- Will Ward, 39, is a cofounder and the CEO of the translation company Industry Arabic.
- He stopped checking his phone for the first two hours of his day after seeing it trending on TikTok.
- Ward says he now has more time and strengthened resilience and approaches work with a clear head.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Will Ward, the 39-year-old cofounder and CEO of the translation company Industry Arabic who’s based in Washington, DC, about his experience trying to avoid checking his phone first thing in the morning. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I run an international remote team, so naturally, the first thing I used to do in the morning was check my work email to get a picture of my upcoming workday. I work from home, and it can be very hard to set necessary work-life boundaries.
I never considered I was sabotaging my morning by exposing myself to stress and stimuli before it was necessary.
I’m also guilty of bedscrolling on social media on the weekends. I tricked myself into thinking it was an OK habit by keeping my social-media pages tailored to my business or creative interests, so I felt like I was being at least half productive. In reality, I was contributing to a dopamine rush that made me want to just lie in bed and keep scrolling all day.
Then in early 2022, I saw a slew of TikTok posts about the benefits of avoiding your phone when you first wake up in the morning. The benefits included giving your mind a chance to peacefully wake up, reducing stress, and increasing focus.
I reclaimed those 20 to 40 minutes I used to spend scrolling and added the time to my morning routine. I’m up by 6:15 most mornings, and I don’t check my phone now until between 8 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. Once I started this practice, I noticed a big difference in my productivity.
I faced challenges in making this shift
My issue for the first few weeks was that my alarm clock was on my phone, so my first act every day was grabbing it. It was difficult to turn the alarm off and not open any time-consuming apps. To solve this, I got a separate alarm clock and turned on my phone’s restrictive screen-time measures.
It also took awhile to stop the urge to check in on my team members who were hours ahead in other time zones. What helped was turning off notifications from all work-related apps outside my work hours, which are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday.
I had to replace the urge to check my phone with other tasks that made me feel productive
I started to really enjoy the value of being present in the morning, which overshadowed my urge to check my phone. I developed a “phone off” morning routine of making coffee, making sure the kids were up, making us breakfast, sending the kids off to school, and going for a run.
My phone comes with me on my runs, and I do use it for music. I usually pick my playlist when I’m putting on my shoes, slip my phone into my armband, and keep the music going for the duration of my run. I can switch songs through my headphones.
Once I’m back and around the house, I’ll make a quick to-do list of anything on my mind, whether it’s personal or work-related. At this point, I’m comfortable using my phone for my notes app and to take a peek at my calendar. Having some certainty of what the day holds for me makes me feel energized and motivated.
Overall, it’s been a simple but effective way to improve my productivity and well-being
I have more time for myself and my family, and I feel like I’ve strengthened my resilience when it comes to starting my workday. I approach my work with a clear head and a small sense of accomplishment.
I’ve found that I’m more prepared to handle my work once I sit down to do it. I know there’ll always be big meetings or urgent matters to tend to, so there’s no use in ruining the first two hours of my day before I have to address them. This mentality helps me start my day on a more positive and focused note.
I like to ride the wave of mindfulness from my morning — even though I haven’t checked my work emails before 9 a.m., I have a very clear sense of what I intend to accomplish for the day and how I’ll achieve it. I’m just more in tune with work by setting hard boundaries.
I encourage my team to handle their time in the mornings before and after work in the same way
It’s all about setting an example for a healthy work-life balance. But when it comes to staying in contact with my team and handling urgent matters, I fully understand my responsibility as a CEO and cofounder and how that may require me to sacrifice different parts of my day and routine. My clientele and line of translation work are fairly stable and routine, but urgent matters do occasionally come up.
My team can always reach me if they have personal emergencies or urgent matters regarding a client or the company through a direct line and group in Slack that doesn’t allow “do not disturb.” Even if I don’t check them right when they’re sent, urgent messages are the first thing I see when I check my phone in the hour before work.
In reality, I’m available from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. for urgent matters, and I’ve never had an issue with urgency during my two-hour period of stepping away from my phone in the morning.
Here are my tips for getting started
I recommend setting screen-time or app limits on your smartphone to either hide apps from you or force you to enter a passcode. While it’s still possible to get to the app in question, you’ll be required to make a mindful decision to enter into it.
Additionally, I’d recommend making sure you have something to fill your time with. You need to have a reason to get out of bed to beat that dopamine addiction. Try to incentivize yourself, either by making your favorite breakfast or drink, going out to a café, or taking a hot shower.
Finally, tell other people about your goal and your unavailability in the morning. Your partner or roommates might want to join in with you, and your coworkers will know not to disturb you or expect replies earlier than a certain time. You’ll be less inclined to check your phone once you know there’s a boundary set on both ends of your personal and work relationships.