Have mobile phones made us more productive – or are they just a distraction?

Man with many mobile phones

Have today’s mobile phones made us more productive, better at communicating and more able to get things done? Or are they more of a distraction what with the endless buzzes, notifications and interruptions? And I’m specifically talking about smartphones rather than feature phones that can barely do more than make a call or send an SMS.

A smartphone isn’t merely a phone. We use them for just about everything: checking Facebook, sending messages, playing movies and games, ordering food, hailing a cab to just about everything else.

And if you’re anything like me (a fairly typical smartphone owner with a penchant for the occasional casual game), your mobile is probably with you all day. Aside from being contactable round-the-clock via social media, phone calls or any of the countless messaging apps, a smartphone it’s typically the first device that springs to hand for finding directions, browsing the Internet, or as a productivity tool on the go.

Is your mobile a distraction?

We have already discussed at why mobile phones can make life more complicated, and while the reverse is also true there’s definitely a balance to be had. We’ve become a society obsessed by poking and staring at screens instead of talking to each other – just look around next time you’re on the Tube in London. It’s even more noticeable in cities like Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong where there’s decent network connectivity on trains and subways.

As far as the “distraction” question goes, my phone is always close by and receives a steady stream of notifications throughout the day. Unrelenting. I have taken steps to configure them so that I’m distracted as little as possible – and the Apple Watch has certainly helped with that goal. I expect Android Wear owners would say the same thing.

There’s always the “do not disturb” mode – mine is set to ignore callers and notifications from midnight until 8am unless it’s a “VIP” contacts or they happen to call twice in a row. Do not disturb mode is a necessity for me because I’m 6 hours ahead of the UK as I write this, and random people don’t realise that if they call my London Skype number (which redirects to the desktop/mobile app) at 8pm I’ll not be very happy with a “mis-sold PPI insurance” call when it’s 2am in the morning here!

Without the Apple Watch I suspect I would already be increasingly annoyed with the incessant emails from marketing companies, random recruitment firms, “hot girls waiting for you” spam and oodles more I’ve never even subscribed to and don’t want. Clicking the “unsubscribe” button on such emails doesn’t always work (and may not be recommended to actually visit those sites), and junk mail filters still miss things.

Then there is the more pressing issue of app notification overload – thankfully, all of this can be managed via your mobile’s settings – but how many people take the time to configure them properly?

Aside from the obvious distractions throughout the day, I’m still of the belief that my phone has increased my productivity: it’s certainly easier to check work emails, edit WordPress posts, view online orders, manage meeting schedules, and keep one eye on Skype notifications from team chats.

Unfortunately, I can’t help feeling that any productivity gains have been totally wiped out by Boom Beach notifications (“submarine ready for duty” and “your troops are ready for action”), LinkedIn (“somebody has viewed your profile”), Facebook Messenger (“Thumbs up”, followed by a bigger “Thumbs up”, followed by a a weird assortment of animated GIFs and other stickers) and so on…

The only time I don’t carry a phone with me is when I’m riding a motorcycle in the heat of summer and just leave everything behind for an hour or two. There have been times on holiday in remote places (the Sahara desert in Morocco for example) that I didn’t take a mobile phone or there was no signal, and it was actually great to take a break from mobile phones.

Perhaps it would be an interesting social experiment to leave my iPhone at home more often. In that case, my other half would probably wonder why I haven’t moved on “Find My Friends” all day. What a quandary, and most certainly a “first world problem”!

Even though I’ve not really answered the original question, we’ll leave it up to you to post your thoughts in the…ahh, my submarine and troops are ready again.

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