Put Your Phone Away

It finally happened at lunch today. Someone just started watching a TV show on their iphonein the middle of a social situation.I wasn’t with strangers, or people who disliked each other. These were my new colleagues, who are friendswith each other, in a nice restaurant.

So, it’s come to this.

I think this video captures one aspect of what bothers me about our growing addiction to smartphones very well:


In the video, the emphasis is on how smartphones take you out of the moment, so you fail to appreciate important and beautiful times in your life.

I think that is powerful and valid, but there is another important reason why we should be concerned about the habit of flicking out our phones so frequently, and that is the ability to think. To broach this subject, I will quote from a great essay called ‘Solitude and Leadership’:

How do you learn to think? Let’s start with how youdon’tlearn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.


Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think.*Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.*Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

Do you ever work with your phone switched off? Do you frequently close your email client completely? Most people don’t, they are surrounded by distractions. And guess what? They’re not doing any deep thinking. In fact, sometimes it seems like most job descriptions (Corporate Affairs Executive Analyst Vice President) could basically be renamed: ‘Email Answerer’. Consuming a lot of information does not equate to thinking.

Recently, I’ve deliberately ‘downgraded’ my phone to an ancient Nokia which doesn’t have the internet. It’s great. I’ve also enjoyed having ‘no phone’ days, where I just leave my phone at home. Guess what? It’s been fine. The world hasn’t ended.

Technology can do wonderful things. It’s certainly helped me in many ways. But unless you push back against it, and create a time just for your thoughts, to sift through and evaluate all the information and opinion that you are constantly bombarded by, you will struggle with originality and creativity. You will be stuck at the same intellectual level you had when you left high school or university. And you will never be a great leader.

Try counting how many times you check your phone today, and enjoy the irony if you are reading this on your phone.