Cell Phones are not Productivity Devices

Yesterday, I got home about 7 and went to bed about 11. It was then that I realized I hadn’t touched my phone since I’d gotten home, a full four hours. I was quite happy with myself, but then I started thinking about why that might be the case. I concluded that, ultimately, the reason I didn’t touch my phone is because I didn’t need to.

Efficiency Addiction

I thought about writing this post on why cell phones are not entertainment devices, but I decided against it. The reason is simply that I think most people are already on board with that. Sure, lots of people have YouTube or a game on their phone, but there’s at least some awareness that entertaining yourself with a smartphone is usually a bad thing. When we use our phones for entertainment, we tend to sense that we’re doing something inherently juvenille. On the other hand, most people probably have no problem using their phone for productivity.

There are many reasons to think this, but the primary thing is that people generally think of productivity as a good thing. Or, to be more precise, they conflate good productivity with ruthless efficiency. Our ultra-thin, portable laptops aren’t enough in the “modern” world. We need something even smaller and even more portable. We need something to keep us working even when we’re on the toilet.

Enter the smartphone.

With everything in the cloud, all of our work is synced seamlessly between our devices. If I stand up from my desk, I can continue to carry out my duties as I go. I can listen to one more podcast. I can read one more page of that book everyone’s telling me to read. I can shoot off one more email to impose on some other poor soul. What’s more, I can begin to blur the line between work and rest and put myself in a state a constant stress. (For example, is that podcast I just mentioned productive, or is it just leisure?)

But in the midst of all this maximized efficiency, we find ourselves doing less. Instead of getting more done faster, we find ourselves burnt out and behind. The little productivity machines we carry around make us feel like god-kings, so we try to work like god-kings. But we’re not so indefagitable as to be gods.

Now, I’m not suggesting we throw all our smartphones into a pile and start a bonfire. There’s genuine good that comes out of them when we use them for their intended purpose, namely communication. The primary purpose of the phone is to speak with people. But how many people do you know actually use their phone for that? As I write this as 5pm on a Thursday, I’ve made one phone call and sent three texts. Certainly, there are people that do more calling and texting than that, but does that account for the 4.8 hours most people spend on their phones daily? I think not.

My guess is that people do one of three things for 90% of their time: - Scrolling through social media feeds - Working (poorly) - Pretending to work My contention is that these activities are mostly worthless if we look at the real outcomes.

The Solution

Simply, I suggest you make your life harder. If there’s something you need to do that would be better done on a real computer, do it there. Delete the email app from your phone, and do it on your computer. Get a real GPS or use the one in your car (my car is fifteen years old, and even it has a built-in GPS system). Put your music on an MP3 player.

The cell phone cannot be all things at once. When it tries to be, it does a mediocre job of everything. (Even modern smartphones are getting bad at calling.) Use your phone to talk to the people you love. And in the best case scenario, use your phone to talk to the people you love just long enough to get in the same room with them.