Well this is awkward...

I just got back from a trip to Montana, where we spent a week on a dude ranch. Yep, yours truly spent seven days riding a horse and lived to tell the tale!


While this trip was always planned as time to “disconnect,” I have to admit I had a small internal panic attack as we pulled up to the ranch and I noticed the dreaded “No Service” on the top left of my screen...and even worse when I sheepishly inquired and found out there was no wifi!

It took me a couple of days to wind down, but after that, our time was wonderful in all the ways you might expect...better conversations...more attention to the funny little things my kids do when they don’t know we are watching...less stress.

But an interesting thing happened beyond that. I found myself with an incredible sense of mental clarity, of presence, of wonderment, far beyond the mere absence of the pings and buzzes that happen all day. It felt like a part of my brain woke back up.

This got me wondering, how much do our phones really impact our ability to pay attention in conversation, even when we manage to resist the urge to check something in the middle of the interaction? It turns out, a lot. 😬

So this week, let’s unpack the impact of these “magic boxes” and what we can do about it.



We all know firsthand the price, in the form of distraction, that comes from looking at our smartphone. Diverting attention to our phones creates significant risk while driving a car, and has been shown to reduce our learning comprehension. With the average person interacting with their smartphone 85 times per day, the impact of this “active distraction” is huge in its own right.

But beyond the distraction of actively checking our phones, in recent years, scientists have begun studying the mental tax that comes just from having phones around. What they are finding is that these magical little boxes are filled with such temptation, such FOMO, that just having them in our proximity reduces our mental bandwidth.

A study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Researchlooked at the impact on subjects’ ability to maintain “Working Memory Capacity” and “Fluid Intelligence” — two key measurements of mental performance — based on the physical proximity of the smartphone.

In the study, they found that there was a significant difference in mental capacity when a subject left their smartphone in a completely different room vs. having the phone in a pocket/handbag, or out on the table. While the scientists observed some difference between having the phone visible vs. tucked away in a pocket or handbag, the most meaningful factor for improving focus was to leave the phone somewhere else altogether.

The subjects were surveyed to determine their degree of reliance on their smartphone throughout the day. Perhaps not surprisingly, those reporting higher dependence on their phone also suffered the worst from the distraction tax of having it nearby.

We all understand the joys of our always-wired world—the connections, the validations, the laughs… the info… But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs.
— Andrew Sullivan


You didn’t think I was going to tell you to get rid of your smartphone, did you!?!? Well, I’m not going to do that.

Smartphones are a valuable tool that can help us to achieve more, faster, if we use them in the right way. But like any tool, we need to know the strengths and limitations of our phones in order to leverage their value while keeping them from taking over our lives.

Tip #1: Leave your phone in the car or another room when having a conversation.

Removing the physical presence of your phone limits your minds’ ability to wander off in the wrong direction and keep you from paying attention in a conversation.

At Contact Mapping, we are firm believers that the details are often what matters most in a given conversation. Giving your brain the best chance to focus and retain will help you to remember for the future, and to demonstrate your presence in the moment.

Tip #2: If you can’t (or can’t stand) to be away from your phone, turn on Do Not Disturb mode

These days our smartphones come with a handy dandy “Do Not Disturb” feature that turns off notifications altogether when invoked. What’s cool about this is that you can configure the settings so that, in an emergency, the phone will ring through if someone calls multiple times in a row. 

So if you can’t stand the fear that your kid might have an emergency, or your boss will kill you for ignoring an important call, you can use this feature to tune out the noise but still allow yourself to be reached in an emergency.

Tip #3: Timebox some time away from the phone for focused productive time

Getting important work done requires that same high level of focus, and often it can help to set a fixed, attainable boundary of time away from the phone. I am a big fan of the Pomodoro technique of setting short time blocks to focus, with a break or reward at the end. The link above has a variety of apps to check out for this, and my personal favorite for the iPhone is Focus Keeper.

By putting a handful of practical boundaries and habits in place, we can still reap the benefits our smartphones have to offer while minimizing the pitfalls in our ability to focus and connect.

So set the phone aside, my friends, and go forth and connect!