If you’re like me, your smartphone or tablet is both a blessing and a curse. It is great to find directions to a restaurant or look up a definition or find an answer to a question that’s stuck in the back of your mind. There’s an absolutely endless amount of information we can use to learn how to cook meals or how to get over a nagging cold soon enough to make it to work on Monday.
However, there’s a limited number of hours in the day, and there’s a limited amount of information our brains can absorb and make sense of during those hours. The day can run away from us when we spend too much time staring at our screens, can’t it? We go on Facebook and click on one profile, which leads us to a video or story, which leads us to another story. Before we know it, a few hours have flown by!
I think this explains why the research I looked at this week makes so much sense to me. When our phones are in our hands, there’s an entire world there waiting for us, but instead of increasing our knowledge and productivity, they actually slow us down.
Last month, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin studied the abilities of 800 smartphone users to complete tasks when their smartphones were nearby compared to the same user’s ability when their smartphones were not nearby. In the first experiment performed, subjects were placed at a computer and given a series of tests requiring full concentration to score well.
The tests were designed to judge the subject’s ability to hold and process data. All the participants were told to put their phones on silent. One group put their phones facedown on the desk beside them, a second group put them in their pockets or bags, and the third group left their phones in another room. The group with their phones on the desk scored the lowest.
The group with phones nearby scored slightly better than the first group. However, the group that kept their phones in the other room had the best scores. They showed a significantly higher cognitive capacity than the other groups.
“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” said Adrian Ward, author of the study. “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process-the process of requiring yourself to not think about something-uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”
To me, it’s almost as if, when our phones are within seeing or reaching distance, there’s a part of our brains that remains “in reserve” and prepared for the information overload it could receive at any moment from the internet or social media. There are certain instinctual mechanisms at work within us we simply can’t yet understand or explain, and I think this is one of them. Why would our brains choose to focus on problem-solving or memory when the answers we need are ready and waiting to be delivered to us?
Should we fight the urge to stay off our phones?
While smartphones do offer us plenty of possibilities, they really can’t answer all our questions. They can tell us where the nearest hiking trail is, but they can’t tell us if we’re actually in the mood for going. They can show us pictures from a friend’s vacation, but they can’t tell us whether we want to visit the same place. How how we interpret the information we receive and how we feel about the world around us are always going to be personal, internal decisions.
Our feelings and personal choices aren’t something to make light of or brush off. They’re at the essence of who we are and what guides us from one decision to the next. That’s why I think it’s key to balance the information we can receive online with time and personal attention to our specific feelings, needs and urges. Sometimes, problem-solving has to come from within to truly get at the heart of a matter.
What can we do to be more focused?
You don’t have to leave your phone on silent on the opposite side of the house in order to get work done. If you’re expecting an important call, leave the door open and your ringer on. If that’s not an option, place your phone in a desk drawer or on the opposite side of the room if you really need to focus on a specific task. Yes, it may seem silly at first, but if doing this makes your work any easier, why not give it a try? Distractions have never been easier to find or harder to ignore than they are today. I recommend trying meditation and controlling the sound in your environment to take back control.
I can see my phone right now in the corner of my eye (see how easy this is!), and I have a whole list of things in my head that I could get done with “one little peek.” The problem is that it’s almost never one and done. Even if we don’t get lost in our phones, we have to remind ourselves not to. That requires time and brainpower. Let’s all save ourselves some trouble. When we need to focus, let’s leave our phones out of reach and out of sight.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at email@example.com with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.