If you find your focus wandering as you study for that exam or write a paper, the solution could be in your back pocket. More specifically, the solution could be removing what’s in your back pocket—your smartphone. Research conducted by a professor at The University of Texas at Austin shows the constant, convenient connection we gain from our smartphones often comes at the expense of our ability to focus.
Dr. Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist and associate professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business, co-authored a study that shows even the presence of smartphones in a study space can lower your learning, logical reasoning, abstract thinking, problem-solving, and creative abilities.
Ward—along with Kristen Duke and Ayelet Gneezy from the University of San Diego and Maarten Bos with Disney Research—recruited 520 students and tested their ability to focus on a single task and solve unfamiliar problems. Participants in the study were divided into three groups: one group kept their smartphones on the desk, one kept them in a pocket or backpack, and one put them in a separate room.
Nearly all of the students in the experiment reported not being distracted by their phones, but the results told a different story. Students who kept their phones on the desk performed the worst on the tests followed by those who kept their phones in a pocket or backpack. The highest performers were the students who left their phones in a separate room.
The results suggest that your ability to think and focus decreases when your phone is nearby.
“Consumers who were engaged with ongoing cognitive tasks were able to keep their phones not just out of their hands, but also out of their (conscious) minds,” Ward and his colleagues concluded in their study. “The mere presence of these devices left fewer attentional resources for engaging with the task at hand.”
Also, the visibility of the phone’s screen and whether the phone was silent or powered off made little difference in cognitive capacity, suggesting that “intuitive ‘fixes’ such as placing one’s phone face down or turning it off are likely futile,” according to the study.
Bottom line, the best way to keep your smartphone from stealing your focus might be to leave it at home.