How many smart devices are in your immediate vicinity? If you're like most modern professionals, there's at least one (your smartphone), but as the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to make progress, that number will only grow. In fact, Gartner predicts there will be 20 billion or more connected devices in circulation by 2020.
We currently rely on these devices to automate some of our most grueling work, handle our scheduling and notifications, and keep us organized--in essence, improving our productivity. But are these devices really helping you as much as they seem? Or are they actually harming your productivity?
The Jevons Paradox
The Jevons paradox, or Jevons effect, takes place when there's a breakthrough of efficiency with resource consumption. For example, let's look at the improved efficiency of coal burning in 19th century England. Intuitively, you might think that a new, efficient method of burning coal would lead to less coal being burned--but the opposite is true. Improved coal efficiency sparked the Industrial Revolution, and coal consumption rates skyrocketed.
What does this have to do with smart devices? Let's apply the model to your typical smartphone. This device greatly improves your efficiency with email, task scheduling, researching, and dozens of other work-related activities. However, that increased efficiency is driving us to use these resources more often--and the sheer number of after-hours emails that the average worker faces is enough to prove that. Our workloads haven't shrunk. They've grown.
Vulnerability and Security
We also have to consider the vulnerability of each new device in the connected network, and how much we rely on our devices to handle our work. If you've ever witnessed an internet outage at a modern office, you know the rest of the day is pure chaos--nobody can work without internet, and if one of your devices goes down, you could find yourself unable to work efficiently until it's fixed.
Combine this with the fact that almost every connected device has some kind of inherent vulnerability; security cameras can be hacked, children's wi-fi connected dolls can be hacked, and even your garage door opener can be hacked and corrupted by a skilled cybercriminal. In effect, we're made more productive--but only so long as we have uninterrupted access to our new technology.
The Distraction Factor
We also need to consider the distraction factor. Distractions play a much bigger role in our productivity than most people realize; studies show it takes up to 23 minutes for your focus to fully recover after even a single distraction. That means if you're distracted more than once every 23 minutes, you might never be reaching your fully-focused potential.
Most of our smart devices offer notifications by default; we hear a buzz every time we get a text, a phone call, an email, or even a mention on social media. We see this as a convenience, but in reality, it tends to pull us away from whatever we're focusing on. In that way, notifications do more harm than good.
That's not even mentioning the temptation that your smartphone offers in the form of entertaining websites or mobile games; most of us have spent far more hours wasting time on these novelties than we'd ever admit to our bosses.
Memory and Reliance
At least some of your productivity is tied to your memory; if you have a strong running list of to-dos and priorities, you'll be able to accomplish those tasks more efficiently. If you remember key takeaways from meetings and client preferences, you'll have fewer miscommunications. But as it stands, smart devices have a negative effect on our ability to remember.
When we take a photo, our brains do a worse job of storing information related to that memory--because we've offloaded it to the picture. When we get in the habit of running online searches for information like actors in movies or directions to the store, our cognitive "muscles" relax, and become weaker. And true, as long as these devices are within reach, we'll have unlimited reminders and access to information, but if and when those devices are separated from us, our abilities are inherently worse.
If you still aren't convinced that smart devices can harm your productivity as much as they help it, consider this: researchers have demonstrated that the mere presence of a smartphone nearby is enough to reduce your cognitive capacity. And yes, that effect is there even if your phone is turned off. It's not just the endless buzzing and active use of devices that are sabotaging our productivity--our relationship with these devices has progressed so far that we now suffer even when one is simply nearby.
None of this is to say that smart devices (and whatever new technologies are due to replace them) don't have productivity benefits. If used responsibly, they can help you do many times as many tasks as you could without one, and live a better-balanced life. But if you want to avoid also experiencing the negative consequences, you need to be aware of the other, subtler effects that smart devices produce, and work to compensate for them.