A friend asked me to sit in on a staff meeting a few months ago.

"How do you stand that?" I asked him later. "It was like a class where no one looks at the professor."

Eye contact was almost nonexistent. One person was doing something on his laptop; the other nine people thumbed their phones, occasionally glancing up to seem like they were paying attention.

He smiled. "Times have changed," he said, patting me on the shoulder.

I'm not a fan of condescending pats so I decided to press on. "But wasn't that an important meeting?" I asked.

"Absolutely," he said. "We use our daily production meeting to establish priorities, identify friction points, find solutions to short- and mid-term challenges... basically, that meeting sets up our entire day."

"So don't you want everyone to pay attention?" I asked.

He smiled. "They are," he said. "But things move fast, and my team is great at multitasking." Actually, they're not great at multitasking. No one is.

Especially where phones are concerned.

Even if they're turned off.

***

Research shows your cognitive capacity is significantly reduced when your smartphone is within reach. In one experiment, participants took a series of tests that measured available cognitive capacity, the brain's ability to hold and process data. 

(In other words, what people need to be able to do in meetings.)

All participants turned their phones to silent mode. Then, one group put their phones face-down on the desk. Another group put them in their pocket or bag. A third group left their phones in another room. 

The result? People whose phones were in another room significantly outperformed people with their phones on the desk, and somewhat outperformed those who put their phones in a pocket or bag. 

Yep: Having a phone nearby affected mental performance. 

Even though the participants reported they were giving their full attention to the tests. And even though no one gave in to the temptation to check their phones.

According to the researchers:

We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants' available cognitive capacity decreases. 

Your conscious mind isn't thinking about your smartphone, but that process -- the process of requiring yourself to not think about something -- uses up some of your limited cognitive resources.

It's a brain drain.

Yep: You have to think about not thinking about checking your phone.

In a second experiment, researchers tried to determine how "self-reported smartphone dependence" (how strongly you feel you need your phone) affects cognitive ability. 

Turns out the people who said they were most dependent on their phones performed worse compared with those who claimed to be less dependent.

Which makes sense, but here's the kicker: That was only when they kept their phones on their desk or in a pocket or bag.

When their phones were in another room... they performed as well as everyone else.

As the researchers say:

Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduces a person's ability to focus and perform tasks because part of their brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone.

It's not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones. The mere presence (my bold) of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.

So imagine the degree cognitive capacity is reduced when people can actually use their phones.

***

A few weeks later my friend agreed to try the leave-your-phones-in-the-basket-outside thing. "I feel like Dave Chappelle," he whispered as people filed by.

A few tossed their phones in without slowing down. Most, though, hesitated. One even paused, hand suspended over the basket, clearly struggling to let go of his phone. (My guess he would self-identify as smartphone dependent.)

After the meeting, I asked my friend how he felt the meeting went.

"Things were awkward at first," he said. "Without phones, people had nowhere to look but at me. Or each other." He laughed. "That actually felt a little weird."

"But they also had to listen," he said. "When someone suggested an idea and looked for support, they were more likely to get it. People also seemed more willing to disagree. There was definitely more interaction."

He paused. "I know it sounds like a kindergarten move," he said, "but having people leave their phones outside seemed to make them a lot more engaged and focused."

That's because times haven't really changed.

Tools have changed, but times haven't changed. Connecting is still connecting. Listening is still listening. Attention is still attention.

Focus is still focus.

When a meeting is important (if it isn't, why are you having it?), ask people to leave their phones outside the room.

And if you're attending a meeting, leave your phone outside, even if other people don't. 

When you can give the meeting your full attention, you will better uncover hidden agendas. You will be better able to spot ways to build bridges. You will better identify problems and solutions.

Science says so.

Published on: Mar 5, 2020
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