This past summer, on a recent family trip, I went without Wi-Fi or cell coverage for a full seven days. Camping in the dirt, eating S’mores, reading books, and not checking news or email once.
After seven days of technological disconnect, I felt more energized and creative. I emerged with more original ideas about coaching and the direction of Data Driven Athlete than I had experienced in years.
In disconnecting from my phone, I inadvertently plugged into another channel often obscured by the constant presence of technology. Recent science seems to corroborate my experience.
In 2017, researchers set out to better understand how the mere proximity of a participants cell phone (without seeing the screen or hearing notifications) might impact their performance on a cognitive test . These were the proximity conditions researchers evaluated:
- Phone within arms reach facing down on the desk.
- Phone in the pocket or bag out of site.
- Phone in another room.
During each condition, phones were silenced completely and participants did not interact with them at all during the test. Check out the results below.
The graphs show the closer a subject was in proximity to their phone, the greater their decline in cognitive capacity (as measured by Working Memory Capacity (A) and Fluid Intelligence (B)) . The fact that mere proximity to an inanimate object could have a measurable impact on cognition is incredible to me.
Not a Fair Fight
Of course, there are teams of brilliant engineers that design phones (and apps) to have this precise overwhelming influence over our attention. Always buzzing, beeping, and notifying. Even when silenced, the phones mere potential to connect us to endless knowledge and entertainment ties up “limited-capacity cognitive resources…undercutting cognitive performance” .
In short, there’s a good chance that being on and around my phone all the time makes me dumber. Silencing or placing my phone face down isn’t an adequate defense strategy. As the research article points out, planned and purposeful separation is my best option to defend against the cognitive theft engineered by my phone.
My defense strategy has been a constant work in progress, but so far here’s what I’ve learned:
- I have to start by acknowledging that my phone doesn’t care about my life. It’s not my friend. It cares more about me scrolling through Instagram than being present with my son as we sit together at lunch.
- I strive to use my phone to accomplish specific tasks but it never seems to work out that way. My phone is like a contractor who comes over to work on a specific project then ends up squatting in my house. F#$k that guy, I want my house back.
- Every chance I get throughout the day, I want to leave my phone in a place that isn’t easily accessible. If I’m at home, it stays in the hallway closet. If I’m at the park with my kids, it stays in the car or at home all together. Before leaving, I’ll send my wife a quick text that I’m heading out and will be away from the phone for a few hours.
- To have the freedom to disconnect from my phone, I need to wear an analog watch. Using my phone to check the time is no longer a valid excuse for having it around.
- Because I’m so pathetic that I can’t avoid checking my phone for the few seconds I’m stopped at a light, the phone has to go in the trunk whenever I’m driving. Leaving it within arms reach is like putting a donut on the kitchen countertop. The donut wins every time. Even if I don’t eat it, it still occupies my mind, draining the precious resource of willpower just to avoid eating it.
- It’s not enough to only avoid my phone during a typical week. I need to plan several multi-day trips throughout the year where I’m totally disconnected from the internet and cell coverage. The planned disconnect always energizes the areas of my life that matter most: my role as a husband, father, and coach.
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Data Driven Athlete
 A. F. Ward, K. Duke, A. Gneezy, and M. W. Bos, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” J. Assoc. Consum. Res., vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 140–154, 2017.