Smartphones, Silly Users

Harvard Business Review

Why can't a marketing manager remember where she took a client for dinner last night? Why, over the course of 30 minutes, does a senior executive trade 22 emails to organize a simple lunch meeting, only to be canceled on last-minute? Why does a banker waste the entire day on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and LinkedIn?

If you're reading this on a mobile device, the surprising answer to these seemingly unrelated questions might literally lie in the palm of your hand.

With a huge and growing user base of nearly half of American adults, smartphones are now a core part of our daily lives. Evolving far beyond the email productivity tools pioneered by RIM in the early 2000s, iPhones and Android handsets now dominate the mobile landscape with industry-leading functionality and advanced ecosystems. The value proposition? That we'll work and play faster, longer, better, and smarter. In fact, we found that over 40% of young business leaders ranked mobile as the most important technology to business in the twenty-first century (cloud computing came in second at 13%).

More interesting than confirming smartphone ubiquity, however, was observing people's behavior behind the exploding usage and penetration data. In researching Passion & Purpose, I observed how hundreds of young professionals actually used their new smartphones on a daily basis. The behavioral shifts were surprising. One subject remarked, "Now I just organize everything on the fly. I'm in constant scheduling mode." Said another, "By the time I check all my (iPhone) notifications, I get swamped with a new wave." Several remarked that they relied on their phone "to tell me what to do" and "to recall basic facts." After synthesizing these interviews and observations, the overall results were stunning: Frequent smartphone use imposes significant psychological costs on the user, and negatively impacts our personal and professional lives in three ways.

First, we don't remember anything anymore. Research shows that we're increasingly outsourcing our personal memory banks to Google and other search engines, effectively wiping our own brains of easily accessible information. But as the growth of apps per device skyrockets and user interfaces simplify, we're relying on more cognitive crutches than ever. Can't recall the name of your coworker? Don't worry; their LinkedIn profile is just a few taps away. Forgotten the name of that Japanese restaurant down the street? Yelp it up! Look for our memory gaps to grow as we train our brains to recall where information is located, rather than remembering the information itself.

Second, we waste time preserving optionality. As the global smartphone user base surpasses 1 billion, more of us are caught in a terrifying, mobile version of the responsiveness trap. As one young entrepreneur remarked, "It's gotten so ridiculous...I spend more time trading Facebook messages about where to meet, who to invite, and what to talk about than actually sitting in meetings themselves." But not only do we expect our colleagues, business partners, and friends to reply to our last-minute requests in real time, advancements in smartphone functionality mean we're refusing to finalize our plans until critical moments. The ability to make reservations, check opening hours, look up driving directions, and review ratings on our mobile devices means that we're increasingly iterating our schedules and keeping our options open until the very last moment before that meeting, lunch, or coffee catchup is set to begin. One consultant summed it up: "I'm now in a constant grey zone: Whatever I'm supposed to be doing next will change."

Finally, we get stuck in the infinite notification loop. As we accumulate newer and more apps, the competition for our limited attention intensifies. As a result, developers are aggressively bombarding our screens with dozens of daily push notifications in the hope of pulling us back into their individual app. These digital nudges aren't costless — they tax our attention. Psychologists argue that we're all cognitive misers, able to focus effectively on a few key tasks per day. As we endlessly loop between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other app notifications, our attention fragments, and it becomes difficult to focus on larger, more important tasks. As more micro-notifications appear while we're clearing the virtual clutter, the path of least resistance is to simply ride the digital carousel all over again.

So how do we avoid these psychological costs, while reaping the smartphone promise of better professional and personal lives? Some useful tactics include employing scientifically verified memory enhancement measures (for example, Lumosity or daily meditation), shifting to offline mode at prescribed moments (for example, adding an email signature communicating that you will not be contactable within 30 minutes of meeting start time), and using notification aggregators, such as Notification Center, to centralize critical app notifications (disabling the rest, of course).

As smartphone technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, we can't fool ourselves into thinking that our lives will automatically benefit. Instead of passively falling into costly behavioral traps, actively manage your mobile matters. If you're reading this, you probably own a smartphone. Now, ensure your smartphone doesn't own you.

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