friends on phones

It’s that time of year again: Apple just released a new set of iPhones, and everyone’s going bonkers! This is the Next. Big. Thing!

Of course, we said it was the Next. Big. Thing. last year, too. And the year before, and the year before that, and so on—until back before most of you were born. And even though This New Device Will Finally Make Our Lives Perfect, we thought that about the last device. We thought the amazing new iPhone touch screen would make our lives perfect. It didn’t. Size matters, but not when it comes to electronic screens.

Since I’ve been in high-tech, we’ve revolutionized business. Productivity is at an all-time high! But for those of us who aren’t businesses, technology rarely delivers true increases in happiness or quality of life. I work more hours and have less vacation, fewer in-person friends, and less substantive conversations than I used to.

You see, my charmingly curmudgeonly attitude comes from one simple fact: I actually pay attention to whether or not technology delivers on its promise.

Technology Is Killing Your Brain

We have data on the effects of technology. The marketing departments of Silicon Valley want you to believe that technology gives us amazing new capabilities, and that it frees up parts of our brain, which then make us mental giants.

Wrong. They are lying. Research shows more and more that technology is destroying our ability to think. It is not freeing up parts of our brain to do grand new things. That logic was always silly. If you don’t use your legs, they don’t suddenly turn into wings just because you’re not using them for walking. Instead, they atrophy. The parts of your brain that are being displaced by technology aren’t giving you telepathy, they’re giving you dementia. We’re literally making ourselves stupider by using technology.

Let’s review: If you rely too much on GPS, your ability to navigate via mental maps deteriorates and goes away. If you take notes on a laptop or tablet, your retention and integration of the material will be far less than if you take notes—even incomplete ones—with a pad and paper. Reading ebooks from a screen instead of physical books decreases your memory of what you’ve read. And when you take smartphone pictures to capture memories, your brain doesn’t bother to encode the picture in your own visual memory; it assumes the phone did it for you.

Multitasking (supposedly the most-requested feature for the iPhone) is worst of all: It degrades cognitive functioning along every dimension measured. First to go is the ability to assess whether or not your cognition is being degraded.

I’ve consciously decided not to link to the above studies in this episode. Use Google. Do the research yourself instead of having someone hand you the links. You’ll find the studies. Having Google available has led surprisingly few of us to bother using the internet to verify or research things. Our brains assume that because the world’s knowledge is easily accessible, we must have use of it already. That actual detail of looking it up, reading, and understanding seems so unnecessary.

Find Out the Truth About Your Technology

Today’s article is a challenge to learn whether or not your technology works. Make a list of the technology you use most often. Don’t just list “my computer” or “my smartphone”—list the specific applications you use. For example, I use a Markdown-based text editor, text messaging, an email program, several web sites, a to-do list, Facebook, and another social app that we don’t talk about in polite company.

Next to each app, write down the benefit you believe it gives you. Treat your web browser as a platform, not an app, so write down the main web sites you visit.

For example:

  • Markdown–based editor: Fast writing and editing formatted text.
  • Text messages: Coordinate better with friends.
  • Email program: Exchange important information with friends and colleagues.
  • Get educated about the world.

Great. Now do a real test: Stop for a week. That’s right—suspend your use of technology. Live without the technology for a week. You may have to create some new systems, like having someone else triage your email and reply for you. It may take a couple of days for you to figure out how to do some tasks on paper (you may need to ask someone over 40 what a “little black book” is), but I assure you, most of what you need done was done by hand for decades, if not centuries. Sure, if your job is editing video on computer, you’ll need to spend time in your video editing program. But do as much of the rest as possible offline.

Then at the end of the week, evaluate whether your technology actually delivers the benefits. Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Editor: I write and edit faster. App wins.
  • Text messages: Nice for pinging close friends. Has made meeting people harder, since planning ahead actually works quite well. Mixed win. Texts win for pinging close friends. Planning wins for meeting up.
  • Email: Definitely huge time-waster, stress-inducer, and causes the urgent to crowd out the important. Much slower than phone for anything important.
  • Good for a few headlines and targeted news. With physical paper, I end up reading in greater detail about things I wasn’t specifically looking for. Paper wins.

Lessons From the Audit

Sometimes apps are better. Sometimes paper is better. But I’m not just guessing; I’m actually trying both to find the pros and cons. I’ve tested my calendar, my task list, my project management software, Facebook, and that social app that we don’t mention in polite company. You’d be surprised at which ones live up to their promise when deliberately evaluated.

And this is just me evaluating my technology based on the benefits I think it’s giving me. If I take into account the research on how it degrades my brain, my attention span, and my ability to focus, paper might seem better in a few more cases.

Also, please notice that email, social media, and text messaging are incredibly inefficient for anything but sending short, purely informational messages that don’t require a response. They’re seductive because you don’t have to deal with another person live and in front of you. But typing is slow compared to speech. A social media conversation that takes an hour, when read out loud, might actually just be three to four minutes of spoken words.

If you think that email, social media, or texting are making you efficient, they aren’t. They’re slowing you down. And smartphones—which decrease your typing speed by 30 to 40%—just magnify the problem. What these text tools do is let you type in isolation—which may be a benefit, but isn’t efficient.

I call this a “technology audit,” and discuss it in the technology chapter of my book, Get-It-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More. We’re trained by a multi-billion-dollar industry to believe that anything they come out with is automatically worth using. But that just isn’t true.

If your technology isn’t improving your quality of life in measurable ways, get rid of it. Walk down the street without your smartphone. You just might find that the experience is pretty wonderful. There’s a whole world out there that is high-resolution, 3D, and interactive. And it’s all free.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go try out the new iPhone.

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This article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips. It has been republished here with permission.