Are you being impacted by Cognitive Disruption? I bet you are…

A survey by Pew this past January revealed that 77% of all Americans have smartphones and 92% of all Americans under age 35 have smartphones.   Those percentages would only climb if you added “employed/working ” to the demographic surveyed.  The bottom line is nearly every one of your employees has a smartphone and they are on them a lot.  We all are on them a lot.

But how is it affecting our productivity at work?    A new study by McCombs School of Business in Austin, TX revealed that just having your phone near you can have a negative impact on your ability to focus and concentrate.   One of the reasons for this is that we all have a limited amount of cognitive capacity in our brains (some much lower than others).  And, any cognitive resources that are being sucked up by our smartphone (or any other electronic device) are impacting us somewhere else.

What was really interesting about the study is the idea that just the presence of a smartphone had a negative impact on cognitive performance.  The more visible the phone was the more it impacted the individual’s ability to concentrate and perform tasks, do critical thinking, solve problems, etc.

Today, how common is it to see smartphones face up in front of people during meetings?  Then, the first time it goes off, the phone gets silenced and flipped over face down.  Guess what?   The research showed just having the phone visible even in silent mode still has a significant impact on the owner’s capacity to process information and complete tasks.   So even face down in silent mode it is zapping energy from your brain.   If it was someone else’s phone is didn’t matter as much.

Another test was performed to see how the individuals would respond if the phones were out of sight.     They tested three different out of sight locations; in a desk, in a pocket or bag, and in another room.   What the study found was the cognitive capacity increased the more out of sight it was.   When the phone was placed in another room even the individuals who had identified themselves as being extremely dependent on their smartphones had increased performance.   Placed in their desk, (the easiest to access) had the least impact on cognitive capacity and putting it in a bag or pocket fell about in the middle between the three out of sight locations.

The summary of the research suggested that the more visible and accessible your smartphone is, the more it disrupts your cognitive capacity.  If you are performing tasks that require significant amounts of your cognitive resources and your phone is in clear view, just trying not to think about that phone is draining your brain and impeding your performance.


What can you do?

We understand business owners are increasingly challenged with the impact of smartphones on all levels, including customer relations, effects on employee productivity, and in their own personal lives.  The reality is smartphones and smart technology are only going to grow, so learning how to better manage the situation is the best solution.

The results of this study make a great case for separating yourself from your phone when you want to work on something that requires a lot of your brain’s energy.  But it will take an intentional effort.  We have been longtime proponents of using time blocking to increase productivity.   Consider implementing some time blocking strategies in your smartphone management.

A few examples might be…..

  • For those who are addicted to their phones, challenge them to manage to a schedule of agreed upon times to check their phone. It may help with their initial separation anxiety.
  • During company meetings instead of asking everyone to silence their phones, Clarify a break schedule (allowing smartphone access) and leave phones outside the meeting room (or at least out of sight)
  • It may be a little trickier with client meetings, but if you want to increase the limited cognitive resources your client has to give you try this… Before you start your presentation, visually silence your phone and put it out of sight in front of the group.   At the same time, give them a clear time frame of how long the presentation will last (allowing them to time block their attention to you). Hopefully, your lead will get them to silence their phones too!


What about you?  Have you noticed a cognitive disruption in your business due to smartphones?  What about your personal life?  How are you addressing it?  It is a real issue and we really need to be aware of how it is impacting us.  If you would like to read more on this study here is the link:  McCombs Study

As always we value any comments in the space below.

Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach

1 thought on “Are you being impacted by Cognitive Disruption? I bet you are…”

  1. Another insightful reminder that genuine multitasking does not exist. We have limited cognitive resources. Deploy them thoughtfully and wisely.

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