As the parent of adult children, I try hard not to give too much unsolicited advice. Mainly because I remember how annoyed I used to be when my own parents dared to counsel me when I was a (stupid) 20-something. Nevertheless, I broke my pledge when my kids got their first jobs after college. My piece of advice? Put away your cellphones, and don’t look at them except during lunchtime.
That’s because like everyone else in their generation (and most of society at large), my kids are addicted to their cellphones —although they would disagree. They say that they use their phones to check facts and do research as part of their jobs, and that may be true. But I would venture to bet that checking social media is also part of their routines. There’s even a cute acronym for this constant need to check emails, texts, and social media: FOMO, or fear of missing out. And it’s a big problem because it may be chipping away at how well we do our jobs, as well as our productivity.
As Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer scientist and author of the book “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “To have an excellent career, you need periods of uninterrupted concentration to produce work of unambiguous value. Many jobs lack a clear measure of value, so employees treat busyness as a proxy for productivity and let email distract them from real work.”
Sometimes, it’s not even enough to put your cellphone in a desk drawer or tuck it away in a backpack or briefcase. In a recent study at Harvard University, researchers wanted to find out whether merely having a smartphone nearby could influence cognitive abilities. They asked participants to either place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks), keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room.
The results were striking: Individuals who completed their tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks. In fact, the research showed that merely having a smartphone out on the desk led to a small but significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity that was on par with the effects of lacking sleep.
Not only can cellphones reduce productivity, their constant use can make a terrible impression on others. Many managers I’ve spoken with complain frequently about their employees staring at their cellphones when there’s work to be done. What do customers think if technicians are constantly checking their cellphones in the field? Will they be understanding, or will they think they’re lazy and unprofessional? What do bosses think if employees whip out their phones in the middle of a meeting to check messages or social media? Will they think they’re disengaged or uninterested? Or just rude? Either impression is not good.
Constant cellphone use can also be a safety hazard, particularly when driving. According to the National Safety Council, using a cellphone while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes in the U.S. annually. Texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving under the influence of alcohol, and one out of every four traffic crashes that occur in the U.S. are caused by cellphone usage.
Even with all these negatives, there is no question that cellphones can be extremely beneficial. Can most even remember what it was like to have to stop and ask for directions or find a pay phone to call home? I would certainly never want to go back to a life without cellphones. But I am also nostalgic about the “good old days,” when friends, families, and colleagues could have a meal or a conversation that was not interrupted by some sort of notification. I am afraid that time has passed, which in many ways, is a real shame.
Publication date: 5/13/2019