Guy Using Smartphone

You May Be Smartphone Stupid If …

It’s the technology we love to hate, but can’t live without: our smartphone.

That’s the conclusion an MIT research study reached about the personal impact of inventions in the last century. The smartphone handily beat out the alarm clock, the television, and email. Do you agree?

As amazing as our smartphones are—with apps for doing everything imaginable—I’m convinced that in many ways they’ve not made us any smarter. In a nod to Jeff Foxworthy, I offer you these five observations on smartphone addiction.

1. You may be smartphone stupid if you check your smartphone during meetings.

I’m still amazed when I attend a business meeting and people in it are checking their smartphones. It drives me crazy and it’s everywhere, from the executive suite to church subcommittees. And it’s stupid.

Here you have in a room a collective human resource that’s worth, at minimum, thousands of dollars an hour, and that resource is being wasted by not maximizing its full potential. Meeting attendees who give a meeting their partial attention by always checking their smartphone undermine their ability to fully participate in the meeting and devalue the participation of others in that meeting.

But you say, the meeting you’re in is a pointless waste of time. Then deal with the real reason you’re checking your smartphone, meeting management. Don’t make things worse by your contributing to making it a pointless waste of time. As they say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

MORE: Stop! Before You Lead Your Next Meeting Ask These Four Questions

2. You may be smartphone stupid if your smartphone interrupts your one-on-one’s

One-on-one’s are really a subset of meetings in general, but deserve special recognition. I’ve found that leaders who may not check their smartphone in a meeting so they don’t look bad to their peers or supervisors, have no hesitation when they’re with an employee.

Apart from the obvious rudeness, this is an immense waste of time. We think we’re checking our smartphone to use our time more efficiently, but the simple fact of the matter is—as limited human beings—we can only focus on one thing at a time. We can interact with someone in a one-on-one meeting or check our smartphone. Not both.

This concept is called uni-tasking, and it’s how the most productive people achieve high performance. That is, when uni-taskers do something, they give it their full focus. So when they’re meeting with someone, that someone gets their undivided attention. Better to have 15 minutes of concentrated interaction, than 60 minutes of interrupted, scattered conversation.

You know this, but you check your smartphone anyway. Stop it! It makes you less effective with people. And effectiveness with people is the driving force of sustained leadership success.

3. You may be smartphone stupid if your smartphone keeps you in a constant state of urgency.

Here’s the real reason why, in my opinion, we check our smartphone in meetings and let it interrupt our one-on-one’s. We’re addicted to its urgency. This, in fact, may be the most profound way our smartphones make us stupid. Adrenaline, the powerful chemical in our body’s system, was given to us so we may take swift action in an emergency. What compels a perfectly sane woman to jump in front of a bus to snatch her toddler away from its path? Adrenaline.

The problem with adrenaline is this: it’s meant for emergencies only. In an emergency it quickens our thinking, eliminates options, and impels immediate action. In other words, it short-circuits strategy in the service of urgency. And that’s great for an emergency, but not for everyday life and leadership.

Our smartphones, however, with instant notifications, constant texts and email, and the incessant flow of “breaking news,” gives us a hit of adrenaline every time we look at them. We become addicted to these hits and go through withdrawals when we’re removed from them (just watch how people on an airplane grab their smartphone immediately upon landing).

Under the addictive influence of adrenaline, we make decisions based on urgency. We think only about the short term and the most immediate, not the long term and the most strategic. This hurts our business in a profound way. Staying true to long term strategy, like the hedgehog, is what delivers sustained business success, not being distracted by every little emergency, like the fox.

4. You may be smartphone stupid if your smartphone interrupts you throughout the day

“Okay, okay, Bill. I get what you’re saying,” I can hear you replying right now, “but I’m not addicted to my smartphone.” For the sake of argument (and our friendship), I’ll leave that statement aside and ask you this, how many times does your smartphone interrupt you throughout the day?

A joint study by Microsoft and the University of Illinois found that it takes, on average, 16 minutes, 33 seconds for a worker interrupted by an email to get back to what he or she was doing. If you even cut that time in half to 8 minutes, 16 seconds and multiply it by the dozens of email you receive every day, you have a problem. A serious problem. No wonder you do your best work in the evening and on the weekends!

But do you really want to spend the rest of your professional life working every evening and every weekend? You don’t have to if you schedule your interruptions and give them focused attention. That means setting 15-30 minute fixed blocks of time each day—one in the morning, one mid-day, and one in the afternoon—where you check your smartphone, rather than having it disturb your workflow and wasting your time.

5. You may be smartphone stupid if your smartphone is taking over your personal life

By now I’m sure you’re expecting me to wax eloquent in this fifth and final point about the need for work/life balance. And while I’m deeply passionate about that subject, I’ll not address it here.

What I’d rather address, and what’s not commonly talked about regarding work/life balance, are its very real business benefits. Here’s one: barrenness. That is, the absence of. Let me explain.

If you were a rancher and you grazed your cattle on the same track of land all day, every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, that track of land would ultimately become barren. Not one blade of grass would grow on it, grazed to death and now a dust bowl.

Land needs time to recover from being grazed. Fallow time. Time for rest and time for rejuvenation. For it cannot give and give and give and give without renewing itself in any way. Neither can you.

If your smartphone has taken over your personal life, it’s grazing the land of your body, soul, and spirit continuously, and they, too, without a break will become barren. And, of course, that’s not good for you, but it’s not good for business either. Who wants to fly on a plane with a burned-out pilot or be operated on by a burned-out surgeon? No one.

So Harvard business school professor Leslie Perlow recommends this solution in her brilliant book, Sleeping with Your Smartphone: PTO, or predictable time off. PTO is a fixed, scheduled unit of time where employees do not check their smartphones at all. When a company or a team embraces PTO, they coordinate it with each other so customer care is not interrupted, and then hold each other accountable for being true to this commitment.

Leslie Perlow’s research with uber-driven consulting firm, The Boston Consulting Group, discovered that the implementation of predictable time off increased team performance and employee satisfaction, including significant increases in customer loyalty and decreases in costly turnover.


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