Why smartphones are so distracting and how you can build your concentration skills
Think back to the last time you were really concentrated on your writing and completely in the zone. Can you remember what you were doing being completely effortless, time passing by quickly, and actually enjoying putting words on the page (or screen)?
For many of us, this “flow” state is not something we experience often, especially when engaged in common academic tasks, such as writing a paper, reading a difficult journal article, or preparing for an exam. Many of us struggle getting started and at the first sign of difficulty, reach for our phones to quickly check Instagram, the news, the weather, texts from friends, etc.
Although it may seem harmless, checking your phone while trying to stay focused on something else is a two-pronged problem. In the short-term, checking your phone obviously distracts you from the current task at hand. In the long term, habitually giving in to distraction may worsen your ability to concentrate on tasks in the future. We will talk about each of these points below and then offer some practical tips for focusing when working with reference management software.
Smartphone use and concentration on tasks
It’s long been known that the brain has trouble with multi-tasking. Results from one study even suggest that too much multi-tasking over time can change the structure of the brain. Multi-tasking also isn’t something that you can improve by doing more often. In fact, one of the first landmark studies on multi-tasking showed that frequent multi-taskers were worse at task-switching than a control group. We’ve written about multi-tasking before and offered some tips for working around it in a previous blog post.
The problem isn’t limited only to switching between tasks on your to-do list. Constantly moving your attention from something you’re working on to a distraction you enjoy, such as your smartphone, can lead to the same effect.
And we check our smartphones a lot. Recent statistics from a mobile provider in the UK have shown that users checked their phone every 12 minutes on average. If previous study findings are correct that up to 25 minutes are required to regain focus on a task after a distraction, that means a lot of wasted concentration time just to take a look at the new meme your friend sent you. That may not necessarily be a problem, but if you’re struggling to finish a paper the night before your deadline, every minute may be precious.
Just how distracting are smartphones? One study from 2018 that was widely reported in the news found that just having your smartphone in the room while doing an activity decreased concentration – even if it was turned off! Furthermore, the effect was most pronounced for participants who were most dependent on their phones.
Concentration is like a muscle
The other part of the problem is that by regularly stopping a task at the first sign of difficulty, you may decrease your ability to focus in the future. The author Cal Newport writes extensively about this in his book Deep Work in the chapter “Embrace boredom”. He makes a good case for focus being like a muscle that needs to be trained in order to work well. His theory is that the more you practice not letting yourself be distracted in both your academic and everyday life, the easier it will be for you to concentrate in the future whenever you need to.
One technique that you can use to resist temptation is to train your brain to work for a specific period of time without stopping. There are many different methods for this. One is time-blocking in which you plan your entire day out in chunks of time and then don’t work on anything else during a block. For example, you might give yourself one hour to write part of your paper. At the end of the hour you take a break and then move on to the next item, even if you didn’t complete your first task.
Time-blocking for longer periods of time can be difficult when you’re not used to focusing yet, though. If you find you just can’t get started on something, one of the easiest strategies for honing focus is the Pomodoro Technique®. The original method required setting a timer in the shape of a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) for 20 minutes. During that twenty minutes you work intensely, and when the timer goes off, you take a short break. You then repeat this process a few times. The short time span of twenty minutes makes it achievable even for those of us who really have difficulty concentrating. Think of it as high-intensity exercise for your brain’s focus muscles.
Although smartphones are the cause of many concentration problems, for some people they could also offer a solution. Many new apps promise to help make their users more productive. The Forest app, for example, will make a tiny tree grow on your screen every time you focus on a task for the amount of time you select. The more sessions you complete, the more trees you will see, which can give you a nice visual representation of how you’ve been training your focus over time. While Forest helps you train your concentration skills, other apps can help you eliminate distractions by blocking social media sites or limiting your time on them.
It’s important to note at this point that checking social media is not “bad” per se – the problem is only when you build a habit of reaching for a distraction whenever you feel uncomfortable. Smartphones are simply one of the most ubiquitous distractions, but anything can be a distraction. For example, cleaning expert Marie Kondō would avoid studying for an exam by organizing:
I would take the piles of handouts covering my desk and throw them in the bin. Then, unable to stop, I’d tackle the textbooks and papers littering the floor and begin arranging them in my bookcase. Finally, I’d open my desk drawer and start organising my pens and pencils. Before I knew it, it would be 2:30 a.m. Overcome by sleep, I’d jolt awake again at 5am and only then, in a complete panic, would I open my textbook and buckle down to study […] Distracted by the ‘need’ to tidy my room, it took me so long to get down to studying that my grades were always terrible (Kondō 2014, 22-23).
Focusing while working with reference management software
Not all tasks you perform in your reference management software require a lot of concentration. Your brain doesn’t need to be operating on its highest capacity when entering an ISBN number or adding reference information, for example. However, reading and taking notes on a difficult journal article, creating an outline based on quotations you’ve gathered, or starting a draft of your paper in Word are all mentally-intense tasks that can benefit from being focused. Here’s how I would recommend remaining focused during a session with Citavi.
- Set a goal
Either set a goal for the amount of time you want to spend doing the task or set a goal for what you want to complete. Maybe you want to spend an hour moving quotations you gathered into an outline or you need to finish taking notes on a journal article for your next class.
For writing, I recommend setting time-based goals unless you are on a very tight deadline, since it can be difficult to judge how fast you’ll be. Then, if you end up not being able to complete four pages in one hour-long session, you’ll just feel bad about not reaching your goal. Focusing on the time spent removes the pressure to produce a certain number of pages, and by concentrating for the amount of time you choose, even if you get stuck, you will improve your ability to focus on writing over time, which should also help you improve your output.
- Remove distraction
Unless you absolutely need to be reachable during your study session, turn your phone off and put it as far away as possible – preferably in another room. Too many of us unconsciously reach for our phones when we’re bored or feeling uncomfortable, so having it out of sight ensures that you won’t do this. If you find that you just start checking Internet pages instead of your phone, disconnect your Internet cable or set your computer to flight mode. If you’re working with a Citavi Cloud project and plan to do reading and annotating, make sure to download your PDFs first before going offline.
For tasks that require the Internet, such as performing database searches, you can at least use a website blocking program for sites that you know are likely to distract you.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique®
If you find your mind wandering, try using the Pomodoro Technique® to turn your focus time into sprints rather than one big marathon.
Citavi user Daniel Lutz has made this even easier by creating a Tomato Timer add-on for Citavi that displays a little tomato at the bottom right of the screen. You start the timer, and then after 20 minutes have passed, a reminder for a break will appear. Simple, but effective. We plan to add the tomato timer as an official add-on available from within Citavi, but in the meantime you can view English-language instructions including a download link here.
If you use the Pomodoro Technique® (with or without the add-on), don’t skip breaks after each 20-minute stint. They provide your brain with the positive reinforcement it needs to start seeing focusing as something positive rather than just a chore.
- Force yourself to fulfill your commitment
If you said you would write for an hour, keep writing for the whole hour and don’t open up any other applications on your computer or start reading. If you said you would finish taking notes on a journal article for your next class, don’t move on to something else until you’ve done so.
This can be very difficult and uncomfortable at times, but if you force yourself to stay in your chair and keep going (even if you’re just starting blankly at the screen for a while), you will start building the mental muscle that is needed to focus better, and it will get easier in the future.
- Reward yourself after your session
Use this time to go into the other room and check your phone, or stay in analogue mode and go for a walk, get a cup of coffee, or talk to your roommate. Having a short break gives your brain a chance to recharge, so try not to skip this step and go directly to your next task.
Being able to focus is an important life skill. We hope that these tips will help you improve your concentration.
What are your tips for staying focused and avoiding distractions? Let us know on our Facebook page.
Kondō, M. (2014). The life-changing magic of tidying up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (C. Hirano, Trans.) (Kindle Edition). Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Loh, K. K., & Kanai, R. (2014). Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. PloS One, 9, e106698. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0106698
Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The Cost of Interrupted Work. In M. Burnett (Ed.), The 26th Annual CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI 2008: Conference proceedings ; April 5-10, 2008 in Florence, Italy (p. 107). New York, NY: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357072
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted world (Kindle Edition). New York, Boston: Grand Central Publishing.
Ofcom. (2018). Communications Market Report. Retrieved from https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/117256/CMR-2018-narrative-report.pdf
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106, 15583–15587. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0903620106
Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2, 140–154. https://doi.org/10.1086/691462