Your Mobile phone may just be an acorn

Spend an hour at work on social media? Compulsively check your e-mail? Can’t stop looking at your mobile phone? Does this sound like you? You’re not alone. I’m sure you’ve heard the factoid emanating from every orifice of the business community: people have shorter attention spans than goldfish. That’s nine seconds for a goldfish and eight seconds for a person if you’re keeping score.

Not the best idea if you’re dealing with tight deadlines. This constant barrage of emails and endless newsfeeds “is what psychologists call intermittent variable rewards. It is exactly what gets people hooked on slot machines.” (McGugan, 2017).

Our phones offer too much value to us. We can’t help ourselves. It’s instinctive. “Research in cognitive psychology shows that humans learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task” (Duke, Ward, Gneezy, & Bos, 2018)

Our effectiveness is sapped further by the additional twenty-five minutes it will take to refocus on our jobs. Unfortunately, it only gets worse from there: it may lower your I.Q. by about ten points, similar to losing a night’s sleep.

Not surprisingly, we’re in the midst of an attention crisis, and it’s affecting productivity growth. “Productivity growth in Canada and the United States has been lackluster in recent years.” (McGugan, 2017).

Has this attention crisis affected your ability to read?

In an opinion piece earlier this year, Michael Harris raised this very question. For him, the answer was “yes”. He can no longer read like he used to. “Online reading is about clicks, and comments and points,” Harris wrote.

We are now programmed to crave the “…mental Tabasco sauce. And yet not every emotion can be reduced to an emoji, and not every thought can be conveyed via tweet. When we become cynical readers—when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages—we stop exercising our attention.” (Harris, 2018).

So, our phone addiction, with its intermittent variable rewards, has us locked in a perpetually distracted state that’s costing us our work productivity, forcing us to work longer to accomplish anything, while we’ve forgotten how to read or focus on anything for longer than eight seconds. I’m about ready to start running around in circles screaming, “the sky is falling!”

What can we do? Are we doomed, powerless to the crisis gripping the advanced world? For starters breathe, neither you nor society is doomed. You can start by turning your phone off and keeping it out of sight, preferably in another room.

According to research by the Harvard Business Review, you will perform cognitive tasks more effectively if your phone is out of sight (in your bag or pocket) and best if your phone isn’t close by (in another room). Evidence to support the cliché, “out of sight, out of mind”.

If you’re concerned with your ability to read anything longer than a Buzzfeed article, you may need to tweak your outlook on reading a little. It’s not about the time spent staring at words on a page; it’s about consciously trying to get the most out of the time invested.

According to Shane Parrish of Farnam Street blog, it’s about becoming an “Active reader” who retains the bulk of what he or she reads. Active readers are enthusiastic with the highlighter, note cards, flags, scribble in the margins and take time to build vivid mental pictures.

Parrish warns against speedreading, or reading books we find boring, and he claims there’s no need to finish entire books—you can also put down books when you’re struggling.

Don’t be afraid to dive in deep

Unsure if you can handle the adjustment to a work-life lacking your phone, social media or perpetual e-mail checking? Start by carving out blocks of time where you will close your e-mail and put your phone someplace out of sight.

It can be done. Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work, references Jason Benn a young consultant who admitted to spending 98 percent of his time searching the web, yet Benn was able to teach himself computer programming and land himself a significantly higher paying job as a computer developer (Newport, 2016, p. 11).

How did he manage it? He went cold turkey: locked himself in a room with no computer or any other distractions and became an active reader, yup highlighter, notecards and all. By the time Benn was done, he had devoured over a dozen books on the subject.

Newport (2016, p. 3) coined the term “deep work” to describe this distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Deep work, if you can learn to do it, is your leg up on the competition. Like the Benn example illustrates, it can help you master complex things quickly.

Deep work goes beyond merely reading and learning. By applying this same uninterrupted focus to your job, you will produce better value. Producing better value will allow you to leverage deep work into a more lucrative job just like Benn.

So, while others are paralyzed by the attention crisis afflicting our society, you calmly put your phone away, close your email, focus your mind, and get to work. Relaxed you know you’re in a position to capitalize on the situation. It all starts with turning off your phone.


Duke, K., Ward, A., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. (2018). Having your smartphone nearby takes a toll on your thinking. Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from

Harris, M. (2018, 02/10; 2018/8). I have forgotten how to read. Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada) Retrieved from

Krashinsky, S. (2015, May 11). Attention spans in a digital world. Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada) Retrieved from

McGugan, I. (2017, 11/25; 2018/8). How technology is sapping our attention spans – and our productivity. Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada) Retrieved from

Newport, C. (2016). Deep work is valuable. Deep work (1st ed., pp. 21-48). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Newport, C. (2016). Introduction. Deep work (1st ed., pp. 1-18). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

Parrish, S. (2017, Oct). How to remember what you read. Retrieved from