Cell phones in class: Today’s equivalent of smoking in hospitals

The human brain can’t focus if it’s being constantly distracted. The human species can’t survive if we can’t focus.

Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Three facts on the current state of affairs:

1) The economy has shifted

Our economy has shifted from being a labour economy to being a knowledge economy. This means most people now make money from intellectual work (coming up with ideas and making those ideas happen), and not from physical labour on the farm or in the factory.

2) Focus is an increasingly valuable skill

Cal Newport, Georgetown U professor (and creator of the revolutionary blog Study Hacks), has written extensively on the shift to knowledge work. He argues that focus is the most important skill in a knowledge economy, and research backs him up (1, 2). He writes,

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Cal Newport

Deep work is work done in uninterrupted blocks of time, where you fully focus on the task at hand, and complete it to the highest levels. Here are just some of magical benefits of deep work:

  • You can enter a flow state, where time slows and work feels effortless
  • Original ideas just come to you
  • You can distill problems down to their simplest parts
  • You see hidden connections between things

How are we going to come up with the creative solutions we need to solve our global problems if we can’t focus? Deep work is everything.

3) Phones destroy focus

Each time you check a notification, or do something else to take your mind off the task at hand, you pay a switching cost. The cost of switching from focused work to checking a notification is about 20 minutes.

In plain speak, this means it will take you 20 minutes to get back on track after checking that notification, because the notification leaves an attention residue in your brain. Even though you’ve put your phone away, you’re still sort of thinking about it. It’s like a cloud of fog left behind on the window of your brain, making it just a bit harder to see out, until it gradually lifts.

Consider this: it might only take 10 seconds to unlock your phone, confirm you got one new message, acknowledge it’s a stupid email about something you don’t want to buy, and put your phone back away. That 10 second mental detour will now derail your concentration for the next 20 minutes. A “quick glance” at your inbox takes over 1000x as much time as you think it does (10 sec x 6/minute x 20 min)!

Why cell phones are so dangerous

Deep work is hard, and deep work is boring. Focusing on one thing for a long time is painful! But being able to cope with boredom while you concentrate on an important task is essential.

When was the last time you were bored? You probably weren’t bored for long, because we almost reflexively take out our phones as soon as we feel an inkling of boredom. When waiting in line, when an ad starts, when the person talking to you goes on a little too long with their story…what do you do?

Our phones allow us to escape boredom. But the ability to deal with boredom is required for doing productive, meaningful work – the work that’s going to change the world.

And at a less grandiose scale, focus is required to learn. Is it any wonder students forget things so quickly? Nothing gets in very deep if you aren’t really paying attention.

We must get rid of the distraction

As responsible educators, we have to teach kids how to do deep work. So we need to force them to be bored. They can practice it for 6 hours a day while also learning incredible things.

We need to get these focus-destroying distractions out of the hands of our “future” if we want them to have a future.


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