The Powerful Shift That Happened When I Ditched Screens for the First and Last Hour of Every Day
I was struck with the realization that I had a problem one morning when my landlord knocked on the door.
I had set my alarm for 7:30 am; despite it being my day off I wanted to do some writing, maybe read, and enjoy my morning coffee in the quiet peace of my apartment before starting my day. There was a yoga class I wanted to make it to, but upon waking up I began my daily tradition of grabbing for my phone to turn off my alarm... then check Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat, Messenger, Gmail, and maybe Tinder if it was a slow news morning.
The knock on the door was the reality check I needed. Startled, I looked at the time. All my browsing had distracted me enough to stay on my phone for over an hour, missing my chance to write or read or drink coffee before yoga, much less make it to yoga at that point. The first hour of that day was instead spent responding to DM’s, left-swiping a few profiles, and scrolling deliriously through posts and stories on various apps.
I know I’m hardly the first or the last person to remind you just how addicted to our phones we’ve all become, and the effects are real: cell phone addiction has been linked to a rise in anxiety, depression, narcissism, stress, and sleep deprivation, among other things. And after that morning I started to realize just how detrimental my own phone habits had gotten. So I decided to take on a new daily habit, or really to cut out an old daily habit: no phone, whatsoever, for the first or last hour of my day. For two weeks. Gulp.
I don’t want to inundate you with too much #science, but there’s a myriad of reasons to cut down screen use at these two crucial time periods of waking up and going to bed. For me, the motivating factors were a heady cocktail of crushing social comparison and lack of mental clarity at such tender times of the day. My hope was that after these two weeks of restricted screen time (read: no phone or laptop) I would feel less stressed, more connected, and be sleeping better. So here’s my attempt at reclaiming those two precious hours in my day, what I learned, and what annoyed the hell out of me.
It’s 8 am, and normally I would absolutely be on my phone right now. I know my schedule well enough to bet that I would be on Instagram at this moment, most likely catching up on my favorite people and their stories about grabbing late night pizza and the views from their apartment windows.
But instead: I’ve been awake for half an hour and so far I have:
made a cup of green tea
opened my curtains to greet the day
written my morning pages
done some stretching
washed my face, applied sunscreen (every day, people!)
sat and stared out the window, drinking the aforementioned green tea
‘And how do you feel?’ , you may be asking. That’s a little tougher to pinpoint. I’m definitely feeling… less stressed. Almost daily I face a case of the overwhelms when I wake up. It’s like a to-do list and all my past failures have teamed up just to give me a hard time about everything under the sun— the embarrassing thing I said last week, the sweater I forgot to return and probably can’t now, and on and on. But today? Actually, not so much. The jury’s not out yet, but, could the overwhelm just be… from my phone?
I’m here reporting from evening three, happy to announce that after jotting down some thoughts for the last couple days, I will close my laptop, put my phone in the drawer, and indulge in my new favorite evening activity: dancing around my apartment and tidying up from the day. Oh my God, I know, I’m the worst. How is that fun? Okay, so it’s not completely, but for whatever reason it’s been the perfect transition between my bustling day and my winding-down routine. I either put on my latest Discover Weekly playlist through Spotify, or a favorite podcast, and hum along with the lights low as I fold clothes, clean any dishes, plump the couch pillows, and hang all my jewelry properly. I know it’s sort of cheating because the phone is in use, but I swear, I’ve got that baby on airplane mode.
I have been trying to talk to a friend from home for days, no, weeks now, and you know what just happened? I completely missed the memo that she was free to talk for an hour this morning because I hadn’t looked at my phone for about ten hours. By the time I dug my phone out of the drawer after my morning writing and reading, she was already asleep.
This made me realize that perhaps one reason my habit of reaching for my phone just before bed and just after getting up might be timezone-related. For the past year, I’ve lived on the opposite side of the world from where I grew up and went to school. This means the best chances I have to catch a friend or family member while we’re both awake are those in-between times when I’m going to sleep and they’re just waking up, and vice versa.
While it’s been calming to take a step back from my social media use, especially at such sensitive times of the day, this might be one reason I may have to reintroduce at least a little screen time after these two weeks are over.
Alright, okay, I’m feeling this! This morning I found extra time in my screen-free hour, so I pulled out my old ink and pen set and had some fun, only realizing later that I ended up going almost two hours without checking my phone. And even after that? I dug my phone out only to check Whatsapp and my email before putting it away again and making a lavish breakfast of sweet potato hash, eggs, and coffee. I even took a little reading break before doing the dishes and eventually, pulled out my phone so I could listen to music on the way to meet a friend. Huzzah, maybe this isn’t so bad!
Last night I couldn’t fall asleep. I’m definitely one to toss and turn for a while before settling in and passing out, but this was one of those nights where even after two hours of flipping the pillow and adjusting the temperature of the apartment, I still couldn’t quiet my mind.
So I cheated. I know, I know. But it’s not what you think! I grabbed my phone from the drawer, shielded my eyes from any notifications as I unlocked it, and pulled up my trusted meditation app. I downloaded it a month or two ago under the recommendation of a friend and since then it has really helped me keep a regular practice. Before this little experiment, I had gotten into the habit of drifting off to various sleep stories and yoga nidra recordings.
I knew this would be a tricky sleep habit to give up, and last night I just really needed the extra help to fall into rest. I pulled up a whimsical retelling of Rapunzel, and as the narrator’s voice pitched, lulled, and slowly got quieter, I drifted into the deepest sleep I’ve had since the experiment started.
Last day, last day, last day!
On evening thirteen, aka last night, I busted out some more art supplies in my hour before bed, once again time slipping by faster than I anticipated and before I knew it I was up past my bedtime making a silly collage for a friend’s birthday card. It’s a bit sloppy and very ridiculous, but I’m a proud parent of my little creation. Not to mention, the joy to be found in sipping on some wine and listening to music while accidentally coating all my fingers in mod podge was a lovely change of pace from clicking through horrifying news stories before trying to go to sleep.
Now, I’ve just finished up my fourteenth morning of tea, stretching, morning pages, and staring out the window, and I’m definitely noticing a shift in how I feel. I’m headed to yoga now with an extra bounce in my step.
The last two weeks have certainly been surprising, in more than a few ways. For one, I didn’t realize just how deep the itch to check my phone went. As I released my vice grip from the home button upon waking up and before going to bed, I found myself reaching less and less for my phone throughout the day as well. Normally I’d do a quick email check as I waited for the elevator in my apartment building, or mindlessly scroll through Instagram in between work, but I slowly edged away from that, mostly just because I slowly became aware of how much I was pulling out my phone when I didn’t really need to.
All in all, my mornings and evenings both became a time of rest, reflection, and dare I say it, peace. I slept better, I found more time to be creative, and my apartment has been nearly spotless thanks to the extra tidying time.
While this is definitely a habit I’m keen to take with me into the future, there are some modifications I might make to the hard-and-fast “no phone” rule. Most of which, ahem, I actually cheated and did the past two weeks. For one, I love starting and ending my day with music, and sometimes I just need a good meditation track to fall asleep. So it might be more of a “no laptop, phone on airplane mode” sort of rule. I know, it doesn’t roll off the tongue as fast, but it’s certainly a routine that works better for my life.
And some days, I’m going to break even that rule, because rules are meant to be broken, amirite? In all seriousness though, I’m simply not willing to give up prime hours for connecting with my people back home. So if I set up a time to talk to my mom or college friends that falls during my precious one-hour-windows, I’m going to go ahead with that, knowing that communicating with them is more worthwhile than avoiding screens so strictly. I’m human, okay?
Overall, this little experiment made me realize a lot more about myself than I thought it would. And while I’m not magically a completely zen lady who shuns technology and is just so connected and present all the time, I’ve definitely moved more towards being that lady. Which is awesome, because I hear she gets really great sleep and doesn’t suffer from the overwhelms almost ever.