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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

Your Smartphone Is Literally Making You Worse at Thinking (Even When You're Not Touching It)

laptop, notebook, and smartphone placed face down on a desk
JGI/Daniel Grill/Getty Images

A former co-worker used to appear and ask if she could offload her phone. There were some days when she didn’t want to have it anywhere near her. If she wanted to really focus, it wasn’t enough to put it in a drawer or shove it in a bag. She wanted it gone. So she’d walk across the office and drop it off, where it would remain several rows of cubicles away from her for the next few hours.

Like this friend of mine, you know your phone’s distracting. When you see a notification light up on the screen or hear the telltale buzz, your attention’s drawn toward the tiny device that carries outsize importance. But what you may not have realized is that even without any notifications, your phone could be sapping your ability to focus on other tasks, according to research from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones,” Adrian Ward, a professor at McCombs, is quoted as saying in a university news post. “The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”

That’s right, that phone hanging out face down on your desk right now? Not as harmless as you thought.

Ward and his colleagues had hundreds of smartphone users complete a series of tests measuring cognitive capacity with their phones stored in various places. They found that those who left their phones in the lobby with the rest of their stuff before entering the lab had the best results. They did way better on the assigned tasks than those who brought their phones in and set them face down on their desks “for use in a later study” and slightly better than those who brought all their belongings into the testing room and kept their phones in a pocket or bag.

The trend the researchers observed in their experiments “suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” Ward said. “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.”

In other words, your phone’s screen doesn’t have to be visible for the device to have a negative impact on your thinking. It doesn’t even have to be on. Those kinds of “intuitive ‘fixes’…are likely futile,” the researchers write in their paper, published in the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research. “However, our data suggest at least one simple solution: separation.”

Because even if you think you’re giving your full attention to whatever it is you’re working on, it’s possible that, as the researchers write, “part of [your] brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone.”

Finding a way to say goodbye might help you truly focus. You could leave your phone in your bag and walk away from your desk to a common workspace, if your office has one. Or you could pawn your phone off on a co-worker once in a while (with the hope that your phone won’t be as distracting as their own device). Or maybe you want to take initiative and ask your office manager about creating a phone drop for people who want to separate from their devices during the day.

Whatever you decide, just keep in mind that if you really want to keep your phone out of mind, you’ll have to keep it out of sight and ideally out of reach.