How Smartphones Harm Productivity – and How to Fix It

Smartphones are 21st century cigarettes, eating into our time and even damaging our health. Something must give. This is how we’re going wrong – and what we must do about it.
Smartphones and productivity

Here’s the reality: most of us are guilty of using our smartphones too much. Be it checking emails, reading the news, scrolling through social media feeds, replying to WhatsApp messages or watching videos on YouTube, we now spend too much time glued to our pocket-sized screens.

In fact, the figures are pretty shocking. Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, conducted a national study and found that the average amount of time spent online on a smartphone is now 2 hours 28 minutes. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the figure was even higher for adults aged between 18 and 24 – at some 3 hours 14 minutes.

That’s a staggering amount of time from our days. But is it as bad as it sounds?

Let’s start by giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. The smartphone is replacing old ways of doing things. So while the figure appears extremely high, we can put some of this down to mediums for old habits being replaced by new ones. For example, we now scroll through online news apps instead of sitting down to read a newspaper. What’s more, some of that time will take advantage of productive tools. For example, many mobile apps allow us to study from the palm of our hand – something we couldn’t have dreamt of before the advent of the smartphone.

So it would be amiss to suggest it’s all unproductive time. But the reality is that doesn’t explain away enough. We’re simply using smartphones too much. And as we tally up the lost time, it’s clear we’re harming our productivity to a disturbing extent.

The Art of Smartphone Distraction

Whilst our total usage of smartphones is high, the number of instances in which we check them is perhaps even more shocking. The same research from Ofcom found that we check our phones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day.

This has unquestionable implications for productivity. Indeed, results of research on self-reported productivity indicate that smartphone addiction and actively checking phones tend to decrease productivity both at work and at home. And it seems we’re pretty honest about the personal consequences too. According to Ofcom, more than half of us (54%) admit connected devices interrupt face-to-face conversations with friends and family.

But the real problem for productivity here is the disruption of our flow of concentration.

Back in 2015, a group of researchers at Florida State University set out to explore this issue more closely. Specifically, the researchers wanted to assess the impact that receiving mobile notifications had on levels of attentiveness.

The results were clear-cut. When participants received a phone call, the probability of them making errors in their test task increased by some 28%. Similarly, when they received text messages, participants made 23% more errors than they did before receiving them.

But what’s more remarkable is that according to the research, the rate of distraction error was as high as it would be even if they had answered or responded to the calls and texts. In other words, it seems that just the mere noise and suggestion of a notification in our pockets or on our desks is enough to break our concentration.

This is significant because although the moment of interruption from a notification is short, it has much more protracted impact on our thought process. Once our ‘flow’ of concentration is broken, it takes much longer to return to the same level of productivity.

Sleep, Smartphones and Productivity

But we’re not only using our smartphones too much during the day. We’re also using our mobiles in excess before we go to sleep. According to Ofcom’s research, 37% of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out – and this figure rises to a whopping 60% for under-35s.

The worry here is that evidence suggests smartphone usage before sleeping has profound adverse effects on sleep quality. And consequently, this poses problems for our productivity during our waking hours.

Research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that using light-emitting electronic devices like smartphones before bedtime has six adverse effects. It prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, suppresses our levels of sleep-promoting melatonin, and it interferes with our internal body clock.

What’s more, using a device like a smartphone before bed was shown to reduce our amount and delay the timing of REM sleep. That’s the deepest stage of sleep – the stage of sleep that helps brain recovery and memory. As a corollary of these adverse effects, the research demonstrated a significant reduction in alertness the following morning.

It all suggests we’re damaging our productivity through using our smartphones just before sleeping. And if the productivity impact isn’t enough to convince you, the biological impact should at least give you food for thought.

How to Kick the Smartphone Habit

So how can you kick the habit? When you’ve formed firmly engrained smartphone habits, changing them for the better can be a real challenge. That’s a why a few simple steps can help provide structure to this pursuit.

#1: Set a mobile usage schedule

Begin your pursuit by setting out when you want or need to be using your mobile – and when you shouldn’t. This provides some clear personal parameters for your usage and sets the landscape for your future productivity gains. It also provides a good basis for monitoring how you’re doing versus your allocated smartphone time.

#2: Switch off notifications wherever possible

As already mentioned, even the noise, rumble or light of a notification is enough to break our flow of concentration. Turn off push notifications you don’t need to receive and enjoy a more undisrupted work or creative environment. The productivity gains may just surprise you.

#3: Make bedtime a smartphone-free zone

Eliminating smartphones from our bedtime routines can help improve sleep quality and increase alertness and productivity during waking hours. I recommend putting your smartphone into flight mode 30 minutes before going to bed.

#4: Track your app usage

There are plenty of mobile apps out there that allow you to track your usage. Creating some accountability by tracking your actual usage versus your target usage is a great way to self-encourage progress in kicking old habits.

#5: Eliminate home screen distractions

We all have apps that tend to absorb our time and don’t necessarily always deliver productive returns on that time. Remove these apps from your home screen. They are an unwelcome enticement back into overusing your mobile and eating into productive time. Instead, put productive apps front and centre. You’re much more likely to make better use of these during dead time.

From Unproductive Smartphone Habits to Smart Habits

Excessive time on our smartphones is harming our levels of productivity. Not only are we spending too much total time on our smartphones every day, but we’re also harming our attentiveness and sleep through distracting notifications, excessive checking and unhealthy bedtime routines.

But smartphones aren’t all bad. Intelligent use of our phones can make us more productive, more informed and more efficient. Establishing some clear boundaries on smartphone usage can therefore help us to seize these opportunities and minimise wasteful, distracting usage.

With a little discipline and resolve, small changes to our smartphone habits can feel like revolutionary changes in our productivity.

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