Your Smartphone Is Stealing Your Brain. Here’s How to Take It Back.

Living in the 21st Century is amazing, and one of the most incredible developments of the past couple decades is the smartphone. I remember watching Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone in 2007. I understood how useful it would be. What I didn’t understand was how that device would change everything for everyone.

Every day, we walk around with a world of information at our fingertips. We have more meaningful connections with far-away loved ones. We are more productive because we have access to a tool we can use in many different contexts. We see the world through a completely different lens, thanks to augmented reality. We are more connected to each other and the world than we ever have been before.

The Price of Connection

All of this connection should be applauded. But the advance isn’t without a price.

Many devices call to us every day. Our phones ping us with notifications. Information bombards us from our phones, wearables, and computers. Although we try to focus on the task at hand, we’re pulled in a million different directions. We now live in a multi-tasking world.

Neuroscientists have established that human beings can’t actually multi-task. When we think we are multi-tasking, we’re actually switching between tasks quickly. Studies have shown that these quick switches in context exhaust the oxygenated glucose in our brains—the same fuel we need to focus on complicated tasks.

This switching has the added effect of leaving us exhausted and unfocused. What do we do as a “refresher”? We take a trip to the coffee maker. We take mental breaks every hour or so to surf social media, check in with our friends, or read the news.

The sad reality is that all of these things are making us even more exhausted and unfocused. It’s not the breaks that are breaking us. Studies have shown that 15-minute breaks every couple of hours add to increased productivity.

The problem is what we are doing with those breaks. These studies show that checking in on social media fractures attention. It produces more perceived multi-tasking, which is an increase in brain drain.

This fractured attention has alarming negative impacts on our efficacy as knowledge workers:

  • Multitaskers experience a 40% drop in productivity across the board.
  • Multitaskers take 50% longer to do a single task.
  • Heavy multitasking can temporarily lower your IQ up to 15 points. (That’s three times the effect of smoking cannabis!)

Smartphones Drive Distraction

Let’s come back to those smartphones. Odds are that you aren’t ignoring your smartphone for most of the day. The average person in the knowledge industry interacts with a phone an average of 85 times a day. We check it when we wake up in the morning, during bathroom breaks, during meetings, while others are addressing us, during meals, when we go to sleep, and even in the middle of the night.

Let’s admit it—we are a distracted workforce. Though focus, efficiency, and effectiveness should be hallmarks of our performance, our attention is being scattered by notifications, small interactions on mobile devices, and the laptops we use as work tools. Studies have shown that it takes more than 25 minutes, on average, to effectively resume a task after interrupting it to focus on our phones.

Connectedness has improved the human existence, but we have done very little to measure the price that connection has cost. Currently, connectedness requires rapid-state multi-tasking and context switching. It’s left us with high rates of neuroticism, impulsivity, and stress susceptibility. We need a change.

Strategies for Balancing Connectedness and Distraction

The good news is that we don’t need to choose between connectedness and distraction. We can make changes to our behavior and working environments to increase our focus, reduce our stress, and provide the energy we need to be effective throughout the day.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Put away your phone.

That’s right. Put it away. Not on your desk, not in your pocket. A 2017 study found that the mere presence of a smartphone on a work desk led to a decrease in cognitive ability. In fact, this study found that the difference in distraction between a face-down phone and a face-up phone with the screen on was minimal.

Why would that be? The study found that the random interruption interval at which a smartphone operates has trained our minds to look to the phone for random interruptions. Each interruption gives us a little connection, a little hit of the brain chemical called dopamine. In a word, we’ve become addicted to interruption. So it doesn’t matter whether the phone is on, in airplane mode, or flipped face-down. Its visible existence saps our focus.

If you can, put your phone in a drawer. Alternatively, you could leave it in your backpack. It might sound crazy or too hard, but I’d invite you to try. Twenty-five years ago, I navigated my senior year in high school without a cellphone or a laptop. In fact, I navigated college without a cellphone. I don’t know how I managed! But the fact that many of us did tells me it is possible to live for a part of our days without a smartphone.

2. Schedule your interruptions.

In this day and age, I don’t think it’s realistic to disconnect completely from the rest of the world. But I do think connections can be managed and scheduled. Create a practice of breaks in the morning or at the end of the workday to check in with social media, text messages, the news, or email. One study found that the simple practice of scheduling multi-tasking events led to increased productivity and a reduced error rate.

Also, take a look at your work calendar. Many knowledge workers aren’t calendar-driven. They have a lot of freedom in how they schedule their days. If that’s the case, imprint some rigor on your day by scheduling time to check your phone when you can afford to be distracted. Put it in your calendar. Make it a recurring event.

Also, take time to take a break from work AND from technology. Go for a walk. Take some time to think about the day without the aid of a smartphone or a laptop. Allow yourself to be bored. This type of unfocused time away from technology will enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

3. Go analog.

For recent on-site meetings, I’ve experimented with leaving technology behind. Even in sales and client meetings, I’ve shown up with notecards and pens. This has allowed me to off-line distractions from those meetings and be fully present. As a result, my recall from the content of those meetings has increased. My ability to offer innovative problem framing on-the-spot has also sharpened. I don’t think I’ve missed anything as a result of going analog. And my ability as a professional has increased.

In fact, in our Ann Arbor Accelerator Cohort, I’ve requested that our young developers leave technology at their desks for all of our meetings. I have seen a marked increase in engagement, focus, and efficiency in those gatherings. All of us enjoy untethering from technology during those times. We’re free to focus on the present and on each other.

4. Manage notifications

There are a lot of other ways to reduce the distractions and interruptions technology imposes on us. Here are a few I’ve experimented with:

  • If you are on a Mac, try turning on “Do Not Disturb” mode when you’re trying to do focused work or in a meeting. In fact, you could do what I do and turn it on after you check email in the morning. To toggle “Do Not Disturb” mode easily, “alt-click” on the Notification Center icon in the menu bar.
  • Turn off all Slack notifications on your mobile device. This is something I did six months ago. The world didn’t end. I didn’t get fired. No projects failed as a result. I haven’t experienced any angry co-workers or clients. Atomic Object in Ann Arbor is still here (and we’re still growing). I know that Slack is an important communication medium, but we don’t need to be connected to it at all times.
  • If you have a wearable device, put it in “Do Not Disturb” and “Theater” mode. It will still track your movement. It will still tell time. But it won’t ping you whenever your Farmville crops need harvesting, someone mentions you on Twitter, or your BFF shoots you a text. It also won’t light up when you lift your wrist.

I wish you luck saying “no” to connectedness periodically so you can say “yes” to increased focus and productivity at work and home. Let me know how you get along or if you find some new ways to eliminate distraction in your schedule.