Where Do You Put Your Phone at Work?

One of the older books on my shelf is Time Power: The Revolutionary Time Management System That Can Change Your Professional and Personal Life by Charles Hobbs. Written in 1987, I acquired my copy around the first time I got a DayTimer in the mid-1990s. There’s lots of good ideas in the book, but the one diagram I have recalled most often is the one on setting up your desk. The “ABC Fingertip Management for Organizing Your Work Environment” is on page 138, as below:

As a young professional starting out in the world of work, the book and picture provided helpful guidelines on how to think about the relationship between physical space and work items. If you took an aerial shot of my office today, you would see a lot of similarity with the diagram. (And one other idea too in my office design from somewhere else that I can’t track down now: don’t have your desk facing a window with a wonderful or beautiful view, because it will be too distracting. Stick your desk against a boring wall, to facilitate concentration).

Of course the interesting thing with the picture is there is no computer, iPad, phone, scanner, printer, or any other device in view. Thirty years on from Charles writing his book, the question is, where should you put your phone?

For most of the past decade, my phone has been in Zone A, directly within reach of my left hand and within constant eyesight. Even though my phone hardly ever rings, that’s where it has sat.

That changed four months ago. One of the articles I read in August for a client project is called Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Here’s an extract:

We propose that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may induce “brain drain” by occupying limited-capacity cognitive resources for purposes of attentional control. Because the same finite pool of attentional resources supports both attentional control and other cognitive processes, resources recruited to inhibit automatic attention to one’s phone are made unavailable for other tasks, and performance on these tasks will suffer. We differentiate between the orientation and allocation of attention and argue that the mere presence of smartphones may reduce the availability of attentional resources even when consumers are successful at controlling the conscious orientation of attention.

The researchers did a couple of experiments to test their assertions, and found that yes, indeed, the mere presence of a phone reduced cognitive capacity for the tasks at hand. Interesting / fascinating / deeply disturbing.

The article answered a nagging feeling I had regarding my phone: that it was a distraction, even when I wasn’t using it. I kept seeing it in my peripheral vision, and wondering what was happening in the services. It would be like putting a plate full of M&M’s on my desk: they would be eaten during the day by virtue of being easily accessible and within view. The secret to not eating M&M’s all day is to not put them on my desk.

My phone is now in Zone C, out of sight and out of easy reach. I have to move my chair to reach it, and I can’t see it when I sit down to work. Now I often forget about it during the day, unless it rings, which is still an abnormal event.

[Disclosure: no M&M’s were hurt in the writing of this post.]

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