The Quiet Power Of Silencing Your Phone

The business case for undivided, un-cellular attention.

The Quiet Power Of Silencing Your Phone

“Each time you get an email, it’s a small jolt, positive feedback that you’re an important person,” University of California neuroscientist Loren Frank tells CNN. “It’s a little bit of an addiction in that way.”


As a study of his found, smartphone users check their phones 34 times a day, with each check lasting less than 30 seconds and occurring within 10 minutes of each other.

What does this habit do to us? First, since we never get the chance to experience what we might call boredom, we never get the chance to make the associations that mark creativity. But the always-on-the-phone habit distracts us from more than our workflows–it takes away from our work relationships, too.

What you’re on when you’re on your phone.

Let’s think about it this way: Emails often end up being surprisingly offensive because mediated messages lack the richness of signal that we get in real-life interactions, like tone of voice, body language, or eye contact.

So when you’re in a real-life interaction and checking your phone, what kind of signal does that send? Not one of investing in the person you’re talking to. But why is it so hard to keep our phones away when we’re in conversation?

As Evan Solomon writes on Medium, a lot of it has to do with urgency. Frank, the neuroscientist, observes that the buzz on your phone is a little signal of social validation, of feeling as though you’re in demand.

It follows, then, that to actually unplug from our phones, we need to realize that things really aren’t that urgent. Solomon explains:


Acknowledging that things you’ve treated as urgent have mostly been ignorable, or at least ignorable for now, carries an initial uneasiness. Urgent problems mean you’re needed, and it’s comforting to be needed. Sacrificing that comfort can be an “Oh, my god, I’m in my underwear in the front of an auditorium” sort of feeling.

What you do when you “do not disturb.”

So he set upon a quest of focus, switching his phone onto Do Not Disturb mode whenever he was about to hang out with a group of people. The messages he previously took to be urgent could be dealt with without anything catching on fire. He found himself tending to his conversations–and better understanding his focus of attention.

I felt like I was in control of an addiction. I stopped using Do Not Disturb mode. The vibrations came back, but my anxiety didn’t. I even started to enjoy ignoring the alerts. Each time my phone buzzed while I was with other people, I’d listen in a little closer to what they were saying and smile a little at actively choosing the focus on the people I was spending time with. I think I figured out how to trade the comfort of being urgently needed with the confidence of being in control of my attention and priorities.

That’s the big takeaway from Solomon’s momentary telephonic abstinence: that, to paraphrase Thoreau, we don’t become tools of our tools. That we’re able to own where we place our attention–which we only get 150 billion bits of in a lifetime–where it’s creating the most value for us, not buzzing the loudest.

Hat tip: Medium

[Image: Flickr user Thorsten Hartmann]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.