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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

February 9, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Whatever happened to mornings? Oh yeah – our smartphones

Rise and shine. (samsung.com)

When we open our eyes in the morning, many of us see the same thing.

It’s noisy, clingy and demanding. It’s not your partner. It’s your smartphone.

We still talk of mornings as a solemn, personal time. A time to get up, gather our thoughts and prepare to face the world.

That made more sense when the world was outside, at work, or, when things were urgent, on the other end of a landline. Now it’s as close as the nightstand. Our friends, our work, the news — everything. Many of us reach for it before we’ve even left the bedroom.

And just like that, a morning to ourselves has become even more an ideal and even less a reality.

“Before, you didn’t have to make a conscious choice about what you have to deal with in the morning,” 43-year-old Michael Conyers, a student at the University of Washington’s Information School, told me when I visited his class last week. “Now you do.”

I’ve come to believe, though, that we develop many of our most routine tech habits not by choice, but by accident. And that’s bad. Not because I think checking email over breakfast is better than checking it in bed — though it is for me — but because when we don’t choose how we integrate technology into our lives, we don’t control it. And when we don’t control it, it controls us.

The stats here are fascinating. Researchers tested the assumption that our phones are always with us and found that, though they’re within arm’s reach just half the time, they’re in the same room with us almost 90 percent of the time and stay closest when we’re sleeping and in the morning.

A big reason: Cellphones double as alarms. Thirty-four percent of all Americans and a whopping 69 percent of people age 18 to 29 set their phone’s alarm clock at least a few nights a week, according to a 2011 National Sleep Foundation study. That’s a strong pull.

“The biggest problem with using my iPhone as my alarm in the morning,” website producer Rob Stevens tweeted me, “is that it’s now in my hand.”

Thirty-five percent of smartphone users check non-voice applications on their smartphones not just first thing in the morning but while they’re still in bed, according to a 2011 study by Ericsson ConsumerLab. I have to assume that number’s climbing. When I asked readers of my blog to sound off — very unscientifically, of course — 62 percent of the nearly 190 respondents said they first check their smartphones from bed.

What do they check first? I didn’t find a study that looked into that, so again, I polled my readers. Eight percent of nearly 170 respondents said they checked the news first. Another 8 percent said the weather. Fifteen percent checked Facebook, but 40 percent said they went straight to email.

That’s where I cringe a little. Reading the news is passive and Facebook can be fun, but nothing has the potential to consume you quite like email. Especially work email.

The class I visited at the iSchool last week is professor David Levy’s “Information and Contemplation” class. Before I met with them, the students had just completed an exercise in which they noted their mental and physiological reactions to checking email.

A few talked about wanting to give themselves time in the morning before diving into things, like email, that felt heavy. They needed coffee. They needed a walk. They needed to be “ready.” “Armed.”

Rachel Price, 27, made an interesting point. People had to have good reason to call us in the early morning. They don’t need such strong filters to email, text or Facebook. When we decide not to check all that until we’ve crossed a certain threshold, we’re protecting a space that didn’t always need protecting.

“We need to create a barrier to make up for the barriers we lost,” Price said.

I spent years taking on the weight of the day before my feet touched the floor — not by choice, but by accident. Now an old clock radio wakes me up. My phone charges in the living room.

And when I’ve poured myself cereal with slices of banana and taken a bite — that’s when I let myself look at its screen. That gives me time to stretch, look outside and try to remember my dreams.

It’s nice.

“Checking first thing when my mind is vulnerable is like a jolt of adrenaline to the brain, slamming it into ‘IT’S GO TIME’ mode and keeping me addicted all day,” marketing consulting Lauren Hall-Stigerts tweeted me. “I let it own me and it’s removed me from my nature. I’m taking steps to own it.”

That’s her choice. What’s yours?

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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