Waking Up Extra Early Helps This Entrepreneur Be More Productive At Work

Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain shares her mindful and effective strategies to de-stress, prioritize, and say “no” to unnecessary requests.

Image courtesy of Kathleen Carter
Image courtesy of Kathleen Carter

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Internet pioneer and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain wants you to take a day off from technology – a full 24 hours with no screens. Honored by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century,” Shlain is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, founder of The Webby Awards, and co-founder of The International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. And though technology has been a pillar of Shlain’s career, and helps her stay connected, she has worked hard to set boundaries with it. The resulting efforts have impacted her life for the better, and even inspired her to write a book to help others achieve the same effects. In what she calls a  “Technology Shabbat,” Shlain and her family have unplugged for one day a week for the past decade, and it’s completely changed their lives — giving them more time, productivity, connection, and presence. 

Her book, 24/6—The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, was published this fall, and is on many Top 10 Lists of best books for 2019. Shlain tells Thrive some of her secrets to her better relationship with technology, and how journaling has helped her to gain more happiness in her career and life. 

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Tiffany Shlain: Perhaps it’s better to describe what I used to do when I first got out of bed. Back in early 2016, I would roll over and let the harsh light of the iPhone blind me out of my slumber.  I would then shoot the New York Times app straight into my eyeballs, its daily stressful Trump headline like a double shot of cortisol and stress without the coffee flavor.

Eventually, I realized that wasn’t a sustainable way to wake or exist. Here is my routine now: I wake up at 5 a.m. to write before my family gets up. I quietly go downstairs with my black cat, Midnight, leading the way, have coffee, and intentionally do not look at my phone. I write in a journal for around 15 minutes, about things like what I am grateful for, and what would make today great. It’s a simple morning practice that keeps the world from coming at me before I have fully woken up.  What a profoundly different way to frame the day.

TG:   What’s your secret life hack?

TS: Turning off all screens one day a week for what my family calls our Technology Shabbats. We have done it for a decade, and it has completely transformed our lives. Over those ten years, we’ve felt the benefits more and more, while screens have been increasingly taking over people’s lives. We’ve gotten so much out of it that I felt like I had to write a book about it: 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week. It is part memoir, part manual, and part big proposals for the tech industry and society. I do feel like it’s a secret formula to live in our 24/7 always-on world that I had to share.

TG:  What gives you energy?

TS: Cooking a meal for family and friends, sharing an idea, taking a complete day of rest each week. Also coffee. 

TG:  Name a book that changed your life. 

TS: Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, which my father, Leonard Shlain, wrote in 1991. On a dark and stormy night in San Francisco in 1997, my father was giving a book talk at an art gallery. I was there with ten of my best friends. A young, handsome man walked into the gallery with a dog-eared copy and went straight up to my father and said, “Dr. Shlain, I’m a new professor at UC Berkeley and I am a huge fan of your book.” Without missing a beat my father asked, “Have you met my daughter?” We fell in love that night. Two daughters and 22 years of marriage later, I would definitely say that book changed my life.

TG:  How do you deal with email?

TS: You mean the firehose of emails coming at me all the time? In the morning, I try to just write. My brain is the most fresh when I first wake up. I push off the onslaught of email until after I have done a good period of writing. I used to try to get to the zero inbox. Ha! I would get close, and then it just started to get further and further away from me. So I gave up. My inbox reads “There are 29,532 unread emails.” You can’t unsee that number. So basically it’s triage. I go in, I try to pluck the important things, attempt to go back pages to make sure I didn’t miss the important things, and pray I didn’t offend anyone by missing an email and not responding. 

TG:  You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?

TS: Call my husband, girlfriends, or write in my journal. Talking to someone close or writing about what has happened that day are both ways to help me process the day and ideally find the humor in it, and unpack it. Now, there are times when I jump into the Twitter or Instagram rabbit hole, which can have its pleasurable moments, but often leaves me feeling stressed, FOMO, empty… fill in the existential angst word here.  

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

TS: Recently – when I had five book talk events in one week. What was I thinking? I am normally very good about scheduling days to be “on” and days to be “off” but I just clearly said yes to too much. Saying no (kindly) is a superpower.

TG:  Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

TS: “Whatever you dream or think you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” — Goethe

TG:  How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

TS: I take out a black Sharpie and a piece of paper and write the five things I have to do that day. I place it to the right of my laptop keyboard so I am reminded to stay focused instead of the millions of distractible delights that the phone dangles in front of me. And I hide that kryptonite called the iPhone. Out of sight, out of mind, and focus returns.

TG: What advice would you give your younger self about reducing stress?

TS: Take a full day off each week. When I was establishing the Webby Awards in my late twenties and thirties, I worked 24/7 and was headed towards burnout. I realize now that taking this complete day off each week makes me more creative and more productive, and gives me a perspective you don’t have when you work 24/7. And don’t date men who hate their mothers.  

TG:  Do you have any role models for living a thriving life?

TS: Both of my parents. My late father, Leonard Shlain, was incredibly present when you were with him. He was a surgeon for the first part of his career, then wrote his first book in his early fifties, then did both for a while before devoting his life to writing books I watched him love his first career, and then transition and love his second career. My mother went back to school to get her Ph.D. when I was growing up. She become a psychologist and loves helping people. Both my parents loved what they did. They made their own hours and helped people. 

And my cat Midnight. She seems pretty happy: napping, purring, and maintaining good boundaries about when to say yes to a snuggle and when to convey that she needs downtime.

TG: How do you reframe negative thinking?

TS: When my mind starts going in a negative thinking mode, I pull out my gratitude journal and write the things I am grateful for. It’s like giving that negative voice a quaalude.

TG: What brings you optimism?

TS: My husband, Ken, and my daughters, Odessa and Blooma.

TG: Fill in the blanks: People think I/I’m _______, but really I/I’m ______.

TS: People think I am an extrovert but I also have an introverted side. I need downtime and nights in with my family and alone time to feel grounded. As I get older, I need more alone time.

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your sleep. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how you sustain this habit?

TS: Epsom salt baths. I never was a bath person as an adult. Now, I’ve surrounded the tub with many things to invite me in to soak my body into a deep state of relaxation so I can sleep well: candles, natural sponges of different shapes, fluffy towels, and a dish for the salts with a big wooden spoon to scoop it into the water. All these ingredients lure and bake me into being ready to sleep. When people ask if I meditate, I usually say, “Does a bubble bath count?”   

TG: What’s your secret time-saver in the morning?

TS: Getting up at 5 a.m. so I can have around an hour solo to write and think. That ultimately fuels my whole day. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a woman healthy, wise, and able to deal with all the #$%%^ that comes at her all day.

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