Takeaway: The answer to whether a smartphone makes you more productive comes down to what jobs to “hire” your smartphone to do for you.
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes, 15s. Some parts are skimmable, though.
Yesterday I saw the new Star Trek movie with my girlfriend and I thought about my smartphone, which was at home, for a significant portion of it. I thought about what I was missing out on – texts, twitter alerts and @mentions, emails, and everything else. Throughout the movie I was restless; shifting around in my seat, and my mind wandered to a cellphone paradise chockfull of alerts, beeps, and buzzes…
You are slowly walking around in a cellphone paradise. You pull your phone out of your pocket. 67 new alerts. 32 people retweeted your tweet! 20 like your Facebook status! 15 new followers on twitter! You’re famous! You’re a rockstar!
Wait, a *fling* sound just came from your phone! What’s this? 10 new email messages!? Three from people telling you how great you are? One from Groupon with an amazing coupon for 95% off at Starbucks? Four responses from jobs you just applied for? One from Amazon that your order just shipped?
As you look up from your phone, you begin to smile as you slowly spin around, taking in the digital landscape around you. You’re a pioneer. A rebel. A digital maverick.
You are a God amongst mere mortals in the digital age. A king in a digital paradise.
A New Friend
When I bought my first iPhone (the one pictured on the right), my cellphone stopped being my cellphone and became, to put it weirdly, another appendage. One that was more useful than most of my other appendages.
Sure, it’s pretty cool how my thumb allows me to grab things, but can it take pictures and connect with people from literally all around the world? And sure my nose is cool and all, but it can really only do one thing – there’s no way it’s ever going to be able to play music, tell the time, play video games, or be useful as a meditation timer.
My new buddy did so much, so beautifully, that I never wanted to let him go. He was as good as a part of me.
So, is that a good or a bad thing?
A smartphone can feel like a paradise – a rich, engrossing dreamscape that connects you with dozens or even hundreds of people at one time. When you’re plugged in, you’re entertained, engrossed, engaged, and connected. You direct nearly all of your attention at your smartphone, and in return you’re able to connect with all of your friends, learn what they’re doing, and have access to almost every person and piece of information in existence. When you think about it, that’s absolutely incredible.
But in my opinion, the opposite view is just as valid. If you could watch yourself using your smartphone, it would look as though you’re a silly, small person staring at a tiny little screen providing you with little pellets of stimulation and validation. Sure, your smartphone allows you to connect with the world, but is that really what the world is about? Why become engrossed with a tiny screen when there is even more beauty all around you?
The book RAPT (a book about managing your attention) puts it nicely when it says, “the world’s most beautiful garden might as well be as asphalt parking lot if you pound through it while barking into your cell phone”. But I would add, if you’re walking through an asphalt parking and your significant other just texted you about how much they love you, you might as well be in the world’s most beautiful garden.
I think the answer to whether a smartphone makes you more productive stems from what jobs to “hire” your smartphone to do, and how many black holes you fall into along the way to getting those jobs done.
How much more productive does your smartphone make you?
Since your smartphone is a tool, the extent to which it makes you more productive depends entirely on how you use it. As part of this productivity experiment, I usually save my highest-leverage smartphone activities for the one-hour a day I use my phone, like texting friends back, checking my voicemail, making important phone calls, and very quickly catching up on Instagram.
Every single piece of technology in your life is a tool – nothing more, nothing less. You can choose whether you want to use it to entertain you, make you more productive, or whether you want to waste time with it. Of course you have a number of habits on how you use technology ingrained in you that you may fall back on automatically, but you ultimately have control over whether to use technology to make you more productive or not.
I think there are two very important questions you can ask yourself if you want to become more productive when you use your smartphone.
- What jobs do you hire your smartphone to do for you? I think this is a question worth asking when it comes to all technology. Do you “hire” your smartphone to just keep up with your friends, or do you hire it to be your GPS and mobile Internet device? Being mindful of how your actual usage syncs up with what you hire your phone to do is a great way to become more productive on your smartphone.
- How often do you fall into a black hole of productivity? If you’re a lot more disciplined than I am, you can safely skip this question. Often I fall into a productivity “black hole”, where I flip my mind to “autopilot” and bounce around between apps without thinking about it. If you often fall into a black hole of productivity on your smartphone, be more mindful the next time you use it.
How not having a smartphone has affected my productivity
- I have more RAM.1 I’m able to remember a lot more short-term things, like what day it is, the purpose of my day, the things I have to do, and so on. I mull over ideas in my mind instead of filling that time with my cellphone.
- It’s easier to chunk together tasks. I’m a big fan of chunking together tasks, like blowing through 30 emails at once instead of dealing with them as they come in. It’s easier to resist the temptation of dealing with things as they come in when you are not alerted by everything.
- It’s much easier to focus. Since I’m not distributing much attention to my phone anymore, most of my attention goes toward what I am working on in any moment. This is great fertilizer for becoming more mindful as well.
- I’m bored more often. I almost put this in the “con” section, but it’s sometimes a good thing to be bored. When you have time to be bored, you discover new thoughts and ideas, which end up making you more productive.
- I’m less connected, and it takes me longer to respond to texts, emails, and tweets. I think this goes without saying. When you walk around with a small computer in your pocket all day, you will get stuff done quicker.
- I waste more time on the computer. To be honest, I enjoyed the little pellets of validation my iPhone dispensed to me over the course of a day. Since I don’t get these from my phone anymore, I find myself constantly checking email, iMessage, and twitter on my computer for notifications.2
- I feel lonely in the morning without my phone. When I used to use my smartphone constantly, every morning I checked the previous day’s sports highlights, twitter, email, and much more, all before I got out of bed. While it’s nice to wake up more slowly, I do feel lonelier in the morning without as much stimulation.
- I’m showing “withdrawal” symptoms. I often notice myself instinctively reaching for my pocket when my phone isn’t there anymore, reflexively checking my phone’s screen for new texts and alerts when it’s off. It hasn’t been easy living without it.
I guess it’s no surprise that walking around all day with a mini-computer attached to your hip rewires how you think.
I have always juggled multiple priorities, like work, school, relationships, and other things that take up chunks of time. Looking back, I’m beginning to realize that my smartphone has been akin to water that has filled the gaps of my schedule for the last several years. Whenever I have been in an awkward elevator ride, my hand would instinctively draw my phone out of my pocket to see what was new in the world. Whenever I had a few minutes to spare, whether waiting in line at the grocery store or waiting for someone in the park, I would tap and pull-to-refresh until I had another distraction to jump to.
My smartphone has always saved me from boredom and awkwardness. But upon a bit of reflection, I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing.
RAM photo source: Blinde 8.