quick lookover of the tab shows a variety of options, including wind-down exercises, stories, sleep music tracks, and even soundscapes of things like forests and flowing water.

The dark mode was also a nice touch to help prepare your eyes for rest.

The following day, I detoured from strict meditations.

five panels of various exercise activities in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

At this point, the meditations I'd tried thus far were pretty stationary; you were meant to be sitting still while you followed them. On this day, however, I turned to the "Move" tab on the app to see if something a little more active would help me start my workday better.

I browsed some of Headspace's yoga classes designed to get you up and at it in the mornings.

various yoga exercises in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

I ended up trying out a 10-minute class called "Rise and Shine."

a yoga course called "Rise and Shine" in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

Unsurprisingly, this class gave me a bigger burst of energy for the day than did any of the stationary meditations from my previous two days on Headspace.

There was also peaceful ambient music in the background that really added to the atmosphere of the video, which somehow succeeded in being both calming and energizing.

By Day 4, I had reached the last of the app's tabs: Focus.

five panels of focus-promoting activities in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

I decided to try some of the music intended to promote focus.

I should note here that these offerings, as well as some others on different tabs, have since changed in the app. Many of the listings are still there, just under different categories.

As a fan of several of Hans Zimmer's film scores, I decided to give his playlist a listen.

blue and white circles and the words "Hans Zimmer's playlist" in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

I ended up breezing through the playlist and working the full 85 minutes uninterrupted. I was shocked to see that all that time had passed once the music stopped, and I definitely didn't feel as though I'd been working for as long as I had. Since then, I've come back to this playlist and a few others from the list several times, always to great effect.

On my fifth and final day of using Headspace, I stayed on the Focus tab, this time browsing a series of exercises.

thumbnail images of animated work-from-home and commuting activities in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

I ended up trying a very fitting course aimed at helping you start the day while you're working from home.

a meditation called "WFH | Starting Your Day" in a screenshot of the meditation app Headspace
Headspace

While the session was, again, quite repetitive of other meditations I'd previously done on Headspace, it was moderately effective for me in keeping distractions at bay.

Overall, my experience with Headspace was decent. My biggest gripe with the app is that too many of its meditations were too similar. This sameness gave me little to look forward to when I opened the app each morning, and it definitely didn't help with keeping my mind on task.

Ironically, my favorite parts of the meditation app were the ones that weren't meditation at all; I really enjoyed the active movement sessions and the focus music playlists.

Despite its flaws, Headspace is a good place to start for those interested in meditation.

For Week 2 of my meditation experiment, I turned my attention to Calm.

a blue screen and the question "What brings you to Calm?" in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

When you first open Calm, it asks what goals you'd like to focus on while using the app. I ticked off all of the goals to get a fuller picture of everything the app has to offer.

The onboarding also asks what type of clips you'd most like to see when using Calm.

a blue screen and question "What type of content are you interested in exploring?" in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

Lastly, Calm asks about your level of familiarity with meditation.

a blue screen and question "What's your experience with meditation?" in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

I liked that the app asked this question, so it can make recommendations with your experience level in mind.

Once I answered these questions, I was shown the home page of the app.

a blue screen and a thumbnail image for a session called "Daily Calm" in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

The first thing that struck me was the sound in the background. By default, the app plays flowing water sounds while you're in it, though you can turn off the sounds in the settings. I found the sounds to be a really nice, calming addition that helped me start my experience with Calm on the right foot.

Visually, I also really liked Calm's deep blue hue compared to Headspace's stark white color.

The water sounds continued playing into the first meditation I tried, which was part of the app's everyday series, Daily Calm.

a man walks with a young girl on his shoulders in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

It seemed to me that there were longer silences in some of the Calm meditations than the Headspace ones, and I found that the water sounds helped me stay focused on the meditation during these silences rather than having my mind wander.

I also liked that this meditation included an anecdote and a quote to illustrate a few points. Simple additions like these made Calm's meditations seem tailored to their themes, and they would have gone a long way in creating more variety among meditations on Headspace.

The next day, I listened to an episode in a different Calm series, the Daily Trip.

a person's hand holds a sphere in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

This installment focused on a message that Headspace and Calm often stress: When you're faced with distractions, it can sometimes be helpful to simply notice they're there, rather than engage or fixate on them.

On Day 3, I looked through Calm's catalog of meditations and decided on a series called Mindfulness at Work.

the course layout of a class called "Mindfulness at Work" in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

The first lesson was called Productivity, just like the series I started on Day 2 of my Headspace week.

As with Headspace, a lot of the lesson was spent in silence, focusing on deep breathing and paying attention to what you're feeling one moment at a time. But in the few minutes that the instructor talked about productivity at work, I think Calm won out. Calm's insights seemed to be more specific and more relatable, sending you away with more practicable takeaways for your workday.

On Day 4, I looked through Calm's movement-based sessions.

thumbnail images of various stretching exercises in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

This is one arena where Headspace seems to have Calm beat — Headspace had a far greater variety of sessions focused on getting active.

I followed a simple morning stretch exercise.

a man with his hands on his leg in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

Again, Headspace seemed to edge out Calm in this department. In the Headspace yoga session I did, the instructor did the stretches alongside you. In this Calm session, there was no video component; the instructor verbally walked you through the stretches.

On my last day on Calm, I looked through the series that were recommended to me based on the goals I selected when I first downloaded the app.

thumbnail images of various meditation sessions in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

I decided to give the "Improve Focus" series a shot.

thumbnail images of focus-promoting meditations in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

It included things like master classes, breathing exercises, music playlists, and soundscapes, as well as bite-sized conversations through a series called The Spark.

In keeping with my choice on Headspace, I also listened to a few playlists designed to promote focus.

thumbnail images of various music playlists in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

I felt just as focused listening to Calm's playlists as I did listening to Headspace's music. However, Calm has a bigger selection of music and a longer roster of big-name artists. Besides focus music, Calm's Sleep Remix series, for example, includes deconstructed, slowed versions of songs from musicians like Ariana Grande, Post Malone, Shawn Mendes, and Kacey Musgraves.

Overall, Calm was the clear winner for me.

mountains, trees, and water at Jasper Lake in a screenshot of the meditation app Calm
Calm

Calm had more variety across all of its offerings, as well as more relatable and actionable insights in its meditations.

Even for the sessions I didn't test on either app, Calm seemed to take the cake. For sleep, for example, Calm has stories read by names like Regé-Jean Page, Matthew McConaughey, Laura Dern, and Harry Styles.

Headspace was not without its perks, though. Its flexibility in allowing you to pick your teacher and your meditation duration, for example, was a plus. But when it really comes down to it, I'd go with Calm every time.

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