Yes, Your Phone Is Making You Dumber

I’m amazed.

Simply by my own ability to consume stuff that sucks.

When I say “sucks,” I mean anything “not improving my life in any way.”

What my high school acquaintances are doing is probably not making me smarter.

Watching people own pet tigers is probably not making me smarter.

Scrolling through Twitter for the gazillionth time today is most definitely not making me smarter.

The purpose of life isn’t for every piece of content you consume to make you smarter (obviously). I’m not suggesting as much.

But I’m surprised at how easily my monkey mind has been trained to use these platforms for mindless consumption rather than productive tasks.

Something tells me I’m not the only one.

The Ephemeral Nature of Technology

Technology leads us to mindless consumption. Mindless consumption is ephemeral.

It wasn’t until I read this article from Nat Eliason on the ephemerality of social media did I understand what really bothered me about Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram:

“The more ephemeral a piece of information is, the less likely it is to be valuable.”

How do you know a piece of content is ephemeral?

It’s gone quickly.

A Facebook status, tweet, or Instagram post will last for a maximum of two days.

Contrast that with a good book. It might last a few hundred (or thousand) years! Even a resource published ten years ago (that is still recommended today) likely has an incredible amount of value.

Why does it matter?

The goal of social media is to get and keep your attention. Ways to get someone’s attention include making outlandish claims, doing ridiculous stunts, or being controversial.

The goal of a book is typically to inform or teach. Sure, a book can try to do the same as a social media post. But unless it is valuable, it is unlikely the book will be passed on.

There is also the cost of creating a book. It costs the author more time to create it. It costs the reader money to purchase. This higher cost of entry means it is already more likely to be valuable.

The Price of Social Media

Social media feels good. Apps make you feel like there’s always breaking news. Scrolling becomes a habit, an escape from reality – and often from what you really need to do. You almost never get long-term benefits from your use.

But the use of social media is costly. Take this study, for example, that tracked participants in 2018 before the U.S. midterm elections:

Facebook users, randomized to deactivate their accounts for 4 weeks in exchange for $102, freed up an average of 60 minutes a day, spent more time socializing offline, became less politically polarized, and reported improved subjective well-being relative to controls.

So, you could have more free time, more in-person relationships, less politically charged, and increase your wellbeing? Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

The Dangers of Multitasking

In a world of the past (the one without apps and screens trying to addict you), you were either focusing on one task or the other.

You could decide to read a book or watch a movie. Your mind wasn’t flipping between the activities every few seconds – it had one task.

But today, you can toss on Netflix, browse through the news, and find out about Einstein’s theory of relativity – all at the same time.

We have come to believe this is a positive.

That all this information has to be making us smarter and more productive. That we are consuming more, so we’re better off for it.

As it turns out, the evidence isn’t so clear.

Your Phone Is Making You Dumber

Some smart scientists set out to answer the question: what happens when your phone lights up while you’re doing something?

A 2015 study found that when people’s phones beep or buzz while they’re in the middle of a challenging task, their focus wavers and their work gets sloppier. (A different 2015 study showed when people’s phones ring but they are unable to answer it, their blood pressures spike, their pulse quickens, and their problem-solving skills decline.)

But then, some other ridiculously smart researchers asked another interesting question: what would happen to the quality of work when someone’s phone was merely present – not buzzing or ringing?

A 2017 study gave 520 undergraduate students tests that measured for focus and problem-solving. The students were placed in one of three experimental groups. They were to put their phones either: (1) in front of them, (2) in their pockets or handbags, (3) in a different room.

The results?

“As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased.”

Meaning? The further someone’s phone was from them, the smarter they got. 

They’re not the only ones to come to this conclusion.

Several creators have figured this out (David Perell, Tim Urban, and Mark Rober):

Ways to Decrease Mindless Consumption

We have determined ephemeral content leads to mindless consumption. What are we going to do about it? What are ways we can stop this cycle in its tracks so we can produce quality work?

Here are some of the ways I am attempting to decrease my mindless consumption:

Don’t check your phone, social media, or email before noon

This is a rule I’ve put into place over the past month, and I’ve seen the dividends almost immediately. My productivity has skyrocketed. I’m doing more of what I want to be doing. I’m getting more done.

Your phone, social media, and email are powerful tools for connecting with the world. But if you’re playing around with these powerful tools before you work on your own stuff, you’re risking getting sucked into someone else’s to-do list.  

Full screen mode (and only use one tab at a time)

For every tab you have open, the more your attention drifts from your one main task.

I believe full screen mode works because it signals to your mind: “This is the only thing we’re working on. Focus.”

Similar to how the mere presence of a phone makes us dumber, I wonder if the presence of a URL bar and open tabs make us dumber as well. A study on this would be incredibly interesting.

Eliminate all social media apps from your phone

The iPhone was originally only meant for a few functions: “to call, text, and listen to music.” Today, we are overwhelmed with the number of apps you can use. It’s the world’s most powerful computer in your pocket. Which makes it dangerous if you’re not careful.

Deleting social media from your phone is one way to make sure you’re not getting the “quick fix” of the drug.

Keep your phone on airplane mode 

Some people keep their default setting on Do Not Disturb.

I’ve found Airplane Mode is even more effective.

(Of course, one potential downside is this makes it harder to reach you. It’s best to let your family and friends know you’re doing this before you do it.)

Curate your feed

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has proposed human beings can only maintain connections with anywhere from 100-250 other people.

The commonly cited figure for Dunbar’s number is 150.

Dunbar explains it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

This applies as much to social media as it does to real life.

If you know you can only make real connections with 150 people, does it make sense to follow 1,000 people? Curate your feed so you’re following fewer, more valuable resources.

Stop following the news

Follow the news for any period of time, and you are certain to get depressed – or at the very least anxious about the future.

AllSides.com gives the left, right, and center perspective on different trending topics. Checking this once per day (or week) will keep you informed without having to drag your mind down.

Bill Maher said it best when he tweeted: “We need the news to calm down and treat us like adults.”

My typical rule is: If it’s that important, someone will tell you.

Set your phone to grayscale

Have you ever seen a slot machine? That’s what my phone normally looks like. Vibrant colors galore. Apps screaming – “CLICK ME!” 

This tactic is simple: you make your phone as boring as possible, you won’t want to use it. If you don’t use it as often, maybe you’ll get smarter?

How to do this on your iPhone: (1) Open Settings, (2) open General, (3) choose Accessibility, (4) choose Display Accommodations (5) select Color Filters (6) toggle Color Filters On (7) select Grayscale.

Chrome app: Kill News Feed

If you don’t want to engage in the latest political debate on Facebook, this is a great option. I forgot I had a News Feed after having this app installed for the past year. (This is a less dramatic version of deleting Facebook entirely. If you want to delete or deactivate your Facebook, you should check out this article.)

Chrome app: Hide Recommendations

YouTube can be a time suck. But it can still be useful. Downloading this Chrome app has made it less likely to get pulled into a YouTube black hole. Check out the difference:

Freedom.to

I caught myself instinctively typing in “gm” (for gmail.com) and “tw” (twitter.com) into the URL bar one too many times.

So I downloaded the Freedom app (recommended in Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport). I can never imagine myself not using this tool.

What Do You Consume To Make You Better?

We’ve determined your inputs lead to your outputs. We need to ensure that our inputs are helping us learn, grow, and expand.

Here are a few things I’m consuming that are (hopefully?) making me smarter:

  • Books. Interesting ideas that have been thought out, revised, and edited will typically outvalue tweets and Instagram posts.
  • For the Interested newsletter. This is a newsletter dedicated to helping you “produce, promote, and profit from your creations.” It’s really good, and I highly recommend it.
  • The Tej Dosa Letter. Costs $7/month but might be the best investment you ever make. Focus is on marketing/business, but truly any person would gain a greater understanding of life from reading this. 
  • Deep conversations with friends and family. Try reaching out to friends you haven’t spoke to in a while and get deeper than the surface level, “How are you doing?” Ask questions like, “Who’s influenced you the most?” or “What’s your greatest accomplishment to date and why?”

These tend to be longer form ideas, more thought out, and as a result, more likely to be valuable.

In Summary

  1. Technology leads you to consume ephemeral content.
  2. The more thought that went into a piece of content, the more likely it is valuable.
  3. Your phone makes you dumber. If you’re doing any type of creative work, the further it is away from you, the smarter you will get.
  4. Set rules in place in order to maximize the time you spend on digital devices.
  5. Utilize Chrome extensions and Freedom.to to decrease mindless consumption.
  6. Replace mindless consumption with interesting resources and ideas.