This week the iPhone turned ten years old. When it was launched, it was nothing compared with today’s devices. At the time the iPhone was first introduced, leading experts and industry leaders all rounded on Apple saying they had invented something that wasn’t necessary and which had no future. Even on my own blog back in2007, I said that Apple had made some mistakes. Whoops…! Those pundits are eating their words now, I assume. After all, since the first iPhone was introduced a further 1.2 billion have been sold. Amazingly, iPhone now has just 14% market share of smartphones. Android phones dominate, with 85% of all smartphones sold in 2016-17 being Android devices. Windows-based phones are only bought by 0.2% of the market. Whichever way you look at the statistics, smartphones are exceedingly popular, and it is hard to imagine what life was like before Apple made its “daring” launch of the iPhone.
In fact, smartphones are so popular there is every chance you are reading this newsletter on a phone. Plus, for most people, it’s the only item they are certain to carry with them out of the house, other than their keys. We are almost umbilically attached to our smartphones.
You probably wonder how you managed to get everything done without a smartphone. Think back just a decade ago and wonder how you kept track of appointments, shared information with business colleagues, or even had any means of actually operating your business life outside the office. Nowadays, most people with a smartphone could run their job with nothing else available to them. As long as you have your smartphone, you have all your contacts, your email history, your files, your data and so on.
It all sounds marvellous. Except for one thing. The little matter of your brain.
New research shows what psychologists have been suspecting for several years now. It turns out that merely being in the presence of your mobile phone REDUCES your cognitive capability. In other words, having your mobile phone with you makes you somewhat stupid. The researchers from the University of Texas found that it didn’t matter whether a smartphone was on silent, face up or face down, switched on or off, the mere presence of a phone reduced the cognitive capabilities of individuals. In other words, a person’s thinking power was reduced by being close to their smartphone.
What the study also found was that if people were separated from their smartphones, if the phones were placed out of sight in a different room to the individual, then their cognitive capabilities were improved.
When you are at work or running a business, you want the greatest cognitive capacity possible. Reduced cognitive ability means you are more prone to making mistakes as well as making poor decisions. Things will take longer to do too because your brain cannot juggle so many things at the same time.
The very device that you hold in your hand that you think has revolutionised your work could well be responsible for lower productivity, errors and poor decisions in the workplace, leading to difficulties that you might not otherwise have needed to deal with.
There is a way out of this, though.
This week I was asked by an “in-flight” magazine to help with an article about work-related stress. One of the things I said was that with the “always on” and “never disconnected” world in which we all live our brains are not getting a rest. And your brain needs a rest in order to process and store information, helping you perform better in the future. I explained to the magazine that a solution to work-related stress in the Internet-age was having a routine. Your brain gets stressed and triggers the production of negative hormones in your body when you lack certainty. Never knowing when the next email will arrive produces stress. So to combat this, people check their email constantly which is counter-productive as it wastes time. If you have a routine, though, such as checking email every day at 8am and 4pm (for example), your brain knows when the next emails will arrive. Certainty is restored, and you don’t have to keep checking, which eliminates the stress.
The research on mobile phones and cognitive capacity leads to a similar notion. That’s because the researchers have identified why the mere presence of a smartphone reduces cognitive capacity. It is because our brains are trying NOT to think of the phone. Having the phone visible, or being able to feel it in your pocket, yet knowing you need to get on with work means that your brain is always trying not to pay attention to the phone because you know consciously that you have important other tasks to get on with. It is this subconscious demand in seeking to avoid thinking about the phone which is taking up precious mental resources, thereby limiting what you can actually think about.
However, when the phone is “out of sight” it is also “out of mind”. There is nothing to “not think about”, which frees up mental capacity, enabling your brain to work better.
So, rather like the reduction of email stress by having a routine, it would seem that you could restore your mental capacity in the office by having a routine of using your mobile phone. You could use it for a while and then take it out to place it in a locker, or put it with an assistant in another office, while you then return to your desk and get on with a task. Get into the habit of putting your phone “out of sight, out of mind”, and you will restore mental capacity, thereby improving decision-making and productivity.
And that’s before we even think about the growing number of studies pointing to the damaging impact of social media on your mental health. Given that almost all social media activity nowadays is conducted on a smartphone, there is a “double whammy” effect of such devices. Not only do they reduce mental capacity, but because you do a lot of social media on them, they are having other negative psychological impacts upon you.
The answer is routine. The human brain likes routine. It is built around regular “circadian” routines. It expects routines and gets in a tizzy if you don’t have one. Have a routine for social media. Have a routine for checking email. Have a routine for using your smartphone. Do that, and your work performance will improve – and you will feel better in yourself, with less stress, reduced anxiety and a lower impact of those negative hormones.