If your phone is within reach, it’s distracting you

Daily Briefing

If your phone is within reach, it’s distracting you

Smartphones invade every aspect of our lives, even when we aren’t using them.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, researchers Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos discuss their study of how smartphones affect our ability to perform cognitive tasks.

Their findings suggest a person’s “fluid intelligence”—the ability to reason and solve problems—is affected by the “mere presence” of a smartphone.

The researchers asked participants to either leave their phones in another room, leave them in their bags, or place them on the table in front of them (silenced, face-down) before performing a series of tasks consisting of problem solving, memorization, and recall.

The results indicated that participants who had their phones on the table in front of them performed the worst on the tasks, with their cognitive capacities mirroring those of someone lacking sleep. Participants who had their phones in another room performed best.

Additionally, participants who recognized a strong connection with their phones—those who strongly agreed with statements such as “It would be painful for me to give up my cell phone for a day”—were more severely affected by the presence of their phones during cognitive tasks.

Research in cognitive psychology may partially explain the results, the authors write. We see our phones as being relevant to nearly every aspect of our lives, and people “learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task,” the researchers write. They liken the presence of our phones to the sound of our name spoken across a room: we can’t help but shift our attention, even if we were focusing on something else.

But how do we reconcile this research to the indisputable value of our phones? After all, our phones connect us to one another, help us with directions, and allow us to search the web and become better-informed citizens.

The authors acknowledge that phones do serve useful purposes in our lives, but nevertheless urge us to carve out quiet time where we put our phones in another room.

They recommend that students ditch their phones during class and employees leave phones at their desks for meetings. Blocking out phone-free time in your day will not only relieve anxiety, but will also allow you to be more focused and engaged in your work, they write (Duke et al., Harvard Business Review, 3/20/18).

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