phone distrction

A Deeper Look At The World Of Phone Distraction

Slightly over five billion people worldwide own a mobile phone. Out of these, around three billion are smartphone users. That’s not so surprising.

I mean, the mobile phone market has seen massive growth in the last few years, and – by the looks of it – it won’t be stopping anytime soon. This means the hand-held devices are part of us now whether we like it or not.

But you know what else is part of us? Phone distraction. It kind of goes without saying.

And it seems like everyone remotely interested in productivity is talking about it. Because let’s face it – phone usage probably ranks high up there on the list of productivity killers.

As such, the internet is littered with enough talk about doing this or that with regards to reducing phone use while working. Of course, they’re helpful to some degree but if you’ve applied them, you know all too well that they don’t always deliver on the peaches and cream they promise.

In this post, I try to examine why phone use is such a thorn in the flesh, common techniques you’ve probably heard about, and research I bumped into recently on why these don’t always work.

Let’s have a look.

The Problem With Phones – Hint: It’s More Than Just the Time We Spend on Them

We all know that we spend a lot of time on our mobile devices – probably way too much than we’d wish to admit. Statistics show that the average phone usage worldwide is slightly over 3 hours per day.

This time is divided into 58 sessions – the average number of times you’re likely to check your phone in a day – most (up to 70%) lasting a little less than two minutes. Of course, that’s problematic in a way since half of these screen unlocks occur while you’re at work too.

But the effect of phones on productivity is way more than just the screen time. It’s about the following three main aspects that are enhanced by our attachment to our mobile phones.

Context Switching

Context switching is that transition between two tasks for those who swear by multitasking. The desire to handle more than one task at a go is so entrenched that according to research, most people average just about 3 minutes on a task before picking up another.

Naturally, that spells doom for productivity. In fact, context switching has been found to reduce, get this, up to 80% of your productive time!

And with a phone in sight, this switching becomes punctuated by regular sessions of screen time that further beat down on your already tattered productivity.


Phones are handy for communication, no doubt about that. We can shoot off a text in the shortest time possible which, while convenient, is just as problematic.

If you’re working on a task and someone starts that back-and-forth exchange, you get into the expectation mode after every reply. And the longer the other party delays their response, the more you stay in this mode.

Trust me – there is no way you’re going to devote yourself 100% to the task at hand. You’re essentially multitasking which has been proven to be detrimental to the amount of work you can get done.

Difficulty Achieving Flow State

Flow is defined as a state of complete immersion in an activity. And this takes some serious concentration and time to achieve. On average, you can reach a flow state between 25 to 30 minutes depending on the task at hand and your surroundings.

And if you’re having your phone at hand, this might never occur because of that constant expectation to see it buzzing. That’s because you can’t fully immerse yourself in the process.

As I’ve already stated above, a lot of people recognize these harmful effects and there is so much information on minimizing them. Here are a few common tips you’ve most likely encountered concerning this.

Common Advice for Eliminating Phone Distraction

Log out Of/delete social apps

This is only natural. No one spends their time scrolling through the apps on their phone. A huge chunk of our screen time is usually spent on top social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and now Tik Tok.

Statista estimates that the average social media time per day stands at 2 hours and 24 minutes worldwide.

So the common tip has always been to either log out of your social accounts or delete the apps altogether. This means you wouldn’t get those pesky notifications as you try to run down your to-do list.

Turn on the “Do Not disturb mode”

Phone companies understand the distractions they’ve created with their devices and are seemingly trying to walk the tight rope that is promoting healthy phone usage and growing their revenues.

Both Android and iOS have a screen time feature that allows you to track the amount of time you spend on different apps on your phone. Additionally, there is also that all known “do not disturb” feature that allows you as a user to turn off notifications for some time, and probably get something done.

Having a Blank home screen

Or just a few must-have apps like the camera and maps. This is probably for those who can’t go a minute without peeking at their devices – which is surely a lot of people.

The logic here is that it is easier to overcome the temptation to keep scrolling through your phone as compared to, say, opening Candy Crush if it pops up as soon as you unlock your screen.

Switching off Your Phone

This is by far the best way to go in my opinion. It at least gets your mind off about what’s going on with your device as you try to accomplish the day’s tasks.

All these tips help a lot in bolstering a healthy relationship with your phone but sometimes they fail to deliver that complete phone independence we crave while working.

Why These Tips Do Not Always Work

All these tips ignore one important aspect of the whole mobile phone usage equation and that is the device itself.

You can follow all these tips, fine. But the mere fact that you have your phone within sight is a problem that will considerably affect your general input. That’s according to a study by the McCombs School of Business from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study involved about 800 smartphone users and was geared towards determining just how well we can perform with mobile devices within our sight. Participants had to take a series of tests that required full concentration for better outcomes.

All of them were asked to turn their phones on silent and were randomly instructed to keep their devices on the desks, in their pocket or personal bag, and a different room.

The results?

Participants with their phones in another room scored better on average compared to their counterparts who kept their phones on the desks and in their pockets or personal bags. Those with phones on their desks were the most dismal performers.

And that, according to the researchers, is thanks to reduced focus due to part of the brain having to actively work not to pick up the phone. It’s all subconscious but the fact that your brain has to deal with it takes away enough cognitive resources that would have been better utilized working.

What to Do?

I think the answer here is clear, really. Setting your phone down beside you or within reach will still eat into your productivity even when you’ve taken all the necessary steps to minimize the probability of you picking it up.

The solution? Consider leaving it in another room if possible or even better, your car.

Posted by Oscar Musundi

SaaS writer for hire.

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