This past week I was facilitating an off-site branding session, and as is my usual practice, I asked everyone in the room to not only turn off their cell phones until the break but to also take them off the table and out of sight. My request was met with a cocker spaniel-like twist of heads and a low "huh."

I've been asking attendees to move their cell phones out of visual sight for several years based on some research I had read about the impact the mere presence of smart phones has on communication.

Reduced cognitive capacity.

Just this past month, a new study from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin reported that our cognitive capacity is significantly reduced when our smartphone is within reach--even if it's off.

McCombs Assistant Professor Adrian Ward and his co-authors measured, for the first time, our ability to complete tasks when our cell phones are in plain view--even if we are not using them.

In one of the experiments, the participants were asked to take a series of computer tests that required a high degree of concentration. The researchers set out to measure the participants' available cognitive capacity--in other words, their brains' ability to hold and process data at any given time. Before the tests started, the participants were asked to turn their phones on silent, and put them either face down on their desks, in their pockets, purses, or bags, or in another room entirely.

Out of site is out of mind.

The results? As it turns out, out of sight is out of mind. The participants whose phones were in another room significantly outperformed those whose phones were out and about on their desks, and even slightly outperformed those participants whose phones where in a pocket or bag.

Backing up some previous research that came to the same conclusion, the study suggests that the mere visible presence of our smartphones can reduce our available cognitive capacity and impair cognitive functioning.

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

If you are reading this and thinking, "Yeah, but I turn my cell phone upside down, or turn it off, so I'm not disturbed by it," think again. Ward and his colleagues also found that whether the participant's cell phone was face up or face down, as long as it was within sight (or within easy reach) the participants showed a reduced ability to focus and perform tasks.

"It's not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones," said Ward. "The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity."

Just step away from the cell phone.

So what's a well-meaning worker to do? Here're a few of the tips and tricks I employee to get the folks in my meetings to step away from their cell phones.

  • Pass around a basket at the beginning of a meeting and collect everyone's cell phone. Give them back at the breaks.
  • Ask everyone in the meeting to turn off their cell phones and put them away so they are not visible during the active sessions.
  • Ease everyone's mind by giving them the times and lengths of the breaks at the top of the meeting, so the participants know exactly when they will be able to check their email and make calls.

I'm not nearly so optimistic (or self important) as to think that reading this blog post is going to get you to put your cell phone away every time you need to employee your full brain power.

However, I do hope that the next time you reach out to check your email, you'll stop and consider your brain. It might just want you to step away from the cell phone and put your focus on the person or problem in front of you.

Published on: Jul 27, 2017