Every once in a while, I’ll feel my phone vibrate against my thigh, only to pull it from my pocket and discover that I did not, in fact, receive a new notification. Or I’ll be sitting at my desk, trying to work diligently, only to reflexively grab at my phone, even though I just checked it 10 minutes earlier and know that nothing important has happened since then. The smartphone is the bane of productivity, and yet I can’t seem to find the strength to put the fucking thing down.
Productivity experts would have me believe that conquering my smartphone is a matter of discipline — that, through sheer tenacity of will, I can resist the temptation to check my phone long enough to actually get some work done once in awhile.
But a new study from researchers at the University of Texas suggests we’re powerless against our phone’s ability to sap our concentration and productivity. If anything, they found it’s worse than we could ever have imagined. Case in point: Our phones are so distracting that they hinder our concentration and cognitive performance even when we just have them lying nearby and aren’t using them.
The study involved having 800 smartphone users complete a series of tests designed to measure their “cognitive capacity” — or what’s often referred to as “working memory,” the number of discrete pieces of information the human mind can hold and process at a given time. Participants were randomly placed into different groups: ones that were asked to place their smartphone (1) on their desk, (2) in their pocket or bag or (3) in a separate room.
Those who left their phones in the other room significantly outperformed the phones on the desk group, and did slightly better than those who kept their phones in their pocket or bag. Which basically means that we don’t need to be hunched over our phones, 20 photos deep in our Instagram feed to be distracted from more pressing matters. Just knowing our phone is within eyesight, or a quick reach away, is enough to distract us from the task at hand.
“As the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” University of Texas professor and study coauthor Adrian Ward tells Futurity. “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.”
We use the term “smartphone addiction” as a casual, ironic way to describe our always-on culture and to make light of our overuse of technology. But cyber addiction is becoming an increasingly common diagnosis, and the University of Texas study frames our relationship with our smartphones in much the same terms we use to discuss substance abuse.
The participants fixated on their smartphones even when they weren’t using them — much like an alcoholic fantasizes about a stiff drink. The mere thought of opening their phones — and discovering all kinds of funny GIFs, witty text messages and new Tinder matches — was enough to distract them from accomplishing a more important task.
I suppose I feel a little better knowing that I’m not alone. After all, a smartphone is designed to be the ultimate procrastination device. Their glowing blue screens beckon us into a world of infinite entertainment and distraction, with apps and push notifications that activate the reward centers of our brains and keep us jonesing for more. But it’s troubling to know that, if the study is to believed, there’s a large percentage of the population who, like me, has let the mobile internet hack their minds, even when they’re not logged on.