Most of us sleep with our phones either in, or very close to, our beds. Our phones are the first things we interact with in the morning, first to turn off (or snooze) the alarm. And as long our phones are in hand, the next thing to do is check email, Twitter, Facebook, text messages, and whatever other communications have rolled in during the night. It's a stressful way to start the day, but so many of us do it. We can't help it.
LYST CEO Chris Morton used to start his days just like that. He hated it, but found it too addictive to not do. That is, until he read about B.F. Skinner's famous rat experiments, which varied feeding times to determine how the animals formed habits. When feeding intervals were randomized, the rats didn't know when to expect food, so they constantly checked to see if they could get pellets. (In the experiment, the rats pressed a bar for new food.) "These rats did nothing else but press these buttons all day long because they couldn't discern a pattern," Morton told Fast Company. This is essentially the same relationship we have with our email, he realized: open up the inbox, you never know what you'll get.
Morton isn't the first to compare us to Skinner's rats. But making the connection has helped him realize that changing his habits could improve his day. "We don't actually do the important things we need to do in our lives because we are obsessively checking," he explained.
Indeed, distractions—like email notifications—lead to a decrease in productivity. A study out of UC Irvine found that it takes 25 minutes to get back to an original task after a distraction. And Morton is most productive in the mornings, so any lost time during that time frame is all the more precious. This Microsoft study on multitasking had similar results.
So, over the last year, Morton has restructured the first hour of his morning. He still uses his phone as an alarm. But he puts it on airplane mode when he goes to bed. After waking up, he does a half-hour of yoga and meditation before even thinking about his day's tasks—a habit he picked up while on vacation in Tulum. For that first 30 minutes, Morton clears his head, letting thoughts come and go, to get his brain ready for the day.
"I think of it like warming up. If you're about to play a sport you might do some stretching. I feel it's a little the same with your brain or your consciousness—how do you get it up to speed rather than jumping straight in with all the things you have to do?" he said. Indeed, a Universiteit Leiden study found that meditating can promote divergent thinking, a type of problem solving that involves thinking up distinct solutions, and therefore fosters creativity.
After that, Morton still resists the lure of his iPhone, spending the next half hour writing down a list of all the important things he has to do that day, while eating his breakfast. He might have to switch priorities once he reads his email, but he's able to do that more thoughtfully rather than just letting email lead him around by the nose.
The process has increased Morton's efficiency. He has trained himself to understand that email is often not the most important task of his day. Focusing his mornings so that they don't revolve around email has led him to a more productive day overall. Sometimes he even avoids email entirely between the hours of 9 and 12 because those are the hours he works best. "It was sort of a necessity," he said. "I knew something needed to change, as the company was growing. It became apparent that I needed a smarter way to deal with everything, because the workload was increasing."