Your phone is getting in your way

Main illustration: Molly Mendoza

When phones become more important than people, your productivity suffers.

It’s your usual busy day. You’re sitting in a meeting, you check your phone to see how long you have left until the next one, you refresh your email and maybe check Slack to see what’s for lunch later. You’ve only glanced down at your phone for a few seconds, but it takes you another few seconds to bring your attention back to the room.

As you look around you see phones out everywhere, some sitting next to laptops on the table, one cupped in your colleague’s hand, and a buzz of an incoming email from another in the corner.

Everyone is engaged in conversation, yet no one is talking to each other. Welcome to phubbing.

Phubbing or “phone snubbing” is when you engage with your phone in the company of others. After countless lunches with friends glued to their phones, I realized how odd phubbing was. The whole point of a phone is to communicate, so why choose it over people?

Psychologists are currently trying to understand the social norms around this behavior, and the links it has with FOMO, internet addiction and lack of self control. It might seem harmless to reply to the odd text during a meeting, but some research suggests it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to focus back on a task after an interruption. If you think about how many times a day you do this, it’s pretty shocking.

Why would you choose interruptions?

The “lighting up” of the smartphone display when a notification comes in, or the buzz of an incoming text, lock us into a habit of “checking” our phones. This is partly due to our dopamine system, which is conditioned to activate when we receive cues of something rewarding. It makes you feel good when your phone tells you that someone has reacted to your joke on Slack, or liked your photo on Instagram. The key to breaking this dopamine loop is to reduce the audio and visual cues in our environment. Turning off push notifications can limit this interruption somewhat.

But we can’t blame habit for all our behavior. When we get a text, an email or a notification that we deem important, we often feel like we need to reply, or we need to be available, choosing to give the phone priority over what we are currently doing.

What do your actions communicate to others?

Phubbing is a barrier to conversation, a big “don’t talk to me” sign. Even when you try to limit phubbing by putting the phone down, its mere presence can decrease the quality of conversation. If you leave your phone out, you give the impression you’re waiting for something. Others assume you will be interrupted, so an important conversation would be pointless.

What’s the opportunity cost?

Why would anyone waste their time on someone who can’t be bothered to put down their phone and engage? Not only are you wasting others’ time, you’re wasting your own. You are self-interrupting.

The cost to this faster work pace? Stress.

Switching attention from one activity to another, which research suggests happens every 3 minutes and 5 seconds, can cause your brain to burn through its fuel much faster, making exhaustion more likely even after a short amount of time and compromising both your physical and cognitive performance. Recent research has found that people who expect to be continually interrupted during their day, work faster to compensate. The cost to this faster work pace? Stress.

How does it become common?

How many times have you walked into the lunchroom and seen countless heads down, a sea of scrolling zombies? Recent research has shown that phubbing has a chain reaction effect. The more you feel you have been phubbed, the more likely you are to phub someone else.

Put people first

Establishing a positive work culture is paramount to startup success. Here’s how to set an example and make sure phubbing doesn’t lower your and your team’s performance ceiling.

  • If you don’t need to have your phone out, put it away. All those emails will still be there for you to check later.
  • Ask teammates to do the same. It may be awkward asking someone to pay attention to you, but wouldn’t that feel great, to know someone cares enough about your conversation to make sure nothing gets in the way?
  • Respect others’ time. Meetings carry massive opportunity cost, particularly at fast-paced startups. If someone has taken time out of their day to meet with you, don’t waste it by making them wait for you to be finished on your phone.
  • If you can see your phone lighting up on a table during a meeting, then so can others. It’s distracting you, and it’s distracting other people.
  • Turn off push notifications (and mute your phone) when you’re working. Limiting the amount of audio and visual cues will minimize the amount of interruption.

Face to face interaction gives us something that is often lost through technology – the non-verbal. Sometimes we can mimic this with emojis and gifs, but if you really want to know how someone feels about what you just said, nothing says it better than the combination of words, facial expression, and body language. So put the phone away, engage completely, react, and get the rich interaction that you need to not only get your job done well, but to have impact.