According to a recent study, the answer is yes. In fact, it’s doing it to all of us – even when we consciously ignore our phones.
Today’s smart phones have become such an integral part of our daily lives that most of us feel uncomfortable without them. More than just a portable tool for talking or texting with people, they have morphed into an indispensable hub that connects us to the world, providing instant access to information, entertainment, social stimulation and more. However, these amazing benefits come at a cognitive cost, especially at work.
Research has already been conducted that shows how using our smart phones can distract us from the task at hand (i.e. texting and driving) and reduce our cognitive resources. But a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, the University of California San Diego, and Disney Research suggests we don’t even have to be using our smart phones for this “brain drain” to occur. In fact, two experiments from the study provide evidence that the mere presence of our smart phones may be enough to reduce our available cognitive resources and our performance on the job.
How Smart Phones Cause Brain Drain
Human beings have a finite capacity for absorbing information and acting upon it. Until recently, this didn’t pose much of a problem. Since the advent of the internet, smart phones and social media, our ability to manage information has changed almost overnight. Every day we’re surrounded, deluged, inundated, overwhelmed (choose the adjective of your choice) with unprecedented amounts of potentially meaningful information. Yet, we only have so much brain power to sort through it to focus on the information most relevant to what we’re trying to accomplish. As a result, our attention and our performance suffer.
Here’s how this happens:
- Smart phones provide unlimited access to information
- We used them in virtually all aspects of our lives
- This leads to the assumption that smart phones are relevant to our goals
- We unconsciously give our phones high-priority stimuli status (smart phone signals can activate the same involuntary attention system as hearing our name)
- Smart phones create irresistible interruptions that take our focus off the task at hand
- This reduces our supply of cognitive resources and impairs our performance
- The more we consider our smart phones relevant to the task we’re engaged in, the more cognitive resources we use to pay attention to them
Now here’s the scary part: smart phones can reduce our cognitive resources even when we’re not paying attention to them!
It is well documented that interacting with our smart phones rather than attending to the task at hand causes performance to suffer. For example, much research has been done on smartphone usage while driving or multitasking. Yet, results from this study suggest that smartphones can degrade performance even when we consciously resist using them. The mere presence of our smartphones can trigger a reaction that drains our attentional resources because we’re actively using them to resist the siren call of our phones.
Our smart phones can be in another room, completely out of sight. But if we’re thinking about them, or consciously resisting not using them, it reduces the limited attentional and cognitive resources we have to get the job done.
Be Intentional About Your Phone Usage
Smart phones are essential for getting work done in today’s business world. However, in order to conserve and optimize our attentional and cognitive resources, we need to be more intentional about how we use them.
Start by being more intentional about when to have your phone with you and when to have it completely out of sight. Set parameters for when you will need it and when you can go without it and for how long. Being selective about when to have your phone with you and why helps create the right habits. New habits are the result of new neural pathways in the brain.
Creating new neural pathways requires two crucial ingredients – intention and focused time. Use visual prompts (Post It notes, images, words, etc.) to “poke” your brain to eliminate distractions, especially your phone. These prompts help leverage your good intentions with the time they need to manifest.
Create a simple tracking mechanism to compete with yourself on how well you achieve your phone management goals each day. Humans are highly competitive creatures, so leverage that as well.
Start each day by asking, “Of what I do today, what will move me the most towards winning for the organization, the team, myself?” Link your answers to carving out specific time during the day when you will focus with the phone put completely away. If you can’t physically put your phone away, turn on “do not disturb” while turning off auto reminders and other sounds during the time you need to focus.
The researchers concluded their study by noting that re-defining our relationships with our smart phones can reduce digital distraction and increase available cognitive capacity. For most people, this redefinition is a personal choice. As business leaders tasked with leading our organizations to win, it is becoming the new “must-have” skill.