Feeling Uncreative? Put Down Your Phone

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The average time spent daily on a phone, not counting talking on the phone, has increased in recent years, reaching 4 hours and 30 minutes as of April 2022. Some of you reading this may spend even more. A stealth crisis in humanity.

Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” ― Pablo Picasso

A paradox of modernity is our best ideas come when offline, yet we rely on digital tools to bring those ideas to life. This worked fine when we didn’t also try to bring our workstation with us 24/7 via latest gen smartphone in our pocket, always-on, always at the ready to disrupt deep thoughts and deep work. You’re not only unproductive on mobile, you’re robbing yourself of the most fertile time for contemplation by being tethered. The downstream effects of this on your life could not be more simultaneously pronounced and ignored.

Twitter/X and social media didn’t hijack your attention or life, we had those growing up in the 90s. I was on forums/boards as a kid instead of TV and it honestly couldn’t have been healthier. Instead of simply being passively entertained by cable, much of what I learned was directly transferable to what I do by day, and it might surprise some of you but it was cerebral time spent. But previously, you left that at home and then went out and connected with others face-to-face without distraction. Media get this wrong all the time, as witnessed by such headlines as below.

It’s not social, social has existed since the 90s…


Here’s the chart you can blame, as Noah Smith says, “it’s probably the phones.”

25+ Incredible US Smartphone Industry Statistics [2023]: How Many Americans  Have Smartphoness Zippia

It seems pretty obvious limiting your child’s use of smartphones is wise. Their brains are still developing and allowing their attention to be hijacked by the internet during what should be a time they build appropriate habits and life skills of course has consequences, which we’re seeing play out now. Others have noted similarly. I assume everyone will course correct on this one, and hey even some of the kids are getting it as this WSJ headline alludes.

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If you have a kid, getting them a flip phone for simple calls and texting couldn’t be smarter. Betting nearly everyone does this in the future (if we care about letting our youth have a childhood, which we should).

Anyway, to get back to working adults, the thing is, and I’m going to stress this part: most information you receive on your mobile device you do not need in real-time. No new update from social, no email from your team, no Slack message is likely to be of much consequence. On the other hand, your focused time on deep work is certainly going to lead to better outcomes, a happier creative life and fulfilling work. I still don’t believe any important work is done on mobile, I think an excess of this is a very clear signal of a distracted team looking to fill time, look busy and feel important. You can’t do big things if you’re distracted by small things.

At one point, Silicon Valley execs went so far as to have their teams try to work ‘mobile only.’ I was on one of these teams. It was originally done as an exercise to try to get PMs to think about creating a great mobile user experience, but I genuinely believe many of these execs (who literally just send emails and sit in meetings all day — not deep work) also think a mobile device makes them more productive. I can’t fathom for anyone outside a retail worker helping a customer with something like getting into a rental car this is the case: for the jobs of most reading this, it simply isn’t. Two monitors and an ergonomic keyboard is sustainable, productive and work-lindy.

There is significant evidence to suggest creativity thrives in moments of solitude and contemplation. According to a study by HBR, people tend to have their most original ideas when they’re not focused on their work. This phenomenon, known as ‘incubation,’ is the unconscious processing of information and problem-solving that occurs when we step away from the task at hand. Taking breaks (without the pings of work) and allowing the mind to wander enhances creative problem-solving. Thus, it’s safe to say our most fertile ground for contemplation is when we are offline, away from the constant stream of digital information. If these breaks involve your mobile device being glued to your face you’re already lost, and are robbing yourself of perhaps the most critical time for when you are at work and need to deliver something important and unique.

Mobile devices have undoubtedly improved our lives and I am not a mobile permabear. But they are a double-edged sword when it comes to our attention and creativity.

Chart: Phones Are America's Driving Distraction No.1 | Statista
People can’t even put their devices down while operating a vehicle – something which done while distracted could easily end their life. This is how strong the habit is built.

The highest use of mobile computing for sure centers around utility and acting as a sort of physical world assistant: valuable for things like summoning a car, reading a menu in another language or figuring out directions in a city we don’t know. What it’s not as useful for — and I strongly believe succeeds as just a distraction — is replicating what we should be doing at our desk, or much more subversive, getting in the way of contemplative time. I think most serious people know this deep down, but we need more reminders so I’m hoping today’s post connects with some readers or can be a reminder to share with their team.

I wouldn’t write on this one unless I felt it was probably out of control. Some people are spending nearly 19% of their day, every day on their mobile device as shown in multiple pieces of research (sounds even worse than when you say 4.5 hours doesn’t it). That adds up to over 68 full days a year! It’s an extraordinary amount of time (time, the most precious, finite resource, the thing no one can get back). And look I’m a complete computer nerd, but I am begging people to spend most of their computing time at their ergonomic workstation for the sake of your eyes, skeletal and mental health and then leave breathing room while away. This ‘always on’ culture is something new, and something cancerous to our thinking. It’s eating into people’s lives and totally ruining our idea incubation time. If your team is burned out, it’s a near-guarantee too much mobile is why.

Remember, as Archimedes commented on centuries ago, our greatest “Eureka!” moments arise when we least expect them, and certainly not when we’re flooding our brain with information – useful or otherwise. Many are in a constant drought here. Hopefully not forever.

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