Productivity and AttentionResearch

The subconscious distraction of a mobile phone

'The Mere Presence of a Cell Phone May be Distracting - Implications for Attention and Task Performance'.
Extracts and summary of the research by: Bill Thornton, Alyson Faires, Maija Robbins, and Eric Rollins (2014)

Key quotes from the research:

  • ‘the use and misuse of mobile technology has negatively impacted productivity both in quantity and quality of work output attributed in large part to the interruptions occurring every 15 min and the time it takes to regain concentration afterwards’.
  • ‘a 3-s distraction (the time it takes to reach out and silence a cell phone) while conducting a sequencing task is sufficient to disrupt attention and result in twice the number of errors made in the post-disruption phase of the task; the longer the interruption, the greater the error rate’.
  • ‘the presence of a cell phone [has] a negative impact on performance when the tasks are more intentionally and cognitively demanding’. 

Summary of the research: 

Previous research has shown that using a phone can be distracting while multi-tasking, such as while walking or driving.

Recent research has even shown that the simple presence of a phone (e.g. placed on a table), with all the extended cyberspace connections and networks that it represents, can distract from and reduce the overall quality and experience of in-person physical social interactions and connections.

This research goes a step further to investigate the distracting capability of the simple presence of a mobile phone while performing tasks that require greater cognitive demands within the workplace (and in education). 

What was found is that the presence of a mobile phone had a negative impact on the quality of work performed when tasks were attentionally and cognitively demanding.

In a similar way to the ability of thoughts unrelated to the task at hand causing the mind to wander, being subconsciously aware of the potential connections that are offered by the use of a mobile phone (e.g. social media connections) may cause the mind to wander and potentially interfere with performance – especially when engaging in more complex tasks.

It is easier to maintain attention on a task at hand when there are fewer visual elements to stimulate thoughts not related to the task itself. The impact of unrelated thoughts depends entirely on the complexity of the task being completed. There is a much lower impact, for example, on tasks that require lower levels of cognitive or attentional demands.

The implications for this subtle distraction that mobile phones have on productivity in the workplace can be wide-ranging. Although the actual use of a mobile phone in the workplace has been considered by many, the distracting ability of the presence of a mobile needs to also be considered. 

An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ concept may be required in some instances, especially when more complex and cognitively demanding tasks are being attended to.