Smartphones Are Making Us Dumber. Here's How To Fight Back.

This is going to be a controversial one.

A recent study from the University of Chicago confirmed what I've known for a long time (thanks to Colin Wright for pointing me towards it.) The title says it all: ‘The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.’ Although I highly recommend reading the full paper, here’s a summary of the key findings:

“Given the chronic mismatch between the abundance of environmental information and the limited ability to process that information, individuals need to be selective in their allocation of attentional resources...The increasing integration of these devices into the minutiae of daily life both reflects and creates a sense that they are frequently relevant to their owners’ goals; it lays the foundation for automatic attention. Consistent with this position, research indicates that signals from one’s own phone ( but not someone else’s) activate the same involuntary attention system that responds to the sound of one’s own name….The mere presence of consumers’ smartphones can adversel3y affect two measures of cognitive capacity—available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence— without interrupting sustained attention or increase in the frequency of phone-related thoughts. Consumers who were engaged with ongoing cognitive tasks were able to keep their phones not just out of their hands, but also out of their (conscious) minds; however, the mere presence of these devices left fewer attentional resources available for engaging with the task at hand.”

In short, the presence of a smartphone is enough to make us dumber. An important finding to note is that the effect is directly proportional to how dependent people are on their phones. Those who are used to spending hours a day on them experience a greater decline in their cognitive capacity.

The solution is not to take a gentle approach. When I see people talking about taking an '24 hour social media detox' or blocking it for the first hour of the day, I am dumbfounded. That shit makes us stupid. It wastes our time. It permanently erodes our ability to focus and do meaningful work. It's addictive. The average person picks up their phone 85 times a day, including right before falling asleep and during the night. 91% of people never leave their homes without their phone. We shouldn't be talking about how much time we take away from social media. We should be talking about how much time we do spend on it. And if we're serious, we should be tracking that metric and doing something about it, if it is a problem.

And yes, I used to be a smartphone addict. I used to scroll social media until 3 am on a regular basis. I used to check it every few minutes. These days, my attitude to my phone could not be more different. I use it when I have a defined purpose, not to fill time. I treat it as a tool, not a form of entertainment. I leave it at home most of the time when I go out, and it’s common for me to not even look at it until late evening.

I did this for two main reasons:

1. To save time. The average person spends 120 minutes a day on social media. Or at least, that's according to self-reported data which is almost definitely on the low side. I used to spend about 3-4 hours a day on it. 

2. To preserve my ability to focus and do deep work. This was a huge motivator. I had long felt the tangible impact on my concentration. Keeping my brain running at the highest level is my priority and feeling like a junkie who craves the next notification was unhelpful.

Here's a wonderful quote from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which is relevant:

“Most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go to admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.
This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But it is a very pale substitute for attention invested in real challenges. The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality.”

This is why I think it's so important so reassess how you use social media and your smartphone. Not because I'm old-fashioned, or a Luddite or dislike the internet (I love it.) Because I desperately want everyone to be able to take control of their time within the limitations of their lifestyle. There is nothing intrinsically bad about social media; it's a tool and the poison is in the dose. It becomes negative when it a) takes up time which could be put to better use,  b)begins to harm your ability to focus c) leads to an urge to fabricate a personal brand or d) literally anything which means the negatives outweigh the positives.

This is the process I have gone through, step by step, over the last year and a half to reclaim my ability to focus and not feel dependent on my phone. It's not a prescription or instruction set, it is simply what has worked for me. 

1. Disable all notifications on your phone and laptop- sounds, pop-ups, banners etc.

All of them. The only exception for me is Google Calendar alerts for upcoming appointments or phone calls from people in my contact list. This includes disabling home screen notifications so if I check the time or something on my phone, I am not immediately shown a bunch of popups.

2. Set your phone on a Do Not Disturb schedule which ensures it is always on silent mode when there isn’t a specific reason for it to be making noise.

Sure, I could manually set it to silent but having an automatic schedule ensures I don't forget. I am difficult to contact and I like it that way. 

3. Delete as many social media accounts as possible.

Facebook and Tumblr used to be my biggest time sucks. I think my Tumblr had something like 12,000 posts when I deleted it. Instagram and Twitter do remain although I barely use them. I haven't logged into the latter for over a year (I occasionally schedule posts using Buffer.) Every couple of weeks, I download Instagram to post something, then delete the app straight away.

4. Delete as many apps as possible.

There is nothing on my phone which could be used to waste time or procrastinate. The apps I do have all serve a genuine purpose: Google Docs & Sheets (for work notes on the go), Toggl (for time tracking), podcasts, Moneybox (for managing investments), Uber (which I've only used a couple of times in emergencies as I can't drive), Whatsapp, Evernote (for the scanning function), Spendee (for budgeting), Google Calendar (for scheduling), online banking, Calm (for meditation) and a cat games app (for occupying Patti when I'm on a call or something.) Every week or so, I go through and cull anything I haven’t used over the last 7 days.

5. Reorganize your home screen.

This is what mine looks like:


All the apps are in one folder to prevent mindless flipping between them. I use the search function to find them. I like that it’s uncluttered and I can just use whatever I need to, without getting waylaid.

6. Disable internet access on your phone.

This was a dramatic change for me. Even after I had removed social media/distracting apps, I still found myself wasting time reading Buzzfeed and the like. Unsurprisingly, Apple has made this difficult to do, so the best method I have found is to enable Parental Restrictions, set it to block internet access, then ask someone else to set the passcode.

7. Switch from a contract to pay as you go.

I recognize this won’t work for everyone, although I have found it very effective in preventing mindless text conversations. I am acutely aware that each text costs me money, so I now only send them when I need to and usually ask people to call me. Phone calls tend to be more efficient and generally more enjoyable - texting can’t compare to hearing someone’s voice.

8. There is no point in doing all that to your phone if your computer is still a source of distraction.

You'll end up just spending more time on desktop social media. I’ve been there.

I use Cold Turkey and the $25 I spent on it pays for itself pretty much every day in the amount of extra work I get done. I rank it as one of the best purchases I have ever made (alongside my cat, Lamy fountain pen, a remote control light bulb and steel toe capped Doc Martens.) Cold Turkey lets you block distracting sites (or the entire internet) on a particular schedule. Mine is set to block everything for 22 hours a day, aside from 9-11pm. The list of banned sites currently includes about 70 and I update it every few days. Anytime I find myself mindlessly scrolling a site, I block it. Cold Turkey is amazing because it's impossible to circumnavigate, unlike most similar apps. It also has a feature called Cold Turkey Writer (which I'm using to type this post right now) where you are stuck with a blank document until you have either typed a certain number of words, or a time span has passed.

I typically allow myself 30 minutes each evening to go crazy on distracting sites; check my favorite subreddits, crosspost on Medium, check my favorite bloggers, etc. Some days I don't feel the need to do that at all. It is important to note that you don’t have to completely cease checking these sites. 

9. Keep your phone out of sight, ideally out of the room.

This is the obvious lesson from the aforementioned study. I have long noticed that I can’t focus properly if my phone is on my desk, even if it is switched off. At the very least, I keep it in my bag and most of the time I place it out of the room.

10. Track distractions.

If you are anything like me, you will probably end up constantly finding new ways to procrastinate. I deal with this using a technique I learned from Sebastian Marshall which involves a simple spreadsheet. Here's mine from this morning (and no, I don't usually get up at 3 am):

I cannot emphasize enough how effective this is. If I notice a pattern in the distractions or hazards sections, I look for a way to deal with it. Setting clear goals for each time block is an extremely powerful way to stay focused.

If you want to download a copy of this template, click here.

In response to the inevitable objections which I always get emailed about when I write about this topic:

- 'But this wouldn't work for me! Here's a list of 77 reasons why I need Facebook.'

I'm not your mother. I'm not telling you what to do. I fully recognize that my personal system wouldn't work for everyone.

- ' But I would lose touch with my 489 Facebook friends and have no social life!'

I’m biased here as a total introvert, but I personally prefer having a few close friends, not hoards of acquaintances I never speak to. Sure, you might miss out on some stuff at first while people learn. In my opinion, anyone who isn’t willing to pick up the phone to invite you to something or to ask how you are isn’t a real friend.

- 'But I enjoy scrolling through Twitter at 1 am! It’s fun!'

Of course, it’s fun. It’s designed to be. Once again, it’s also designed to be addictive. Spending a lot of time on social media is fun in the way that lying in bed eating popcorn when you have lots of stuff to do is fun. It’s a guilty sort of fun which doesn’t relax or energize you- it does the opposite. Thomas Frank (who I owe about a thousand beers on account of how much his site has helped me over the years) talks about high vs low-density fun:

“I have friends who almost never let themselves do the really fun things they want to do during the semester. They’ll talk about how much they want to play a certain game or watch a new movie, but when I suggest that they just go play it, they’ll say:

“I really can’t; I have way too much homework and I’d feel guilty.”

Five minutes later, though, I’ll see them scrolling through their Facebook feed. I call this low-density fun. Scrolling through your news feed or watching a few funny videos on YouTube is easy, and it’s sort of fun to do. However, because it’s so easy and feels so unlike “real” fun, it’s easy to not feel guilty about it – which leads to a lot of procrastination.

The solution? Commit to having your high-density fun. If you want to play a video game later, commit to starting it at 8 p.m. Then, make sure all your work is done by then. Let your high-density fun create a deadline that propels you into focused work.”

-'But I would get bored on commutes/lunch breaks/in class/whatever without social media!'

Read a book. Write in a journal. Meditate. Talk to the people around you. Stare into thin air and enjoy doing nothing. You’ll adjust over time and stop needing constant stimulation at every possible moment.

-'But what if I delete Facebook and regret it, then end up sinking into a deep spiral of depression?!'

Nothing I have written about here is permanent. Apps can be redownloaded. Social media accounts can be remade. It can’t hurt to try this system for a month, then go back if you really notice a negative impact.