I’m in it up to my elbows. Carefully wading through the muck of too many unlabeled layers of an inherited and slightly shady Adobe Illustrator file. Quietly humming to myself as I narrow in on that one anchor point that’s causing all of my problems. And then, just barely within my peripheral vision, I see a happy little text message notification pop up onto my smartphone screen.
And I stop what I’m doing.
I don’t fight the impulse as I sit back, let go of every bit of concentration I was using and respond to the blinking siren call of my smartphone.
It might be important.
Someone may need me.
It’s not important. Even if it was, was it worth the disruption of my focus? I turn back to Illustrator and have no idea where I left off. What was I even doing with this file?
Let the backtracking begin.
I guess I’m old now
I was 18 when I got my first cell phone. It was 1998, and in a pinch, you could use the Nokia 6110 to hammer nails. It was blue. It lived in the glove box for a little while. I played a lot of Snake.
It’s been fascinating as a consumer to watch cellphones get bigger, then smaller, and text messaging. I’d spend hours listening to and picking out the right ring-back tone for my friends. Then the screens got more substantial again. Qwerty keyboards and video conferencing features appeared. I remember when iTunes launched.
Now our phones are smart, tiny, streaming TV sets and handheld computers that can shoot and edit video, and it’s rare to find a four-year-old that doesn’t know what to do with a smartphone.
I came into adulthood integrating my cell phone into my life. I cannot imagine how different my relationship to smartphones would be if I’d been born with the device in my hand.
What have you done for me lately?
On the whole, smartphones and social media have made incredible contributions to our society.
Nearly everyone has a camera on them at all times, and they’re ready to use it. People with whom we’d otherwise lose contact are a friend request away. Press a few buttons, and we can have the answers to more questions than my young self would ever have thought to ask.
Ever find yourself stuck in an elevator? First; you call somebody. Second; HOURS of entertainment while you wait.
How much does this constant connection cost us?
Smartphones have changed communication in a big way. So much so that the 2016 American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America™: Coping with Change” survey reported that 86 percent of adults in America are “constant checkers.” Meaning quite literally that they are often or constantly checking their email, text and social media accounts to ensure they don’t miss anything. The same survey reported 45 percent of parents feel that the presence of smartphones keeps them disconnected from their families. Even when they’re together.
In his Globe and Mail op-ed, “I Have Forgotten How to Read,” author Michael Harris shares his concern that he is no longer able to focus on sitting down and just reading a book.
In our screen oriented society, information comes at us fast. It’s not that we don’t read anymore; it’s how we read that has changed, and this change affects the way we think and process information. We expect the interruptions, and we’ll go looking for them ourselves. We’re so caught up in finding that shareable link that we’ve lost the enjoyment of losing ourselves in a literary experience.
Unsurprisingly, just having your smartphone near you while you’re working can factor into your concentration.
A recent study tested the cognitive performance of 800 people based on their proximity to their smartphone. The further away from the smartphone, the better the performance. The best performances came from those who left their devices in another room. Their findings suggest that it’s not only the ready accessibility but that the very presence of smartphones impairs cognitive abilities, relating to the proximity of the device as “like the sound of our names — they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention.”.
This inability to focus is keeping people from producing the meaningful, useful, deep work that is essential for allowing the mind to manifest its capabilities.
Scholars and thought changers throughout history are known to physically distance themselves from distractions and to disconnect from society, friends, and family to produce more thoughtful work. For example, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung built a stone house to hide away in, so he could be undisturbed while he focused on producing articles and books to support his work on analytical psychology.
To be valuable in our economy and to produce the best work possible, we must learn complicated things quickly. We can’t do this kind of deep work if we’re “constantly checking.”
With this information in mind, I can see how the presence of my smartphone plays a character in my professional life. It is my constant companion for indeed I must be reachable at all times.
Someone might need me.
Maybe they don’t.
That text message will be there when I’ve finished my task. I may not need a disconnected house in the country or a weeklong retreat away from all human contact to be productive, but when my smartphone isn’t in use or specifically necessary to a task (say while digging through an Illustrator file), I can put it away. Alternatively, even leave it in another room.
I can unplug myself to create better quality work.
After all, good news can wait. Bad news can find you in the desert.