Jobs and the Future of Work

Your smartphone is distracting you at work. Even if it’s switched off

Having your phone on your desk is distracting your workflow. Image: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Shana Lebowitz
Strategy Reporter, Business Insider
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I could start this article with a quip about how my phone is sitting right next to me as I'm writing about the dangers of having your phone sitting next to you at work. (#irony!) But that wouldn't be especially interesting.

Now, if I started this article by saying that my phone was somewhere else — say, in my purse or in another room in the office — that would be truly horrifying.

In fact, it's a horror story that hundreds of people recently lived through.

The people were participants in a study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, and described in The Harvard Business Review. The conclusion is that having your phone nearby — even if it's not buzzing or ringing, and even if the power is off — can hurt your performance.

How smartphones affect our memory and intelligence. Image: University of Chicago

The creepiest part? You may not even realize just how distracting your phone can be.

For the study, the researchers asked hundreds of people to work on two different cognitive tasks. Sometimes people were asked to leave their phones on the desk; sometimes in their pocket or bag; sometimes in another room. In all cases, sounds and vibrations were turned off.

Results showed that people performed best on the tasks when their phones were in another room. Even when participants were asked to turn their phones' power off, they still performed better when their phones were out of sight.

Yet when the researchers asked participants later whether the location of their phone had affected their performance, most said it hadn't. That suggests our phones are influencing our behavior in ways we might not even be consciously aware of.

The researchers also found that certain people were more susceptible to their phone's negative influence. Participants who agreed with statements like, "I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone" were most strongly affected.

Consider planning to keep your phone in another room while you're working

This research builds on a similar study, published 2015 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. That study found hearing your phone buzz or ring, even if you don't interact with it, can hurt your performance on cognitive tasks.

Based on their findings, the researchers behind the new study say people should consider keeping their phones in another room so they don't interfere with their work. But it's probably best to plan ahead of time when you'll leave your phone behind and for how long.

Have you read?

The researchers cite a 2014 study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, that found people became increasingly anxious when they were unexpectedly separated from their phones and forced to hear them ring.

Bottom line: Even if you think you're functioning perfectly fine, thank you very much, with your phone sitting next to you, you're probably not.

Consider designating some phone-free time blocks to improve your concentration. If the thought of doing that makes you anxious, consider telling friends and family so you're less worried about missing something important.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Jobs and the Future of WorkIndustries in Depth
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