smartphones and cognitive distraction and impacting attention

5 Ways to Overcome the Negative Effects of Smartphones on Our Cognitive Abilities and Improve Focus and Concentration

By Rob

January 8, 2024

academic performance, cognitive distraction, smartphones

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In today’s digital age, smartphones have become an integral part of our daily lives. They provide us with instant access to information, communication, and entertainment. However, research has shown that constant phone use can have negative effects on our brains and ability to focus, leading to cognitive distraction and impacting attention and academic performance. In this article we’ll review 5 simple ways to improve focus and concentration so you can take back your attention and your time.

Several studies have delved into the effects of smartphones on our cognitive abilities. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that frequent phone use can lead to decreased attention span and reduced academic performance. The constant notifications, alerts, and distractions that come with smartphone use can disrupt our ability to focus, making it harder to retain information and complete tasks efficiently.

Another study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that the mere presence of a smartphone, even when turned off, face down, and not in use, can significantly reduce cognitive capacity and impair cognitive functioning.This means that simply having our phones nearby can distract us and diminish our ability to concentrate on tasks at hand.

Why? After all, if it’s turned off and we can’t use it then doesn’t it stand to reason that it won’t be distracting?

It does seem that way, but herein is the problem. If you’re even semi addicted to your phone, meaning that there’s a part of you wanting to check on your favorite social media streams, sport scores, or email, then just having it near you is cognitively taxing because you’re having to constantly fight the urge to check it. As a result you’re not fully engaged in the task you are currently working on, impacting your performance an productivity.

So, how can we combat the cognitive distractions caused by constant phone use and improve our attention and academic performance? Here are some tips:

1. Create Phone-Free Zones

Designate specific areas or times where phones are not allowed, such as during meals, study sessions, productivity blocks, intense workouts, or even bedtime. By creating phone-free zones, you can establish boundaries and reduce the temptation to constantly check your device.

An easy way to do this is by simply turning your phone off and placing it in a different room. As they say, “Out of sight, out of mind” might just be all it takes for you to take back your time and focus. I keep mine on a charging station in my den when I’m in my home office writing. Although I could easily get up and go get it, I find that this simple barrier keeps me from thinking about it, leaving me free to focus on what I choose to focus on.

2. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, can help train your brain to stay focused and reduce distractions. Taking a few minutes each day to practice mindfulness can improve your ability to concentrate and enhance your overall cognitive function.

If you really want to get serious about improving your focus try this. Instead of reaching for your phone, take that time you would have usually wasted scrolling social media and spend a few seconds focusing on your breath, noticing your body, and taking in your surroundings, all without judgement.

You can easily do this right now. As you read the next few words, notice the sounds around you, feel your chest rise and fall as you breathe in and out. Next notice the temperature of the air as it touches your fingers. In other words, try to be fully present in the moment by just immersing yourself in your senses. Research shows that doing this for just 10 to 30 seconds once or twice an hour can greatly improve your cognitive functioning.

3. Use Productivity Apps

Ironically, there are apps available that can help you manage phone distractions. These apps allow you to set timers, block certain apps or notifications, and track your phone usage. By utilizing these productivity apps, you can regain control over your phone usage and minimize cognitive distractions.

One app that works great is called momentum and you can get it at Just so you know, I have no affiliation with them and I only use the free version. Momentum is a start page you can use in Google Chrome that has many cool features, one being a focus mode. In focus mode you can set a Pomodoro timer along with soundscapes. It also allows you to create a to-do list and set your most important goal for the day.

4. Establish Scheduled Phone and Email Breaks

Instead of constantly checking your phone and email throughout the day, try scheduling specific times for phone and email breaks. This way, you can allocate dedicated periods to catch up on messages, social media, or other phone-related activities without interrupting your focus on important tasks.

In recent years, this idea has been one of the most freeing ones that I’ve had. I used to check my email constantly throughout the day, wasting valuable energy and time. Now I only check my email twice a day, and I never check it before or after a certain time.

I find that when you allocate certain times of the day for email and phone calls, a few things happen. First of all, people who email me needing help with a problem, often figure out a solution before I get back with them. This frees up my time some more while also teaching them not to be dependent upon me to swoop in and solve their problems. Second by not checking it in the evenings or early mornings, I’m not finding out about something that might lead me to feeling frustrated or anxious when I should be relaxing or working on my most important projects.

5. Practice Single-Tasking

In today’s rapid-fire world, multitasking is often heralded as a skill for the efficient. The allure of doing more in less time tempts many into juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, from checking emails while on conference calls to scrolling through social media during meals. However, this prevalent practice, contrary to popular belief, can be counterproductive, undermining our capacity to focus and execute tasks with precision.

Multitasking, at its core, is a misnomer. What we perceive as multitasking is actually task-switching, a process where our brain rapidly shifts focus from one task to another. This constant switching incurs a cognitive cost, known as the “switch cost,” which can lead to errors, decreased quality of work, and extended time to complete tasks. Research in cognitive psychology suggests that our brains are not wired to handle multiple attention-demanding tasks simultaneously. Instead, this divided attention dilutes our cognitive resources, impairing our ability to perform each task effectively.

The Power of Singular Focus

Embracing a singular focus strategy, where one dedicates complete attention to one task at a time, can significantly enhance concentration and task performance. This approach aligns with the concept of “deep work,” a term coined by author Cal Newport, which refers to the state of being deeply engrossed in a cognitively demanding task. By minimizing distractions and channeling our cognitive resources towards one activity, we can achieve a higher quality of work, foster creativity, and solve complex problems more efficiently.

In conclusion, constant phone use can lead to cognitive distraction, impacting attention and academic performance. The presence of smartphones alone can diminish cognitive capacity, while the constant notifications and distractions can disrupt our ability to focus. However, by implementing strategies such as creating phone-free zones, practicing mindfulness, using productivity apps, scheduling phone breaks, and practicing single-tasking, we can mitigate the negative effects of constant phone use and improve our cognitive abilities and academic performance.

Remember, while smartphones offer numerous benefits, it’s essential to find a healthy balance and prioritize our cognitive well-being for optimal focus and success.

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About the author

Hi, I’m Robert Louis Sims …A.K.A. Rob
I’ve been studying the psychology of achievement since 1989, when I picked up a copy of How to Sell Anything to Anybody by Joe Girard. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with learning the difference between people I have now come to call Intentional Achievers and everyone else.
If you’re looking to take your career, relationships, health, energy, productivity, influence, and life to the next level, then I invite you to join me on Achievement Made Simple.
My mission is to find the principles of achievement and share them with you in a simple way that makes them easy to understand and use in our everyday lives.

Robert Louis Sims

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