Are smartphones making us less productive?

In a post on the central bank’s blog, Dan Nixon, who works in the bank’s content and strategy department, highlights some of the evidence that suggests our attachment to the gadgets is part of a “crisis of attention” that could be making it harder to work efficiently, possibly to the extent that it is holding back the economy at large.

Are we so constantly distracted by our smartphones that it’s making us less productive? This is not an idle thought, but a serious question recently posed by the Bank of England.

Low productivity is a problem across many advanced economies, including the US and (especially) the UK. Globally, productivity growth is still nowhere near the rate recorded before the 2008 financial crisis. Economists and policymakers have struggled to explain why.

Nixon notices a correlation: In the past decade, productivity growth has slowed while global shipments of smartphones have risen.

Even if we interact with our phones on average 2,617 times a day, there’s still little evidence to connect these potential attention-sapping effects to productivity in the wider economy. Therefore, Nixon doesn’t try to offer a definitive answer to the question but rather a way to think about it. “My contention is that distractions at work-whether from work emails, smartphone notifications or office noise-might cause weaker productivity via two main channels”, he writes.

The first contention is simply that interruptions, such as using the internet at work for personal reasons or finding yourself stuck in a social media spiral, reduce time spent working. This is made worse by the fact it supposedly takes about 25 minutes to return our focus to a task after dropping it because of a distraction. Meanwhile, the influx of emails, calls, and instant messages at work could be reducing our IQ and lowering the quality of our work.

The second argument is that distractions alter mindsets more permanently, with workers developing habits based on distractions caused by things such as endless news scrolls. There is research that suggests that once you are distracted by something you’re more likely to “self-interrupt” in the future. This has led to thinking about how multitasking and emails could be bad for the workplace, promoting instead a focus on “deep work”, a term used by Cal Newport when discussing more productive, distraction-free habits.

As Nixon notes, there needs to be much more research into the links between attention and productivity. For example, he points to a 2010 study by psychologists at Harvard that found our minds are “wandering” about 50% of the time. But earlier research found that mind-wandering seems to be the human brain’s default mode of operation, a finding supported by the Harvard psychologists. If our minds routinely wander and this has been proven in studies from years before smartphones, then are the devices really making things that much worse? Before smartphones, similar debates focused on smoking breaks and open-office plans.

The sharp decline in productivity after the financial crisis is what makes Nixon’s line of enquiry interesting. To further develop it, he suggests empirical research on the drag to productivity from the distraction channels above, or analysis of existing data to measure the gains to productivity by firms that go to particular efforts to enhance their employees’ attention, compared with similar firms that don’t.

This is just one way to think of the bigger issues about the relationship between new technologies and productivity. Some economists argue that one of the reasons productivity growth is so slow in the developed world is because the statistics used to measure economic growth fail to account for technological advancements. In 2015, Hal Varian, who is now chief economist at Google, argued that US productivity wasn’t sluggish at all (paywall). Rather, all the innovations made in Silicon Valley have making the country more productive, but official measurements fail to capture these efficiencies since they are reflected in things like the time saved shopping, calling taxis, and the like.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to argue that we would be better off without smartphones. But will we eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, when the constant distractions made possible by powerful computers in our pockets do more harm than good?

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