Productivity goes up when the smartphone goes down

When photographer and filmmaker Wouter Kingma decided to take a week-long “digital pause” in the desert, he didn’t realise it would take him five of the seven days to unplug from his busy daily life.

“We all get so stuck in the digital rat race, it’s nice to disconnect,” says the 41-year-old Dutchman, a Dubai resident for 14 years

For two years running he has taken a week off from the digital world, heading out to camp, hike, run, write and think in either Liwa or the Hajar Mountains. He has no contact with anyone in that time, not even his wife or two sons, ages six and four, and just a satellite phone for company in case of emergencies.


“It takes time to switch off – a few days to disengage,” he admits. “But you get the best ideas when you’re out in the wilderness.”

His thoughts back up new research from the global cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab, which shows we are 26 per cent more productive without our smartphones, even as we become almost entirely reliant on them for calendars, reminders and notes.

The experiment, conducted on 95 people ages 19 to 56 at the universities of Würzburg in Germany and Nottingham-Trent in the UK, found that concentration test results were lowest when the participant had a smartphone on the desk.

Results got better with each layer of distance – in their pocket or locked in a drawer, up to 26 per cent better when removed from the room altogether.

“Our findings indicate that it is the absence, rather than the presence, of a smartphone that improves concentration,” says Astrid Carolus from the University of Würzburg.

“Instead of expecting constant access to their smartphones, employee productivity may be improved if they have dedicated ‘smartphone-free’ time,” advises Aman Manzoor, consumer sales director of Kaspersky Lab Middle East.

“One way of doing this is to enforce meeting rules – no distractions such as smartphones or unnecessary use of computers – in the normal work environment.”

Mr Kingma, who has filmed his trips as documentaries, intends to carry on with a hardcore digital detox every year. “You always come out better than the way you went in,” he adds.

Q&A:

My smartphone helps me keep on top of everything – why is that a problem?

Previous research by Kaspersky Lab found that the trend of looking up information prevented people from building up long-term memories. In a survey of 6,000 adults across Europe, it found that users could no longer recall critical phone numbers – because, it suggests, we are handing over responsibility for remembering to our devices. Like the “pensieve” memory bowl in Harry Potter, more than half of young users said their smartphone contains almost everything they need to know or recall. It also found that typing notes into a phone during meetings lowered the level of understanding of what was happening.

So millennials can’t remember phone numbers?

The Dubai-based freelance digital marketing specialist Nasreen Abdulla, 29, says that today she can only remember the 25 phone numbers she memorised when she was young – plus her husband’s mobile number. “Everything is on the phone; it obviously makes our brain very lazy,” she admits. “We don’t have to remember numbers, routes; we don’t even have to remember our schedules.”

What’s the alternative to a digital detox?

“I have noticed that if I pick up my phone, it is harder for me to put it down,” says Ms Abdulla. “So nowadays I try to not pick it up at all.” Instead of a full detox, she goes hands-free when she can: she puts away her phone when her children, ages four and six, are around and puts her phone on silent between 4pm and 8pm. “I try to be present and to make every memory count.”

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