Why You Should Turn Your Phone Off During Work Time

(Naturally, I’ve got my phone on silent while I’m writing this.)

I’m like you: when I hear my phone make noise, I absolutely have to go find out what that noise means, not necessarily because it’s urgent, but to satisfy the deep, immediate, and all-encompassing sense of curiosity that stops me from thinking of anything else.

Who could be texting ME in the middle of the day? I wonder.  I’m not expecting anyone.  Maybe it’s someone wanting to hang out, or maybe someone I know is stranded in a strange city and needs help, or maybe it’s a publisher texting me with a six-figure deal that’ll make me rich and famous!

Okay, so that last one doesn’t really occur to me, but the first two sure do, along with a bunch of other random thoughts that come from simply not knowing what kind of amazing message awaits you on that magical screen sitting within arm’s reach.  There’s all sorts of research linking cell phone use to reward-gratification through the release of dopamine we get when we receive texts, some of which even compares cell phone and social media use to slot machines.  We all want to know what’s waiting for us on our phones, because whatever it is might be something good (or even something really really good).

I find this curiosity/reward stimulus distracting when I’m doing things that require focus, like cooking a new recipe or working on my car, but it’s especially damaging to my writing since writing involves channeling deeper trains of thought and solving problems on the page, both of which require a lot of concentration.  If I’m distracted by a text message ding (or, more powerfully, the urge to check that text message ding), it’s going to interrupt my thoughts, which means that it’ll take more time and focus to get back to where I was.

The unfocusing and refocusing involved with checking the text takes more time than reading (or sometimes even responding to) the text message itself, meaning that each text takes up more of your time than you think it does, and whatever you’re working on is going to take even longer to finish.  (This is because your brain needs to switch its internal rules when moving from one task to another, and can’t really focus on more than one set of rules at a time.)

If I’m at my Day Job where I’m being paid regardless of how distracted I am, the stakes are a lot lower for losing focus—but when I’m doing my own work on my own time and shit has to get done, distractions are a big no-no.

I started turning my cell phone’s ringer on silent a few years back as part of my pre-writing ritual, and I’ve never looked back.  (And when I say silent, I mean silent—no vibrating allowed, with the screen turned facedown so I can’t see my notifications.)  I do this 100% of the time when I’m writing fiction (which takes the most concentration) and in the past year I’ve also expanded no-phone time to other kinds of work where I find myself getting distracted and bouncing between text replies.  This isn’t to say that I leave my phone off all day (since, you know, I’m human); only at times when distractions would be most damaging.

Shutting my phone off for an hour or two (or five) during writing time very rarely causes issues, though—I can think of only once when I was dog-sitting and the owners called and texted me twelve times (!!!) when I didn’t respond to their initial message asking whether everything was OK.  At the time, I called the owners back right away to assure them that their dog was still sleeping peacefully in her bed and that everything was fine, and we all moved on from the situation.  Fortunately, this is no longer an issue since I don’t pet-sit too often anymore, and I consider one snafu in four years to be a pretty good track record.

I also find my after-writing time perfect for catching up on messages I’ve missed during however long I’ve been out of contact, and find I save even more time by replying to a bunch of texts at once rather than as they come (there’s that multitasking loss again), which involves more phone-picking-up and switches in focus.

If you’ve got more pressing commitments than just an anxious dog-owner, though (like kids or prospective job interviewers), or are concerned about legitimate, for-serious, my-elderly-mother’s-toaster-oven-just-caught-fire-and-her-house-is-burning-down kind of emergencies, try setting your phone to silently receive texts but still ring if you get an actual phone call.  People tend to actually call you when something really important’s going down and text for everything else.

Or, if your distractions are coming from the people closest to you, try explaining your situation and how you’d like to unplug at certain times of the day or week.  This can be a hard transition at first (especially if you’re a heavy texter), but friends, family, and significant others get used to delayed responses after a while—trust me ;)

If you still don’t buy my argument, think of it this way: if you worked a job with a strict boss where using your phone wasn’t allowed (which it hasn’t been at some of mine), you’d accept it and move on, so why not try being your own strict boss when it comes to work that really matters?