My team experimented with ‘no screen mornings’ — it worked wonders

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

I tend to look at Slack, my emails, and (* sigh *) Twitter right after I wake up. But sometimes I wonder if my head would be clearer if I… didn’t. So I tried it – and asked my colleagues at Zapier to join me.

I didn’t set any hard rules, but I did make some suggestions.

  • Pick a time, then don’t look at your screen until then. I recommended an hour after waking up, but ultimately you should choose the most appropriate time for your mornings.
  • Think about something else to do instead. Maybe take a walk, maybe do a little journaling, maybe make a nice breakfast – just make sure you have a plan, so you don’t pick up your phone by default.
  • Do not use your phone as an alarm. It will be hard not to look at your phone if it’s the first thing you touch in the morning. Consider buying an old-fashioned alarm clock and charging your phone outside of the bedroom.
  • Delay notifications on your phone. Android and iOS both offer features that delay all notifications until a certain point. If you have to touch your phone in the morning, consider setting it up.

For me, it wasn’t about hard rules – it was about being intentional. Reflect on our relationship with technology, then tweak as needed. Here’s how it happened – and what we learned.

Little things made us less stressed

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

I thought cleaning the dishes yesterday was stressing me out. I thought making breakfast was stressing me out. I thought the problem was the tasks; it turns out the problem was the weather. If I don’t look at the screens, I have more time and therefore less stress.

Katie Redderson-Lear, Integration Engineer at Zapier, felt the same way.

The little chores that usually stress me out in the morning because I’m in a hurry and my attention is just shared… is it 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 of the time these things stressed me out, but today I just dealt with them.

Erin Ozoliņš, Senior Client Champion at Zapier, noticed that she always started her workday on time.

I actually did my morning skincare / toothbrushing, yoga, oatmeal routine, and let the dog out before 7am. Normally I got to work at 7:15 am, annoyed that I was 15 minutes late.

We all waste time in the morning without realizing it. It turns out that not looking at our devices is an easy way to get some of them back.

We were forced to be intentional

Sometimes I pick up my phone with intention, which is knowing what I want to do. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe the directions, or maybe my to-do list.

More often than not, however, I pick up my phone for no particular reason and sort of react to things. Texts, emails, likes – I check things mindlessly, sometimes for an embarrassing amount of time. Getting into this reactive mindset in the morning makes it harder for me to focus.

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

This challenge made me realize that I need to be more intentional in my morning routine, which is hit or miss at best. It was nice to spend the last hour of the day yesterday and the first hour of waking today without my phone.

Jason Kotenko, of the Zapier Labs team, said the change prompted him to form a new, positive habit.

I find that I am mentally very slow in the morning, and not having a phone to fall back on means I shower to wake up.

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

I spent my hour reading my book, drinking coffee, and taking the dogs for a good 30 minute walk. It’s always tempting to check my phone for text messages, but taking the time to breathe and read without anything consuming my thoughts has been truly peaceful.

It’s too easy to react to notifications in the morning and 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. It’s liberating.

Prohibition is not (necessarily) the answer

As I said earlier: I didn’t set strict rules for this experiment. Applying a hard rule wasn’t the point – it was about seeing what happened when we tried something. And what happened depended on each person’s unique situation.

Deb Tennen, editor of the Zapier blog, has learned that her results depend on the day.

When I fall asleep until 7 a.m., no screen time is amazing and allows me to use my energetic morning to focus on my family. When I wake up at 4:30 am with a one-year-old, I need this screen time in the morning to help my brain wake up.

Janine Anderson, also editor of 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 down and read some things on my phone.

Due to changing routines, Deb and Janine each set different rules for themselves. Deb decided to just stay on Slack but read the news or do an online crossword puzzle, and Janine said there was 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. just by staying in bed. ”

He didn’t want an extra hour of sleep – just an extra hour in bed. So he changed the rule: no screens the first hour after leaving the room. It worked better for him.

These rules all mean something to me. I like to write a journal in the morning, which I do on my laptop. I missed doing this 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 better for you – maybe not. The important thing is to set rules for yourself and stick to them.

Some of us stick to it

I was genuinely surprised at how much quieter my mornings were after starting this experience, so I’m going to keep doing it – at least, a version of it. I find that I am much calmer when I skip screen time and enjoy the breakfast conversation a lot more. Hope this can become a habit.

Katie, whom I quoted earlier, also plans to continue.

I stick to it mostly because it’s been really cool so far, and I think it will take over a week to make it a habit. I picked up my phone again this morning, so I’d like to see what it feels like after three weeks.

Katie may or may not continue after a few weeks. It is very good. The point of experiences like this is to learn something about yourself, examine your habits, and think of small ways to make things better.

If that sounds helpful, I recommend avoiding screens in the morning for a few weeks. You might not stick to it, but you will definitely learn something.

Published March 19, 2021 – 10:32 UTC


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