Apple held their annual September event yesterday where they showed off their brand new lineup of phones, the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max (that’s a mouthful). As the show began, a quote (which usually represents the theme of the entire event) was shown on screen, which read,
“Give People Wonderful Tools, And They’ll Do Wonderful Things.”
Apple takes pride in creating tools that are simple to understand yet so powerful that anyone can create art or build business projects. Yet even with all of this fancy new tech being revealed every year, two questions remain: because of our heavy reliance on technology, are we permanently unable to produce at our highest cognitive level, and has technology prevented us from producing at the highest quality?
Well, yes and no.
Let’s take a look at the first question: are we no longer able to produce at our highest cognitive level due to technology? This question was answered in a study that tested students’ cognitive abilities. The results showed that students who had their phones far away in a different room severely outperformed those whose phones were laying face down right in front of them. The blame must therefore be pinned on technology for causing the students stress and anxiety throughout the exam, right? Well, maybe not. Look at it like this: every single student in this test owns a phone, so it’s not the phone itself that’s causing the gap in scores, but rather where the phone is. Students who tested while their phone was in another room were able to perform so well because they knew their phone was in a safe area and thus can focus all of their attention on the test. Students who tested while the phone was in their pockets even scored better than those whose phones were in front of them because the pockets are a safer place for the phone to be than out in the open. Our phones are basically our identity, and if they are not in the safest spot we feel anxious because there’s always a chance it can get stolen or damaged, thus diverting our attention from the work that we are supposed to be doing. So before you go out and get some serious work done, the best thing to do is to put your phone in the absolute safest spot you can find.
Now that the phone is away, how on earth do we get better at focusing on work? Cal Newport uses a term called “Deep Work,” which are distraction-free activities that push your cognitive capabilities. In a world where distractions are everywhere, trying to master this habit is nothing short of challenging. As I am typing this, my phone is nowhere near me, no one is awake and requesting my attention, yet this habit of zeroing in on one specific project for an extended period of time without any interruption is very daunting. It’s so difficult that more people would rather be shocked than sit alone and think without being distracted. Despite this study, I still feel that it is possible to reach our full cognitive potential whilst in this era of technological reliance.
The next question asks if technology has prevented us from producing at the highest quality possible, and that answer is simply no. Newport argues that if you take breaks to look at your phone to check email or your messages, your mind will be stuck on those and will be unable to fully concentrate on the main task, thereby preventing you from outputting at the highest quality. This may not be fully true, because a University of Kansas study revealed that short smartphone breaks between work are indeed productive because they let the workers quickly release all their stress and in turn makes them more productive. It has also proven to make them feel more positive throughout the day.
So what’s the point of all this? Is Deep Work even necessary? Are you technically performing Deep Work with a smartphone nearby? Either way, Deep Work is extremely valuable because you can use it to learn something very complicated which will set you up for success. Depending on what you are trying to learn, however, you may be required to spend multiple hours a day in isolation, which could have an impact on your mental health. Having your smartphone nearby may make you better off overall because you can still have 100 percent of your focus on the subject you’re trying to learn, while embracing that feeling of connection to the outside world. As Apple is getting ready to release their new iPhones, do not resent them for how they can distract you from your best work, but rather embrace them in how they can help you make better work.
- Duke, Christian, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos. “Having your smartphonenearby takes a toll on your thinking.” HBR, 20 Sept. 2018,
- FitzSimons, Kelly. “Workplace Productivity in an Era of Smartphones.” Corporate Wellness Magazine, https://www.corporatewellnessmagazine.com/article/workplace-productivity-in-an-era-of-smartphones
- Harris, Michael. “I have forgotten how to read.” The Globe and Mail, 9 Feb. 2018
- Newport, Cal. Deep Work. New York, Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
“September Event 2019 – Apple.” YouTube, uploaded by Apple, 10 September 2019.