Could using your smartphone in a more focused way help you focus?

Mobile Focus


In today’s mental fitness post, we consider the relationship between daily inattention and smartphone use, thanks to a study by Marty-Dugas et al (2017). I’ll break down the study (actually 2 studies in the same paper) and then discuss some potential implications for building focused attention – a key component of being productive.

Upfront, I need to admit that I checked my phone about 50 times while writing this blog post (ahh geez).


Let’s set the scene

Smartphones are a constant fixture in our lives. Rates of ownership and regular use are very high. And it makes sense. Modern smartphones are highly capable and useful. In our pocket we all carry a device with incredible potential.

As with anything in life, nothing comes free. Whilst smartphones are incredibly useful, there is also a growing body of literature linking their use to negative outcomes – particularly in relation to diverting our attention away from important things (e.g. operating a vehicle, interacting with people, studying, and engaging in tasks which require focused attention such as surgery). In fact, much of the literature to date has focused on how distracting mobile phones are ‘in the moment’, i.e.. whilst we are trying to concentrate.

Marty-Dugas et al. were interested in whether smartphone use is associated with more global attention problems – i.e. attention deficits experienced across the day. They were also interested in unpicking what type of smartphone use might be associated with attention problems. They posited two broad types of smartphone use:

General smartphone use, where individuals describe interacting with the phone in a purposeful way (i.e. responding specifically to message notifications).

Absent-minded smartphone use – where users describe interacting with the phone in more random, unconscious, goalless was (e.g. finding themselves repeatedly checking without any real purpose)


What they did

Marty-Dugas et al. conducted 2 studies – one with undergrads (n=159) and one with a more diverse (mostly in age, n=226) sample obtained through Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Both studies explored the relationships between general and absent-minded smartphone use and everyday experiences of inattention. Essentially the Mechanical Turk study was there to see if the results obtained with undergrads were replicated.

The authors built two custom questionnaires to assess smartphone usage on a ‘typical day’

The general smartphone use questionnaire asked about the frequency of task oriented smartphone usage – messages, push notifications, checking for new messages, reading the news, responding to notifications, use of the calendar etc.

The absent-minded smartphone use questionnaire asked about the frequency of more random mobile use – not task focused, using phone during conversations, using phone for no good reason or without a purpose, using phone without realising why or for longer than intended.

They assessed daily inattention using existing questionnaires that looked at 1) how often the person behaves in a mindless or absent-minded way (e.g. rushing through activities without paying attention), 2) the number of errors from lapses in attention (e.g. gone into a room and left without getting what they went for), and 3) intentional and unintentional mind wandering,


What they found

The same pattern of results held across both studies.

First, there was a strong correlation between general smartphone use and absent-minded smartphone use. The suggestion here is that if you use your smartphone a lot, you are also like to use it absent-mindedly a lot as well.

Second, there were moderate positive correlations between smartphone use (either type) and measures of daily inattention. The more you use your phone, the more likely you are to report episodes of inattention and mind-wandering during the day.

Third, when they looked more closely, it was the absent-minded smartphone use that was the real driver behind the relationship between smartphone use and inattention. You know when you are just looking at your phone, and you don’t really know why? It is that kind of unfocused smartphone use that appears to be related to general inattention.



What does it mean for achieving more focused attention

An important factor in achieving positive outcomes in work and study is being able to focus your attention.

Anecdotally, many of us have probably experienced our smartphones being highly distracting when we should be working or studying.

The work by Marty-Dugas et al. suggests that the observed relationship between increased smartphone use and daily inattention, is driven primarily by absent-minded smartphone use – that is, the kind that feels aimless, random and without obvious purpose.

Now the study is not able to confirm whether absent-minded smartphone use causes daily inattention. It could be that absent-minded people who experience daily inattention are also drawn to using their smartphone in an absent-minded way.

BUT, there is the tantalising possiblity that regardless of the direction of the relationship between smartphone use and inattention, that practising focusing your smartphone use, might lead to improvements in attention. I say might, because I put it forward as a prediction, not a statement of fact.

Fortunately, there are some fairly easy ways to test this idea for yourself.


Focusing your smartphone use

Here are 4 achievable ways to better regulate your smartphone use. I’ll leave it up to you to assess whether implementing one of these ideas leads to general improvements in attention.

  1. Disable most notifications on your phone, except for critical ones, like phone calls and text messages.
  2. Uninstall apps that you find particularly distracting. Often they are the social media type apps (e.g. Twitter, Facebook).
  3. Set aside mobile phone ‘black out’ times where you remove yourself from your phone. For example, you might schedule 4 study periods during a day, during which you turn off your phone, or put it in another room.
  4. Experiment with apps that help you identify your phone usage and block excessive use, or incentivize periods of leaving your phone alone. Here are a few to get you started: Flipd, Moment, Offtime and Forest.

The Mental Fitness Series Disclaimer: The mental fitness posts on this blog are designed to help you build skills in 7 different areas. I try to ground my suggestions in good science, or conventional wisdom, but the reality is I can’t give any sorts of guarantees that the ideas I present will be helpful to you. In some ways that sucks, but in other ways it is kinda cool. It means you’ll need to evaluate the ideas I present based on your own experiences and context, and honestly, that is a great skill in itself to develop. So read these posts, try a few of the ideas in your own life, and see which ones work, and which ones don’t. Give me feedback on which ideas resonate for you, and which ones don’t. Working together I feel we can do some good self-development, by keeping an open mind and an experimental nature.


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