Is Your Smartphone Killing Your Productivity?

While you may think being glued to your smartphone–checking email while in bed, on vacation or at the dinner table–can get you ahead, research shows it can do more harm than good.

Is Your Smartphone Killing Your Productivity?
[Image: Flickr user Thomas Leuthard]

Looking around the cafe where I’m writing this article, it’s not hard to find examples of smartphone addiction. A couple in the corner booth, seemingly on a date, have been interrupted at least three times in the last half hour by a common sound: ping.


A quick glance at the glowing screen, a few thumb movements and they’re back to their conversation and their dinner. Neither apologizes to the other for the distraction. While it’s possible they’re being interrupted by friends planning their Friday night, according to a recent article in the May/June issue of Mother Jones, chances are the interruptions are work-related.

In the article author Clive Thompson argues the infringement of off-hours email into our personal lives is one the biggest labor issues of our time. He writes:

Over time, the creep of off-hours messages from our bosses and colleagues has led us to tolerate these intrusions as an inevitable part of the job, which is why it’s so startling when an employer is actually straightforward with his lunatic demands, as with the notorious email a Quinn Emanuel law partner sent to his underlings back in 2009: ‘Unless you have very good reason not to (for example when you are asleep, in court or in a tunnel), you should be checking your emails every hour.’

According to a 2013 paper by the Centre for Creative Leadership, 60% of smartphone-carrying professionals stayed connected with work for 13.5 hours per day, that’s 5.5 hours more than the typical eight-hour workday.

Smartphones allow us to be “on” 24/7. Lesley Perlow, author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work surveyed thousands of managers and professionals in high-profile occupations and found 70% checked their smartphone within an hour of waking up, 56% did so within the hour before going to bed, 48% checked work email on the weekend and more than half checked their smartphone while they were supposedly on vacation.

These stats seem unsurprising as I glance around at the smartphones that litter the café tables around me, but what is surprising is that while most smartphone addicts view their obsessive behavior as a necessary part of business, the evidence tells a different story.

Thompson has bad news for workers who think responding immediately to emails will get them ahead:


“Constant access may work out great for employers, since it continues to ratchet up the pressure for turning off-the-clock, away-from-the-desk hours into just another part of the workday. But any corresponding economic gains likely aren’t being passed on to workers: During the great Internet-age boom in productivity, which is up 23% since 2000, the inflation-adjusted wages and benefits for college graduates climbed just 4%, according to the Economic Policy Institute,” he writes.

What’s worse, all that incessant email checking and instantaneous replying may not be making you any more productive. Harvard Professor Leslie Perlow studied a group of consultants from the Boston Consulting Group who admitted to being glued to their email while on vacation.

She asked them to dedicate periods of time off (evenings and weekends) when they would be out of reach. They would not reply to emails sent during these times. Weekly working hours decreased by 11 percent as a result of the strict limits on messaging, yet there was absolutely no change in productivity. Reducing smartphone time simply meant the consultants weren’t wasting time on non-important messages.

This makes sense. If you think about the number of messages you receive daily, how many of those are really important? “Genuinely important emails can propel productive work, no doubt, but a lot of messages aren’t like that–they’re incessant check-ins asking non-crucial questions, or bulk-CCing of everybody on a team. They amount to a sort of Kabuki performance of work–one that stresses everyone out while accomplishing little,” writes Thompson.

Wanting to see whether an organization could institute policies around limiting smartphone usage and still remain productive, Thompson interviewed David Morken, CEO of Bandwidth, a tech company with over 300 employees, who, in an attempt to spend more quality time with his family, decided to unplug himself and his employees during their leisure time, actually prohibiting employees from checking work email while on vacation.

The result was a more productive and creative work environment full of relaxed, recharged individuals rather than the burnt-out neurotics who had previously been glued to smartphones, even while on the beach.


Hat Tip: Mother Jones

About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction.