We've all likely experienced, on more than one occasion, an inability to focus on something at work when we're waiting for someone to text us back, or when we're itching to check out Instagram, or when we can't wait to see if a certain someone emailed us on our personal Gmail account (and we're unable to check our Gmail on our work computer). And so, it makes sense that when we leave our smartphones on and next to us (or on us), we might not be working at our most productive. But what we might not all realize is that even if our phones are completely powered down, and we're not waiting for a text, not jonesing to refresh our email, not itching to check Instagram, our productivity is still suffering, just because our phones are within spitting distance of us.
The following comes from a group of researchers who recently studied the effects of smartphones on employees (and who wrote about their findings in the Harvard Business Review).
In two lab experiments, nearly 800 people completed tasks designed to measure their cognitive capacity ... before completing these tasks, we asked participants to either place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks), keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room. Importantly, all phones had sound alerts and vibration turned off, so the participants couldn’t be interrupted by notifications.
The results were striking: individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks. We saw similar results when participants’ phones were turned off: people performed worst when their phones were nearby, and best when they were away in a separate room. Thus, merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity—on par with effects of lacking sleep.
The reason why we're so strongly affected by our phones, even if they're off, has a lot to do with how our brains our wired.
Research in cognitive psychology shows that humans learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task. For example, even if we are actively engaged in a conversation, we will turn our heads when someone says our name across the room. Similarly, parents automatically attend to the sight or sound of a baby’s cry ... Our research suggests that, in a way, the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names—they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention.
It likely comes as no surprise that those of us who feel a stronger connection to our phones than others suffer the most in this regard (our productivity and creativity drop more than those of us who feel less connected to their phones).
And so, the question arises: what are we to do in order to fight back against our phones and regain some of that productivity loss?
The short answer is turn them off and put them as far away as possible when we're working, especially when doing creative work or work that requires quite a bit of analytical thinking. The long answer is we can do that, plus starting to take note when we're not using our phones for what they're very good at: making phone calls, reading and sending time-sensitive emails, navigating our way to meetings, etc. And once we identify all of those times we don't really need our phones, and are only using them because of that aforementioned gravitational pull, then we can start to ween ourselves off of our phones at these times as well. That is, we can turn them off and move them far away from us more and more and as often as is humanly possible.
Of course, this is easier said than done. But in the long run, our brains, not to mention our managers, will very much appreciate it.
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