Flickr image from JSeliger2 Creative Commons

Because communication technologies permeate our lives so quickly, we often neglect to stop and ask ourselves whether we are using these technologies in a healthy, productive, and socially acceptable manner. As Alex Pang notes in his book The Distraction Addiction, there are many ways in which you can benefit by putting your device away and limiting the distractions in your life. If you’ve resolved this year to be a better friend or partner, improve your job performance, reduce stress, or achieve something creative, here are some reasons why physically separating yourself from your device can help.

Be a Better Listener—and a Nicer Person

Although research is still in its preliminary stages, there is some evidence that an overreliance on screens is dulling our nonverbal abilities such as interpreting what a person’s facial expression or body language means (e.g., Uhls et al., 2014). Many people don’t acknowledge that the majority of communication—and sometimes the most meaningful communication—comes from paying attention to cues outside of what a person is saying. For example, your daughter might say, “No, I’m not having problems at school” while frowning, looking and the floor, or slumping her shoulders. When you are paying attention to a device while interacting with someone, you cannot allot the necessary resources to fully attend to the other person’s cues. Thus, you would hear your daughter saying she’s not having problems—and you truly believe you are listening to her—but with your eyes on your phone, you have not actually understood her.

Further, eye contact, facial expressions, and other demonstrations of attention are important for satisfaction in our daily interactions. Imagine working a retail job this holiday season, putting in long hours working as a cashier, doing your best to help people, and no one bothered to look up from their phone to acknowledge your presence. Being completely ignored can make you feel worthless. Making eye contact or offering a simple nod or smile is a way to acknowledge another person’s presence and respect their humanity. It also conveys important social information such as “I’m listening” or “I understand you” that is meaningful whether you’re having an important conversation with your spouse or simply listening to your server recite the restaurant specials.

If you’ve resolved to be a better partner, friend, parent, or human, this is one of the simplest things you can do. When interacting with people, whether it’s your significant other, your co-worker, or the person collecting your bus fare, respectfully put your device away and fully absorb the richness of a face-to-face conversation, no matter how brief.

Let Them Know You Care

There is a growing body of evidence that keeping your device out when spending time with someone sends them a nonverbal message, and it’s not a good one (see Nakamura, 2015; Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013). Let’s say you’re having lunch with your friend Sam. By having your phone out, you are enabling nonpresent individuals to interrupt your time and distract from your experience with Sam. If you choose to attend to those interruptions by answering a call or responding to a text, you are communicating to Sam that whomever is on the phone is more important and that your time with Sam isn’t worth preserving.

Perhaps of greater concern is the actual effect of the presence of devices on our interactions. People actually have better conversations and report higher levels of empathy when devices are absent compared to when they’re present, even if people aren’t using them (Misra et al., in press). The presence of phones can also diminish trust in the other person (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013). Thus, it’s best to put your phone away if you want to have a meaningful conversation and promote feelings of trust and empathy.  

When sharing time with someone, put your device away to communicate to the other person that he or she is important to you and that you are giving them your undivided attention. In return, if you are feeling ignored or hurt that someone else is distracted by their device, do not hesitate to politely and directly ask them to put it away. Don’t be passive aggressive, sigh, or make snide comments; instead, ask, “Do you mind putting your phone away, or are you awaiting a really important call?” If you feel the need to justify your request, you can add “…because I get so little time with you one-on-one” or “…I just get easily distracted.”

If you’ve resolved to start a new romantic relationship or improve your existing relationships, it’s easy to maximize the quality of your time together by putting your devices away.

Do Your Best Work

A considerable body of research has shown that devices negatively affect learning, work, and academic performance (you can see a summary of that research here). Recent studies have also shown that the mere presence of a phone is a distraction and decreases task performance (e.g., Thornton et al., 2014). No, it’s not because you chose a bright pink Hello Kitty case or because your ringtone is super annoying—simply being aware of your phone’s presence means you are also aware of its potential for distraction.

Imagine picking up an old-fashioned egg timer, the kind you twist to set. Let’s say you twist it without looking. You know it’s going to ring—you just aren’t sure when. That same feeling of anticipation haunts you when your phone is around. This is also why you check your phone even when you haven’t heard it ring or see it flash—surely someone has texted or called or pinged you on Facebook or emailed or liked your Instagram photo or replied to your tweet, and heaven forbid that you didn’t know within a microsecond.

If the task permits, try turning your devices completely off and putting them away before getting to work. (Turning them off adds an extra mindful step and delay of gratification in case you start to break down.) Put them in another room, lock them in a drawer, or give them to a trusted friend to hold. Be patient—if you’ve grown attached to your device, it will take some time to break the constant anxious need to check things. After a while, however, you might find yourself welcoming this reprieve from distractions.

If you’ve resolved to improve your work or creative performance this year, try keeping your device out of sight so that you can focus on the task at hand.

Zoning Out

In the same way that anticipating a phone flash, beep, or your “All About That Bass” ringtone can keep you from focusing, it can also keep you from zoning out. Daydreaming and letting your mind wander have benefits including creative bursts and restoring your cognitive resources (e.g., Baird et al., 2012; Singer, 1975)—but your brain can’t wander very far if you’re mentally leashed to your device.

Being tethered to your device this way can also promote stress and diminish your ability to relax and unwind (Fox & Moreland, 2015; Pang, 2014; Turkle, 2011). Turning your device off and putting it away creates a physical separation, which is the first step in freeing yourself from the demands and pressures that constant accessibility and connectivity create.

If you’re resolving to manage or diminish the stress in your life, or if you’re resolving to pursue more creative work, putting your devices away is an easy first step.

As the research shows, there are a number of benefits for putting your devices away—and the solution is as simple as pushing a button and closing a drawer. Use that New Year’s willpower and give it a try!

References & Further Reading

Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological Science, 23, 1117-1122.

Fox, J., & Moreland, J. J.(2015). The dark side of social networking sites: An exploration of the relational and psychological stressors associated with Facebook use and affordances. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 168-176

Misra, S., Cheng, L., Genevie, J., & Yuan, M. (in press). The iPhone effect: The quality of in-person social interactions in the presence of mobile devices. Environment and Behavior.

Nakamura, T. (2015). The action of looking at a mobile phone display as nonverbal behavior/communication: A theoretical perspective. Computers in Human Behavior, 43, 68-75.

Pang, A. S. K. (2013). The distraction addiction. New York: Little, Brown.

Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 237-246.

Singer, J. L. (1975). The inner world of daydreaming. Harper & Row.

Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (in press). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387-392.

You are reading

Better Living With Technology

Your New Year’s Resolution: Put the Phone Away

Stow that device to improve your relationships, work performance, & creativity

Why the Online Trolls Troll

8 reasons why some people feel comfortable posting the most offensive comments.

Why Exes Aren't So "Ex" Anymore

When you can separate on social media, experts say, you'll bounce back faster.