When is the right time to check your phone?

On social media, habits, and morning routines.

By now you've probably heard the advice that you shouldn't check your phone first thing in the morning. I'm a passionate advocate and mediocre practitioner of this advice.

Last year I developed a consistent morning routine: wake up at 5 or 6am, read part of a novel, stretch, meditate for half an hour, and avoid checking my phone until noon. This year I usually wake up past 9am and often have trouble resisting my phone for longer than a few minutes. In part this is because I've been sharing more on social media and have become more invested in the reactions that come my way, so I'll keep checking, keep refreshing, keep seeking validation from others.

In my experience, social media usage falls under one of these two extremes: I'm either using it compulsively or barely using it at all. All other options are unstable. I like to call this the Dopamine Dam:

If any water leaks through the dam, a crack forms and the whole thing falls apart. The more I’ve been checking Twitter in the past week, the more I’m likely to check it tomorrow. This also applies on the timescale of a single day: after the first time I've used social media in the morning, the number of urges I subsequently feel and my tendency to give into them grows exponentially.

This is why I like to avoid my phone when waking up. I want to leave as much time as possible to myself, before my Dopamine Dam breaks open and the world rushes in. I'm establishing my agency: I am the one deciding what the start of my day looks like, not anyone else. Checking my notifications first is like beginning the day with a simultaneous message to everyone I've ever connected with asking, "hello how can I help you today." I don't want the thousand cackling voices of news reporters, influencers, acquaintances, and friends to break the treasured silence of dawn.

There are several ways to protect the quiet of the morning, many of which you've probably also heard about by now:

  • Put your phone in a different room when you sleep.

  • Delete social media apps entirely.

  • Keep the apps, but turn off notifications.

  • Use tools like Freedom or Intention to block access to distracting apps.

I've tried several of these and have found varying degrees of success with them over time. I find that they’re good railings for reinforcing existing habits, but if your brain really wants to binge, it will find one way or another to do it.

You: *deletes Twitter app*
Brain: Wouldn't it be fun if we checked Twitter in the browser?
You: *blocks Twitter in the browser using an extension*
Brain: Haha maybe let's deactivate that extension and check Twitter again?

My current set of railings is: Facebook/Twitter/Instagram are deleted from my phone, and I've set a daily timer in Chrome to limit activity on those sites. But I regularly find my way around these railings. As I've argued before, there's a balance to strike between forcing external constraints and addressing the underlying causes of our behavior.

It's hard to make any claim about your behavior with confidence, but when I look back on the few months' stretch that I consistently didn't use my phone in the mornings, my best explanation is just that I had something more compelling to do instead. Rather than reach for my phone, I'd reach for a book. My fascination with the things I was reading—combined with the momentum of reading again and again until it became a part of my identity—virtually erased the urge to do other things. I developed a sense of purpose and was obsessed with consuming as many stories and ideas as I could.

Of course, finding purpose is no easy feat, and purposes come and go. I’m now more focused on writing than reading (while still trying to do both), and this has knocked my previous morning routine out of balance. But you don't have to figure out an overarching life purpose as much as find something that is more exciting to you than lying down and doing nothing. You will probably leap to the first thing that meets this bar, and in the absence of a predetermined activity you’ll default to your phone.

A good book satisfies this criteria for me, and I could imagine different things working for different people: journaling, writing a poem, jotting down dreams, doing ten push-ups. The only condition I'd place is that the activity shouldn't be noisy: it shouldn’t vary wildly from one day to another, and it shouldn’t tend to lead you down a compulsive two-hour rabbit hole you'll regret. I also find it helpful to set an intention the night before: "When I wake up tomorrow, I will continue to read X, and then stretch, and then meditate..."

One other pattern I've found is that my attachment to my phone is heightened when there's misalignment between the life I want to live and the one I'm actually living. You might've heard of Revenge Bedtime Procrastination, when you doomscroll late into the night to compensate for a lack of autonomy in the rest of your day. Perhaps the morning phone binge is a form of Preemptive Revenge Morning Procrastination. My recent busyness with work and writing and other projects has taken away from quality time for reading, distancing me from my own perception of a good life. So I compensate with the morning scrolls.

For both of these problems — finding purpose in the morning, and misalignment between your lived and desired life — we don’t figure out the answer all at once. You find something that gives you a little bit of purpose, and it works for a while, and maybe you get bored and find something else. You find discord in your current life, so you look for one thing that brings you closer to the life you want, and keep going from there.

Even when I had my mornings undisturbed, the question still remained of when I should check my notifications and feeds. Is noon the right time? Or after work? Or nighttime, or never? The longer I'd wait, the more suspense and dopamine would build up behind the dam, the more I'd feel a tenseness in my chest about opening up all my notifications and messages again later.

In these moments of tension, I try to remember that there are two states we can inhabit as we go about our day: waiting for something to happen, or moving through life on our own terms. The difference is subtle, but it's real, and it's a choice we're constantly making. Whenever I feel especially drawn to my phone, I'm controlled by anticipation for what's on the other side. It helps in these moments to pause and ask myself, "what exactly do you expect to see here? and is it really worth all this energy?"

Perhaps the goal should be to notice how often you're in this anticipatory state, how often whatever is in front of you doesn't feel like it's enough. Your habits will get better and worse over time—I felt like I had my relationship with my phone figured out, and the past few months have thrown a wrench into that idea. But you always have the opportunity to begin again, and to find a sense of ease in this moment.

So in addition to deleting some of your apps, limiting notifications, and putting your phone away at night, remember that you are always at the beginning. And in the midst of a craving for likes and feeds, ask yourself: what exactly are you waiting for?

🧘‍♂️ Meditation: Measures of wellbeing

On the topic of phones and morning routines, I enjoyed coming up with this list of “measures of my wellbeing”:

  • how easily I can feel wonder from looking up at the sky

  • how much of an urge I feel to check notifications in the morning

  • how at ease I feel going to bed

  • whether my news feed makes me happy or anxious

  • how often I remember that it’s not obvious that there should be a universe at all

  • whether I spend more than an hour in the day reading

  • how comfortable I feel with something I share getting zero reactions

  • how fearful I am of the prospect of something going wrong

  • how patient I am in my interactions with others

  • how vividly I feel the love I have for my parents and brother and friends

I find that even just going through this list now and then brings me a sense of ease. You could try it out for yourself – what are subtle ways you can tell how well you’re doing?

On feedback

It sounds obvious in retrospect, but a friend noted recently that trying to track views and like counts is not the most effective way to become a better writer. I’m excited to have found a community for getting feedback on my writing, and also want to make the explicit ask here: I want to hear any and all thoughts! Feel free to be as specific as “this word felt off” or “this sentence didn’t connect” or as general as “I don’t get any of it.” Help me get better :)

And a big shoutout to David, Yael, and Art for feedback on drafts of this piece.

See you next time,