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Even if your phone’s turned off, its nearby presence is distracting you

Turns out, putting your phone down in front of you will not help you escape its distracting siren’s call.

According to new research in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, our phone’s mere presence is enough to wreak havoc on our ability to think.

Why you don’t want to leave your phone on your desk

To test this, marketing and decision science researchers recruited nearly 800 people to complete tasks on their cognitive thinking skills in two experiments. Participants were all told to turn their phones completely silent so that no vibration or pinging noise would distract them. They were also told to either place their phone on the desk in front of them, keep their phones in their pocket, or put them in another room.

The location of the phone had an outsized effect on participants’ ability to reason and remember. Even though participants were not actively checking their phones, the phone’s nearby presence was unconsciously distracting participants. The presence of a nearby phone led to a lower working memory capacity and reduced functional fluid intelligence. The participants who had their phones in front of them on a desk performed the worst on cognitive tests, followed by those who kept their phones in their pockets. The top performers were the ones who banished their phones to a separate room.

The researchers called this phenomenon a “smartphone-induced ‘brain drain.’ ” Our brains only have so much room to multitask and remember. When we do not let our phones leave our sides, its constant companionship takes away a small but significant part of our attention, leaving fewer mental resources for us to think.

“Merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity — on par with effects of lacking sleep,” researchers told Harvard Business Review.

That’s right, your phone’s presence can cause the same cognitive deficits as sleeplessness. This finding is a warning that just putting your phone down is not going to be enough — we need to be physically parted from our addictive devices if we don’t want to become sleepless zombies.

To stop phone ‘brain drain,’ you need to separate yourself from your phone

To stop your phone from affecting your ability to think clearly, the researchers had a radical yet simple solution: make time to be physically away from it. Putting your phone facedown or turning it off did not stop the “brain drain” effect. Our phones needed to be physically away from our presence to make an impact.

“Defined and protected periods of separation … may allow consumers to perform better not just by reducing interruptions but also by increasing available cognitive capacity,” the study concluded.

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