Smartphones are clearly time sucks, but we also tend to view them as overall productivity boosters - think of how you can check your email while you're waiting in line at the grocery store, call a cab with a couple of clicks, or Google that one key piece of information in an instant. Does the economic data reflect that? Have we all gotten collectively more productive since we each got a super computer in our pocket?

Nope, quite the opposite. While productivity has been on a downhill slide for decades, it's taken a particular tumble since smartphones were introduced in 2010, Bank of England economist Dan Nixon recently pointed out on the the Bank Underground blog. Could those two facts be related?

Smartphone sales way up, productivity way down

While there's no definitive answer to this question, Nixon describes "the ability to pay attention to be a key input into productivity," and it's hard to argue that smartphones aren't undermining this capacity. That makes the claim that our phones are hurting our productivity enough to show up in economy-wide numbers far from preposterous.

The complete post proposes two specific ways smartphones might be hurting our productivity: One, we could be so busy swiping and tapping, we actually work fewer hours. Or two, constant smartphone distractions are addling our minds so we get less done when we are working. If you're interested in more details on the evidence for these two theories, check out Nixon's complete write up.

What should we do about it?

Even more interesting for practical-minded readers is the final section of Nixon's post which focuses on what to do about the problem if we decide it is real. Being a data-focused guy, Nixon of course calls for more research, but he also highlights ways companies are already fighting back against the toll smartphones take on productivity.

"Some companies embrace single-tasking as a mode of working. Some experiment with doing away with email all together. Others help staff to train the mind, for instance offering courses in mindfulness," he writes. If you suspect Nixon is on to something and that smartphones aren't helping productivity economy-wide or at your organization, you could give these interventions a try.

Or, on his own blog computer scientists and Deep Work author Cal Newport, reflects on Nixon's post and suggests that bosses need to consider the balance between "providing your employees' brains timely access to the right information" and "providing these brains the right conditions under which to process this information effectively."

Smartphones give us instant access to an incredible wealth of information, but they also create an environment where it's significantly harder to knuckle down and do anything valuable with that information once you have it. Perhaps you should consider if your company is too focused on the information access effects of smartphones and not interested enough in the productivity-depressing ones.

Do you buy the argument that smartphones are contributing to declines in productivity?

Published on: Dec 19, 2017