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5 min read

We tried not looking at our screens first thing in the morning. It helped.

By Justin Pot · November 10, 2020
Hero of a man with a newspaper and a young girl laughing next to him

Want to feel stressed, anxious, and/or completely exhausted before you even have breakfast? I highly recommend looking at your phone right when you wake up.

I tend to look at Slack, email, and (*sigh*) Twitter right after I wake up. But sometimes I wonder if my head would be clearer if I just...didn't. So I tried it out—and asked my coworkers at Zapier to join me.

I didn't set hard rules, but I did offer some suggestions.

  • Pick a time, then don't look at your screen until then. I recommended one hour after waking up, but ultimately, you should choose whatever timing makes sense for your mornings.

  • Think of something else to do instead. Maybe take a walk, maybe do some journaling, maybe make a nice breakfast—just make sure you have a plan, so you don't default to picking up your phone.

  • Don't use your phone as an alarm. It's going to be hard not to look at your phone if it's the first thing you touch in the morning. Consider buying an old school, actual alarm clock, and charging your phone outside the bedroom.

  • Delay notifications on your phone. Android and iOS both offer features that delay all notifications until a certain time. If you have to touch your phone in the morning, consider setting this up.

To me, this wasn't about hard rules—it was about being intentional. Thinking about our relationship to technology, then tweaking as necessary. Here's how it went—and what we learned.

If you're generally feeling burnt out and looking for ways to inject some more joy into your workday, take a look at these 4 self-care workflows to get through hard times.

Little things stressed us out less

The first thing I learned: looking at my phone first thing in the morning stresses me out. I did not know this.

I thought that cleaning up yesterday's dishes stressed me out. I thought making breakfast stressed me out. I thought the problem was the tasks; it turns out the problem was time. If I don't look at screens, I have more time and, therefore, less stress.

Katie Redderson-Lear, integration engineer at Zapier, felt the same way.

Little chores that usually stress me out in the morning because I'm rushing and my attention is split just…got done? For example, I forgot to put the laundry away last night, the dog's bowl needed cleaning, and I spilled a glass of water. Most days, these things would stress me out, but today I just dealt with them.

Erin Ozoliņš, senior customer champion at Zapier, noticed that she consistently started her work day on time.

I actually did my morning skincare/teeth brushing routine, yoga, made oatmeal, and let the dog out before my 7 a.m. start time. Normally, I'd meander into work at 7:15 a.m., annoyed that I was 15 minutes late.

We're all losing time in the morning without realizing it. Not looking at our devices, it turns out, is a simple way to get some of it back.

We were forced to be intentional

Sometimes I pick up my phone with intention—that is, knowing what it is I want to do. Maybe it's the weather, maybe it's directions, or maybe it's my to-do list. More often, though, I pick up my phone for no particular reason and just kinda...react to stuff. Texts, emails, likes—I mindlessly check things, sometimes for an embarrassing amount of time. Getting into that reactive mindset first thing in the morning makes it harder for me to focus.

Eileen Ruberto, senior UX researcher at Zapier, said that avoiding her phone in the morning made her think about her intention.

This challenge made me realize I ought to be more intentional about my morning routine, which is haphazard at best. It was nice to spend the last hour of the day yesterday and the first waking hour of today without my phone.

Jason Kotenko, on the Labs team at Zapier, said the change prompted him to build a new, positive habit.

I find that I'm mentally very sluggish in the morning, and having no phone to fall back on means I shower to wake myself up.

Jesse Parker, community manager at Zapier, also found themselves using the time with intention.

I spent my hour reading my book, drinking coffee, and taking the dogs for a good 30-minute walk. It's still tempting to check my phone for texts, but taking the time to breathe and read without having anything consume my thoughts has been really peaceful.

It's all too easy to react to notifications first thing in the morning, then keep reacting to things all day. Avoiding your phone forces you to be intentional—to decide what you're going to do, instead of just reacting to something. That's liberating.

Prohibition isn't (necessarily) the answer

Like I said earlier: I didn't set hard rules for this experiment. Enforcing a hard rule wasn't the point—it was about seeing what happens when we tried something. And what happened depended on each person's unique situation.

Deb Tennen, managing editor for the Zapier blog, learned that her results depended on the day.

When I get to sleep till 7 a.m., no screen time is amazing and allows me to use my energized morning to focus on my family. When I wake up at 4:30 a.m. with a one-year-old, I need that morning screen time to help my brain wake up.

Janine Anderson, also a managing editor for the Zapier blog, had a similar experience.

I woke up one morning at 4 a.m. for no good reason, so I watched things for a while when it was obvious I wasn't going to sleep. Then I sat up and read some things on my phone.

Because of the changing routines, Deb and Janine each set different rules for themselves. Deb decided to stay off Slack only but still read the news or do an online crossword puzzle, and Janine said no social media or email while lying down.

Jacob Sowles, frontend engineer at Zapier, also found himself adjusting the rules.

I woke up, and my brain was like, "Hey, we could kill time until 8 a.m. by just staying in bed."

He didn't want an extra hour of sleep—just an extra hour of bed. So he changed the rule: no screens for the first hour after leaving the bedroom. That worked better for him.

These rules all make sense to me. I like to journal first thing in the morning, which I do on my laptop. I've missed doing that first thing in the morning during this experiment, so my rule going forward will probably be that journaling before breakfast is fine, but Slack and Twitter are not.

Maybe prohibition works best for you—maybe not. The important thing is to set rules for yourself and stick to them.

Some of us are sticking with it

I was sincerely surprised how much calmer my mornings were after starting this experiment, so I'm going to keep doing it—at least, a version of it. I find I'm a lot calmer when I skip screen time, and that I enjoy conversation over breakfast a lot more. I hope this can become a habit.

Katie, who I quoted earlier, also plans to keep going.

I'm mostly sticking with it because it's been really nice so far, and I think it'll take longer than a week to make it a true habit. I still reached for my phone this morning, so I'd like to see what it feels like after 3ish weeks.

Katie may or may not keep it up after a few weeks. That's fine. The point of experiments like this is to learn something about yourself, examine your habits, and think of small ways to improve things. If that sounds useful, I recommend avoiding screens in the morning for a few weeks. You might not stick with it, but you will certainly learn something.

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A Zap with the trigger 'When I get a new lead from Facebook,' and the action 'Notify my team in Slack'