Alan Stein Jr., is on his 324th straight day meditating—a streak he is tending with the mindfulness of a monk.
The 42-year-old performance coach from Gaithersburg, Md., has kept his record using the Headspace app, despite early-morning flights and travel across time zones. On a recent work trip to Atlanta, he remembered to meditate only just after the clock struck midnight. Worried he’d blown his record, he closed his eyes and quickly tried to meditate on the hotel bed for 10 minutes.
“The whole time I’m just waiting for the 10 minutes to be over to see if my streak was alive,” he said. Thanks to the app’s built-in grace period, his frantic attempt counted toward his total. He was, in the words of the mindful on social media, #Grateful.
Type-A people are descending on the ancient practice of meditation and tweaking the quest for inner peace to suit their hard-charging needs—racking up streaks and broadcasting their running tallies to the world. The result, for some: Meditation has never been more stressful.
In one online group, members regularly check a leaderboard to see who has meditated the most days in a row. A habit-tracking website charges the credit cards of meditators if they miss their sessions too often. One company is pitching meditators on a wristband that reminds them to practice and, if they don’t, gives them a mild electric shock.
Streaks are rampant on apps such as Headspace and Calm, which are designed to log and display the consecutive days a user has meditated or practiced mindfulness. Meditation, which can mean different things to different people, is a more focused state than mindfulness, which is a state of calm attention to the present.
“There’s something deep in the human psyche about wanting to compete and keep a streak going,” said Calm co-founder
Michael Acton Smith.
“It really helps motivate people.”
Desperate to maintain streaks that can surpass 1,000 days, some driven spiritual voyagers have started looking for new ways to protect their records. On Headspace, the app counts any session completed in an eight-hour period as its own day. Pointing this out, a user on Facebook suggested logging three days in one by meditating at 4 a.m., 2 p.m. and 11 p.m.
On Mindful Makers, a private online group of roughly 250 meditators, members can check the streak rankings daily. Robin Koppensteiner was in second place with 71 days at the start of this week. Members are trusted to report their own meditation updates.
“I have to admit I check every day to see if I’m still in number two or if I’ve gone up to number one,” said the 29-year-old author from Vienna, Austria.
For him to rise, current streak leader Jason Leow must fall. Mr. Leow, a 39-year-old design consultant from Singapore, posted a tally of 88 days this week, a record for the group. He said he wouldn’t mind being dethroned. “We’re all winners when we meditate together,” he said.
Some people are using goal-tracking services like Beeminder, which charges fees when users don’t stick to new habits, including meditation.
Michael Merchant, a 29-year-old San Francisco tech entrepreneur, found the site helpful about five years ago even though he “felt so much shame” when he lost $810 after repeatedly failing to practice mindfulness an hour a day. He could have logged false data but decided to come clean.
“It’s weird to admit, but it was kind of cathartic,” said Mr. Merchant. “I’ve paid for my screw-up. Literally.”
The guidelines for what counts toward a meditation streak can be loose; the companies allow a broad swath of mindfulness exercises to qualify. Among them: a Headspace session on eating mindfully and a bedtime story on Calm read by actor Jerome Flynn, who plays the deadly fighter Bronn on “Game of Thrones.”
To maintain their records, some people just let the audio for an app’s meditation session play on their phones while they’re, say, watching TV.
“People have said, ‘I don’t want to lose my streak…I put it on, but I didn’t meditate,’ ” said Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, calling this group a small minority. “My hope is that 99% of members are using it not because they just want to reach a higher number. It’s more about our intention and our relationship with the run streak rather than the run streak itself.”
Mr. Puddicombe said his training at a Tibetan monastery in northern India featured streak-like exercises to foster accountability. He recalled writing down the number of times he completed certain mantras or visualizations every day.
Streaks are big business for Headspace and Calm, which sell access to audio-guided meditations and other features for $12.99 a month, or less depending on the package. But pursuit of a streak has its risks: Customers can become discouraged if their runs end abruptly and might ditch the app or stop meditating altogether. Even a completed streak can potentially diminish enthusiasm: The only thing harder than the 365th straight day of meditation, some say, is the 366th.
Headspace and Calm report roughly 30 million and 26 million downloads of their apps, respectively.
At Calm, Mr. Acton Smith said, purists on staff don’t want bedtime stories to count toward the tally since some users won’t even be awake for them. Calm already tried to appease streak holders by allowing them to log sessions manually if their phones die.
Headspace, which added its streak counter at customers’ request in late 2014, soon will give users the option to hide the tally if it creates too much pressure.
“I’m fairly certain that there is no precedent for this in traditional Buddhist practice,” said Benjamin Brose, associate professor of Chinese religions at the University of Michigan. “Many monks meditate every day for decades, and I have never heard of anyone keeping track.”
Pavlok, which sells wearable electronic shocking devices to help people change their behavior, suggests meditation as one of the top uses for its wristbands, which cost $145 to $245.
Nicholas Rozier, Pavlok’s 37-year-old director of operations based in Moscow, Idaho, said he cranks his device to 100% to remind himself to meditate at 7 a.m. for 10 minutes six days a week. If he fails to log a session, which he self-reports, he gets two zaps of 450 volts of electricity on the inside of his left wrist. He said it feels like a bee sting.
Ultimately, all streaks are made to be broken. Amanda Bralley, a 37-year-old mother from Alpharetta, Ga., messed up her 18-day meditation run while focused on her teenage daughter. “Today is #Day1 again,” she wrote on Twitter. “Namaste y’all.”
Write to Ellen Gamerman at firstname.lastname@example.org