Smartphone use at work

25 Nov 2022

How much do Smartphones Effect our Productivity?

Smartphones enable us to be constantly connected to our friends, family, information, and entertainment.

Holding a huge power to influence our wellness, the use of smartphones may come at a cognitive cost - particularly in the realms of productivity.

The average smartphone user interacts with their phone around 85 times per day - with 91% of people reporting that they never leave home without their smartphone, and 46% reporting that they wouldn't be able to live without one. These figures demonstrate the huge reliance many of us have on our smartphones.

We are constantly surrounded by a multitude of information from our environments, meaning we must recognise, maintain, and process information relevant to the task at hand. The issue is that our ability to do this is, and our attentional resources, are limited.

Because of our phones ability to connect us to every conceivable piece of information the world has to offer, we view them as high-priority stimuli. Resultantly, they have a gravitational-like pull on our attention, and it is because of this pull that smartphones are so paradoxically detrimental to our productivity.

Despite their limitless connectivity, smartphones can occupy our cognitive resources for attentional control, which limits our ability to focus on the pertinent tasks we are trying to complete. Moreover, it has been shown that strategies like turning a phone face down, or even powering it off, do little to reduce this attentional drain, suggesting that they distract us from work even when we are not using them.

It has also been shown that awareness of our phones trying to give us information also limits our ability to concentrate. Research has suggested that when we are aware of pending notifications, or when we hear our phones ring but are unable to answer, our attention is shifted, and our cognitive capacity is constrained to wonder what information it is we are missing. Further to this, some research demonstrated that separation from a ringing phone increases anxiety alongside decreased performance.

As a final finding, research has suggested that our relationship with our phones can dictate how much they will affect our productivity. For people who are heavily dependent on their phones, their presence caused the most distraction and affected work the most. More optimistically, it is these people that would benefit most from their phones removal from working environments.

In summary, the rationale for phones affecting our productivity is clear. But what can we do about it?

Perhaps the most effective strategy would be to set a clear boundary whilst working.

Turing our phones off and not having them visible (whether this be in a different room or in a bag whilst in the office) would be the most dramatic example of this. These steps may be necessary, however, to make the strategy effective. By turning our phones off, they will not be able to relay distracting notifications to us and secondly, the additional effort of having to switch our phones back on and wait to be able to access the internet, social media, etc., would be sufficient to deter many of us from doing so.

Similarly, by removing the visual stimuli and hiding our phones away, we would have less compulsion to interact with them regularly because they would not be in our consciousness as regularly.

In cases where this is not possible however, such as being on call or waiting for an important call, we can use technology to our advantage. Many smartphones now are equipped with ‘do not disturb’ functions that can be activated to prevent distracting stimuli being delivered. We can then modify the settings of these to allow notifications from necessary sources to override the do not disturb roadblocks, whilst preserving the restrictions on non-relevant stimuli, such as social media.