Last month, a student looked me in the eyes like I was about to cause her physical harm, and begged: “Please don’t do that to me, Mr. Nichols.”
I had asked her to give me her phone until the end of class.
She was on it every time I turned to the board. Every time I walked to the other side of the room. I asked her to stop twice. When I finally asked her to hand it over, she said please don’t do that to me.
Talk about dystopian.
I taught at a school 120 miles west of Denver. As teachers, phones are our greatest struggle. We watch the minds of children turning to mush in front of us, their fingers twitching like addicts when they're away from their phones for any length of time.
Most adults I know are no better. Denverites run around like zombies, faces smashed into phones.
The social norms of our phone-obsessed society are out of control. It’s now acceptable to be talking to someone in any public setting, then disappear into your phone the second they stand up. We seem to live in perpetual dread of the present moment, desperate for distraction.
Too often when I’m at a Denver cafe with a friend, chatting, and I get up to go to the bathroom, my friend will rip the black hole of their phone off the table and hop in before I even turn my back. Like they had been waiting the whole time for me to get up so they could drink deeply of the delicious dopamine that I had deprived them of by talking to them.
It makes me want to shake them and yell: “Look around! Look at this cafe, the art! These beautiful people! The beautiful city of Denver! That guy is picking his nose! Isn’t that funny! Participate in what’s in front of you! Maybe you’ll catch the eye of a gorgeous stranger, waiting for you to smile at them and carry them off to romance. You’re laughing and spitting in the face of serendipity by looking at your lap!”
The worst part is I’m a hypocrite, guilty of this myself. It’s just so tempting… The phone is right there… Who knows what I’m missing… This conversation is getting boring…
There is hope
Luckily, there is a step you can take to immediately be more present, focused, and measurably smarter.
In a 2017 study by the Association for Consumer Research, researchers split participants into three groups:
- People with their phones on desks, face down and silent.
- People with their phones in the room with them, under the desk in a bag.
- People with their phones in another room.
They were then asked to solve a series of logic-based puzzles. The data collected showed that having your phone out on the desk on silent (when performing a task that your phone is not needed for) can reduce your working memory capacity by 11% and fluid intelligence by 7%.
You are a smarter human being when you are in rooms your phone is not in.
To put this in the plainest terms possible, this means that anytime your phone is around while you are doing anything you don’t need your phone for, you are a measurably stupider human being.
You Don’t Need Your Phone To Converse
One of my favorite phone-irrelevant tasks is the oft-dreaded social situation. COVID has given us a great excuse to stop participating in them, but as the world opens back up, we’ll be in them more and more.
If your phone is in arm’s reach (even facedown on silent) less of you is available. Every single one of us has finite amounts of brainpower that we can direct towards a given task. When your phone is present, some of that brainpower is not available. No matter what.
You may be saying “not me! I always work with my phone on my desk, and I get all manner of stuff done!”
Yes, you too (and me). This is my favorite part, and it’s about hard data, not personal experience. At the end of the study, researchers asked every participant to rate how much they thought the presence or lack of presence of their phone affected their performance. 75.9% said “not at all” and 85.6% said that it “neither helped nor hurt their performance.” Yet, the group with phones out of the room measurably outperformed the group with their phones on the desks.
The data didn’t lie, the people did. They just didn’t know it.
This is one of my favorite biases. Did you know that around 80% of people think that they’re above-average drivers?
Do you know how many people ARE above-average drivers? Exactly half.
Most People Believe That They’re Exempt
This number pops up again and again in psychological studies. It’s a phenomenon that researchers have dubbed Illusory Superiority. 70–80% of people think they’re above-average at everyday tasks, and yet we continue to have routine accidents at a normal rate.
We have to get ahead of ourselves and be honest, even if we don’t know we’re lying.
What I love most about the phone study is that the people with phones in the other room received an immediate boost. Imagine the compounding effects of making this a habit! Leaving your phone at home and biking to the cafe to meet your friend. Asking the bartender to stash your phone behind the bar next time you’re on a night out (remember nights out before the pandemic?)
Nothing to distract you means that you will be a more present friend, lover, or sibling.
Give this a try next time you’re doing something that doesn’t involve your phone. Leave the dissatisfaction brick somewhere you cannot see or reach it, preferably in another room. You will think about your phone immediately the first time you try this. You will get up to check it. Keep it in the other room after you’ve checked, and go back to your task.
Eventually, the inconvenience of having to get up to check whatever pointless social media minutia you were thinking about will override the desire to disappear into your screen. Pretty soon, you learn to let the desire pass and keep doing what you were doing. Painting a mural. Writing the great American novel. Cheese. You’re enjoying it in a way you didn’t know was possible.
I’m Happy To Report That It’s Life-Changing
After stumbling on this study, I always leave my phone in the other room when I write and leave my phone at home when I walk around the neighborhood on writing breaks. This has significantly upped my productivity, giving me the mental space to write1–2 extra articles per week.
You too can recapture your brain. Think of it as a video game, with distinct levels.
Level 1: leave your phone on silent and out of sight when trying to do anything you don’t need it for.
Level 2: leave your phone in a different room. Above average, but you’re not going to beat the game with above average. To get to the final boss-killing status, you must attempt level three.
Level 3: leave your phone at home and go away for a while. Take a walk. Go on a bike ride. Go for a hike. Be away from the time-sucking brick.
Level 4: pretty much the same as level three, but ramped up. Leave your phone at home and go into a *gasp* social situation! (you know, post-COVID). Provided of course you know where you’re going, and how to get back. Without anything to escape into, you’ll be more present than you ever thought possible.
Level 5: I suppose, would be flinging your phone into a lake and going off-grid. I haven’t made it here yet, but I dream about it every day.
We forget that “I didn’t have my phone” is a valid excuse. We feel terrified to step away, not knowing if every situation we enter will be entertaining enough that we won’t need to escape. Take it from me though, leaving your phone out of arm’s reach is addictive. Once you start saying “I don’t have that evil thing” it feels like ripping shackles off your mind.
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