Your smart phone is killing your ability to focus at work – Even if you think it is not.


The researchers cite a 2014 study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior that found people became increasingly anxious when they were unexpectedly separated from their phones and forced to hear them ring.

You read it right.  Your phone is probably hurting your ability to focus at work, according to new scientific research. A recent study published in the journal The Consumer in a Connected World, and describes in The Harvard Business Review, concluded that having your phone nearby- even if it is not buzzing or ringing and even if the power is off- can hurt your performance.

The creepiest part is that you may not even realize just how distracting you phone can be.  For the study, the researchers asked hundreds of people to work on two different cognitive tasks. Sometimes people were asked to leave their phones on the desk; sometimes in their pocket or bag; sometimes in another room. In all cases, sounds and vibrations were turned off.

Interestingly, when the researchers asked participants whether the location of their phone had affected their performance, most said it had not.  That suggests the phones are influencing our behavior in ways we might not even be consciously aware of.

The researchers found that certain people are more susceptible to their phone’s negative influence. Participants who agreed with statements like, ‘I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cell phone’ were strongly affected. Bottom line: Consider planning to keep your phone in another room while you are working. You can also consider designating some phone–free time blocks to improve your concentration.

The research builds on a similar study, published in 20125 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance. That study found hearing your phone buzz, even if you do not interact with it, can hurt your performance on cognitive tasks.

Now I could start writing this article with a quip about how my phone is sitting right next to me and I am writing about the dangers of having your phone sitting next to you at work. (irony!) But that wouldn’t be especially interesting.

Now, if I started this article by saying that my phone was somewhere else – say, in my purse or in another room in the office – that would be truly horrifying.


In fact, it’s a horror story that hundreds of people recently lived through.

Consider planning to keep your phone in another room while you’re working. Based on their findings, the researchers behind the new study say people should consider keeping their phones in another room so they don’t interfere with their work. But it’s probably best to plan ahead of time when you’ll leave your phone behind and for how long.

The researchers cite a 2014 study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior that found people became increasingly anxious when they were unexpectedly separated from their phones and forced to hear them ring.

Bottom line: Even if you think you’re functioning perfectly fine, thank you very much, with your phone sitting next to you, you’re probably not.

Consider designating some phone-free time blocks to improve your concentration. If the thought of doing that makes you anxious, consider telling friends and family so you’re less worried about missing something important.

Put your phone away” has become a commonplace phrase that   is just as often dismissed. Despite wanting to be in the moment, we often do everything within our power to the contrary. We take out our phones to take pictures in the middle of festive family meals, and send text messages or update our social media profiles in the middle of a date or while watching a movie. At the same time, we are often interrupted passively by notifications of emails or phone calls. Clearly, interacting with our smart phones affects our experiences. But can our smart phones affect us even when we aren’t interacting with them — when they are simply nearby?

In  recent research,  Kristen Duke at the Rady School of Management, University of California, San Diego;. Adrian Ward, Assistant Professor of Marketing in the McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin; Ayelet Gneezy, Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Marketing at the Rady School of Management, University of California, San Diego and Maarten Bos, Visiting Scholar at the Department of Social & Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University, USA     investigated whether merely having one’s own smart phone nearby could influence cognitive abilities. In two lab experiments, nearly 800 people completed tasks designed to measure their cognitive capacity. In one task, participants simultaneously completed math problems and memorized random letters. This tests how well they can keep track of task-relevant information while engaging in a complex cognitive task. In the second task, participants saw a set of images that formed an incomplete pattern, and chose the image that best completed the pattern. This task measures “fluid intelligence,” or people’s ability to reason and solve novel problems. Performance on both of these tasks is affected by individuals’ available mental resources.

Researchers’ intervention was simple: before completing these tasks, they asked participants to place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks), keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room. Importantly, all phones had sound alerts and vibration turned off, so the participants couldn’t be interrupted by notifications.

The results were striking: individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks. Researchers  saw similar results when participants’ phones were turned off: people performed worst when their phones were nearby, and best when they were away in a separate room. Thus, merely having their smart phones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity — on par with effects of lacking sleep.

This cognitive capacity is critical for helping the researchers learn, reason, and develop creative ideas. In this way, even a small effect on cognitive capacity can have a big impact, considering the billions of smart phone owners who have their devices present at countless moments of their lives. This means that in these moments, the mere presence of our smart phones can adversely affect our ability to think and problem-solve — even when we aren’t using them. Even when we aren’t looking at them. Even when they are face-down. And even when they are powered off altogether.

Why are smart phones so distracting, even when they’re not buzzing or chirping at us? The costs of smart phones are inextricably linked to their benefits. The immense value smart phones provide, as personal hubs connecting us to each other and to virtually all of the world’s collective knowledge, necessarily position them as important and relevant to myriad aspects of our everyday lives. Research in cognitive psychology shows that humans learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task. For example, even if we are actively engaged in a conversation, we will turn our heads when someone says our name across the room. Similarly, parents automatically attend to the sight or sound of a baby’s cry.

Research finding suggests that, in a way, the mere presence of our smart phones is like the sound of our names — they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention. If you have ever felt a “phantom buzz” you inherently know this. Attempts to block or resist this pull take a toll by impairing our cognitive abilities. In a poignant twist, then, this means that when we are successful at resisting the urge to attend to our smart phones, we may actually be undermining our own cognitive performance.

Are you affected? Most likely. Consider the most recent meeting or lecture you attended: did anyone have their smart phone out on the table? Think about the last time you went to the movies, or went out with friends, read a book, or played a game: was your smart phone close by? In all of these cases, merely having your smart phone present may have impaired your cognitive functioning.

Researchers’ data also show that the negative impact of smart phone presence is most pronounced for individuals who rank high on a measure capturing the strength of their connection to their phones — that is, those who strongly agree with statements such as             “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cell phone” and “It would be painful for me to give up my cell phone for a day.” In a world where people continue to increasingly rely on their phones, it is only logical to expect this effect to become stronger and more universal.

Researchers are clearly not the first to take note of the potential costs of smart phones. Think about the number of fatalities associated with driving while taking talking on the phone or texting, or of texting while walking. Even hearing your phone ring while you are busy doing something else can boost your anxiety. Knowing we have missed a text message or call leads our minds to wander, which can impair performance on tasks that require sustained attention and undermine our enjoyment. Beyond these cognitive and health-related consequences, smart phones may impair our social functioning: having your smart phone out can distract you during social experience and make them less enjoyable.

With all these costs in mind, however, we must consider the immense value that smart phones provide. In the course of a day, you may use your Smartphone to get in touch with friends, family, and coworkers; order products online; check the weather; trade stocks; read HBR; navigate your way to a new address, and more. Evidently, smart phones increase our efficiency, allowing us to save time and money, connect with others, become more productive, and remain entertained.

So how do we resolve this tension between the costs and benefits of our smart phones?

Smart phones have distinct uses. There are situations in which our smart phones provide a key value, such as when they help us get in touch with someone we’re trying to meet, or when we use them to search for information that can help us make better decisions. Those are great moments to have our phones nearby. But, rather than smart phones taking over our lives, we should take back the reins: when our smart phones aren’t directly necessary, and when being fully cognitively available is important, setting aside a period of time to put them away — in another room — can be quite valuable.

With these findings in mind, students, employees, and CEOs alike may wish to maximize their productivity by defining windows of time during which they plan to be separated from their phones, allowing them to accomplish tasks requiring deeper thought. Moreover, asking employees not to use their phones during meetings may not be enough. Our work suggests that having meetings without phones present can be more effective, boosting focus, function, and the ability to come up with creative solutions. More broadly, we can all become more engaged and cognitively adept in our everyday lives simply by putting our smart phones (far) away.