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Smartphones vs. Science: On Distraction and the Suppression of Genius

Last month, Adam Weiss, a fourth-year chemistry PhD student at the University of Chicago, published a column in the journal Nature. In the piece, Weiss talked about how he had recently hit “a rut” in his polymer chemistry research. “Although I had been productive early in my graduate career,” he wrote, “my long hours and hard work were no longer translating into success in the laboratory.”

It didn’t take much self-reflection for Weiss to identify the problem: his phone. He recognized that he increasingly colonized his “quiet time” with digital distractions. As a result, his work felt “chaotic and disorganized.” Throwing more hours at the problem didn’t help: “I was working more than ever, but getting less done.”

So Weiss tried something drastic. He ditched his smartphone during work hours, relying instead on an old fashioned feature phone without an internet connection. He decided email and Slack messages would have to wait until he returned from the lab. For music, he used an iPod.

Weiss suffered from some withdrawal symptoms (“[I was] staring at my iPod throughout the day and hoping for a rush of dopamine that no longer came”), but these eventually passed. With time, his comfort with deep thinking returned. As he explained:

“I started reading papers during long experiments, and began a habit of writing in my down time. These practices have already yielded success: I am currently preparing a review article for submission with my adviser, and I’ve written this column and other personal reflective works.”

Liberated from the incessant drip of context-shifting diversion, Weiss’s anxiety diminished while his productivity and creativity improved, generating “an abundance of new scientific ideas.”

I was struck by two observations about this story…

The first is optimistic. Witnessing Weiss’s dramatic transformation provides hope for the countless others who find themselves stumbling through a maze of disorganized, emotional thoughts, set against a background hum of unspecified anxiety. Something as simple as disconnection can yield profound results.

The second is pessimistic. The rareness of Weiss’s dramatic transformation underscores the vastness of the creative, energetic, innovative, impact-inducing cognitive potential in the world that’s currently being suppressed by these ubiquitous slabs of glowing glass. This is the question that haunts me: How much genius are we losing to the compulsive need to scroll just a little bit more?

29 thoughts on “Smartphones vs. Science: On Distraction and the Suppression of Genius”

  1. I remained with an old flip phone for both productivity, personal security, and driving safety. The productivity issue was addressed in the above article. The use of an old flip phone was recommended by former CIA Jason Hanson in his book “Spy Secrets that Can Save Your Life.” Basically, if you have your nose in your smart phone all day then you are a ripe target for criminals since you have no situational awareness. I think the threat to your life from a smart phone both from criminals and from distracted driving merits serious consideration of stepping back from smart phone use.

    • I have seen people type as fast with old keyboard layout in the older days. Once you get the hang of it you can type as fast as you would on a Smart phone. Just life we all learned to type on a normal keyboard.

    • I like the thinking. I’m going to start leaving my iPhone at home and just take my cellular Apple Watch with me again. The watch has always been set up to only allow through very specific notifications: phone calls, text messages, and other niche things like reminders, alarms etc.

      I can make and receive calls if I need to (AirPods) and while the on screen keyboard is tiny and not as convenient, it’s actually not *that* bad. It’s good enough to use without frustration, but bad enough to only use it if I really need to.

      While it functions as a dumb phone, it also gives me many of the benefits of smartphones – weather, tap and pay/Apple pay, navigation, notes, controlling smart home… I can even listen to audiobooks that I’ve loaded on there.

      It’s not a cheap way to ditch the phone, but it is effective. I was prevented from doing so for the last couple years because where I live you had to scan those covid QR codes if you wanted to do pretty much anything in society, but that is finally over.

  2. I purchased a Light Phone 2 exactly for the reasons stated above, but it did not work out. The texting was too slow, so I returned it and now am back to abusing the use of my smart phone again. Reading this has inspired me to try app blockers again, but I feel I am doomed to fail. There needs to be a smart phone that is set up to prevent certain apps from working from the get go (Gmail, YouTube, web browsing, etc).

    • I’ve had success with the Freedom app on my iPhone. It does a pretty good job of limiting my app/browser use at times I want to focus.

    • As much as I don’t like sending people to Reddit, the r/dumbphones subreddit is a good place to discover options you might not be aware of initially. I had a Punkt MP02 for a while, and I really liked it. Hoping to go with the Sunbeam F1 here soon, although I do Uber Eats deliveries (sigh), and the F1 doesn’t have hotspot tethering that would enable me to keep my smartphone solely for deliveries, so I’m looking into a data-only plan for that.

    • Check out the phones offered by Sunbeam Wireless. Also, Jose Briones reviews a variety of dumb and feature phones on his Youtube channel. His website offers an extensive database of feature and dumb phone search characteristics.

    • I’ve only ever had a stupid phone, and haven’t had any issues. I’ve found that any text that’s too long shouldn’t be done in text anyway–a quick phone call is quicker, less intrusive, and more effective. I’ve rarely been in a situation where texting was actually necessary. Such situations are limited to things like, I’m in a meeting and someone needs to know something NOW that came up in a meeting and I can’t get away from the meeting.

      • Try a Wisephone. Get them through I working up the courage to make the switch. They have a wonderful interview on YouTube, too.

    • For 3 months I switched from a smartphone to a dumbphone, however it became a burden upon the people around me so I switched back. I’ve recently had success in turning my smartphone dumb using Google’s Parental Controls on my Android phone.

      First, go through the Parental Control setup on the Android phone which will create a “parent” Google account and allow you to nominate what the “child” (i.e your main account) can do/use on the phone. My phone is now just a phone with messaging and some useful apps like banking and childcare. Then use a strong password generator and copy + paste the password in the change password box so that you can’t memorize it. It’s locking the phone and throwing away the key.

  3. My wife and I both ditched our smartphones in July 2020. I upgraded my life by downgrading my phone to a 2G Nokia 105, and my wife did the same except for a 2G flip phone. Within a couple of days we started noticing how much more of life we were noticing and experiencing. Whilst we still occasionally use our old smartphones when it makes sense to use them like when travelling abroad, we definitely don’t miss them. I now encourage my clients to try it out and see what they notice for themselves.

  4. Question – how to handle the deluge of work emails every day. I work in IT supporting end users. Email is a constant distraction. Can’t seem to break free. I suppose that companies need a policy of email free mornings or email free Friday. Email is tyranny – that is certainly correct. Also now add in things like Microsoft Teams and you have another distraction technology. And yet that’s what is being pushed. Thoughts?

    • I have a similar problem. Im a digital marketing analyst and i constantly get emails on campaign performance and reports and i dont know how to ditch my phone and ignore rhosenemails

    • Try using Pomodoro technique. So I have one Pomdoro session for focused work, followed by another session to reply to emails / chats

  5. I have been studying at home for a while and find myself continuously distracted from my home PC setup. I should start bringing just may laptop and e-ink tablet to university and ditch the phone. When it becomes warmer up here north go on an old-school Cal Newport style adventure studying, why not.

    About half of my work can be done distraction-free from the e-ink tablet: reading textbook and papers, taking notes, and memorizing flashcards. Zoom meetings, coding for classes and research, and writing requires the laptop. So I can be much more selective than I currently am about when to pull out my laptop (which is much more distracting than the tablet) and when to leave it in my bag.

  6. Well. I’ve experimented a lot (including complete digital declutter/minimalism for 1 month, but later once I was back in the real world, it was all the same story when attention economy grabbed me easily) and failed as well. What seem to work for me is this:
    1. Use app “Cold Turkey Blocker” in PC.
    2. Use app “Lock My Phone” in phone (you actually cannot do anything else other than accepting incoming calls)
    3. Keep my phone not in the room where I’m working. As first thing in morning, I keep it in kitchen throughout working hours.

    What I learnt is this: All these blockers are just a placeholder, or a small milestone to train our mind to pay attention to our attention. Tools and technologies are not solution, only our own training and response to stimuli is. Although I’m still learning, and fail many times.

  7. I agree this is a problem in society. While people are glued to their screens they are not always thinking their own thoughts and are not in full control of their mind, thoughts and emotions. As Cal observes, the loss of intellectual potential is a detriment to society. Even people who don’t have a smartphone are in danger of being addicted to all the other screens in their life. Dr. Robert Lustig wrote an interesting book called ‘The Hacking of the American Mind’, which deals with the subject of addiction. One interesting point was that the official definition of addiction used to only relate to substances, but now also includes behaviours. My thought is that the first step is for all of us to realize when we may be addicted, and that we are being controlled, and that some people may need help to overcome it.

  8. How do we make it through withdrawal to come out the other side???

    I have several high quality, analog leisure activities, and a whirlwind of social plans (for example, I spent this last weekend camping with friends, laughing our butts off at each other as we karaoked songs from the 90s around the fire). But even then, I still find myself fighting (and many time, failing) against my restlessness and anxiety. And I STILL end up reaching for the phone…

    There is actually SO much time in a day. It’s shocking how this reveals itself when one turns away from a smartphone. I will spend a fun-filled Sunday Funday full of time with friends, hobbies (from books, to being out in nature…), quality time with family and playing with my dog…but after all that there are STILL pockets of empty time with boredom. And then that phone begins singing its sweet siren song…It’s such a STRONG pull.

    I need something to tie me to the mast. But I’m not sure what, or how to implement it.


    • Sam – a couple of suggestions:
      One is to ensure there is always a pile of unread books that you are really interested in reading. A good book is one of the great pleasures in life, and there will never be enough time in our lives to read all the books we would wish to. So instead of reaching for the phone, reach for a book.
      Another idea is to keep mental challenges on hand to occupy yourself – paper versions, not digital. Examples would be a book of Sudoku puzzles or books of Mensa type questions (math, logic or verbal tests). These can be fun while exercising the mind and protecting against the onset of dementia too.
      Both of these are things you can pick up and set down whenever you have nothing to do.
      Also, if you create a schedule of times of day when you do certain activities that you enjoy, you will look forward to these times of day, and gradually all the online noise, outrage, and opinions of others won’t matter so much any more….
      These are things that have helped me (and I never did get addicted to a smartphone, but the desktop computer has been a bit of a challenge to avoid!).

    • I actually enjoy those little pockets of “boredom”. I have a few hobbies that require or encourage thought while away from the physical material, and mulling those over is a pleasant way to kill ten minutes while waiting in line. For example, I enjoy listening to music, and part of that is thinking about the interplay between the various bands, songs, and the like. Or, I can mull over something I’ve read–exploring nuances, connections, and the like. Nothing systematic, and obviously I’m not going to come to any great insights, but it keeps me actively engaged in these hobbies.

      Alternatively, I can plan my next step in some projects. I can consider options for my jewelry making, and decide which I want to try. That way, when I sit down to do it I’ve got a plan in place and can jump right in.

      I also almost always keep a fiction book (something light but fun) and a pad of paper and pen/pencil enar me. If I have downtime I can either read or write, as I choose.

      If all else fails, Nature provides ample opportunities for entertainment and edification, even in urban environments. I would go so far as to say ESPECIALLY in urban environments. We’re witnessing the creation of a new biome in real time. The implications are staggering, and it’s a wonderful gift to be able to observe these changes. The rocks that buildings are constructed out of are also fun to look at if you’re inclined towards geology, with a word of warning: Airport security gets VERY curious about why you’re staring at a structural element, and “There’s really cool ammonites displayed in a random pattern and I’m trying to build a 3-D model of them in my mind” isn’t really taken as a valid excuse!

  9. Hey Cal and all, I am the author of the Nature piece. I am glad to hear this has spurred so much discussion, and in my opinion, Cal’s positive and negative conclusions are spot on (thank you for sharing!). I see many peers who have much more mental horsepower than I do, but they spend too much of their day scrolling and can’t seem to get any work done. Moreover, I have observed that the anxiety of watching your peers succeed on social media, especially in a hyper-competitive area like science, can drive talented individuals into the ground. I’m by no means perfect (my iPhone still clocks me at about 1.5 h of screen time per day, as I love to watch TV in bed before I go to sleep), but I think finding some ways to disconnect without the anxious thoughts is pretty valuable for focused thought (especially reading and writing)!!

    @Luke, I initially purchased a LightPhone, but I similarly hated it. I found much better success with a Nokia flip phone. Also, I use T Mobile Digits to allow multiple SIM cards so I can switch back and forth on nights and weekends. Digits is pretty horrible in terms of compatibility with Apple products (my smartphone is an iPhone), but it gets the job done well enough.

    @Dinwar, I have similarly come to enjoy these “pockets of boredom,” especially while I am using public transport or exercising. Once I got over the hump, I have found that these times are ripe for creative thought. I also notice that I tend to reach my own conclusions about “pop” media, which I value immensely.

    @Sam, to the point of withdrawal symptoms, I actually found the iPod to be quite helpful as a replacement stimulus. I was also in the midst of training for a marathon while making this change, and the sheer exhaustion was helpful to curb my urges.

    @CB I feel your struggle with the email, as that probably my biggest weakness at this point. Not sure I have much in the way of great answers, but fortunately, I spend a lot of my days at the research bench so I can avoid this!

  10. Having been born to this world, catching the tail end of the Carter Administration–I am amongst the growing minority of those that did not “grow up” with the Internet. In 2022, we are only 15 years into this great smartphone experiment–the iPhone, and therefore the smartphone as we know it having been born in June of 2007. That date almost hallmarks when we as a people, collectively lost our minds. I have tried and failed more times than I can count a “digital detox”, but in the wake of each failure I knew a change was required.
    I’m currently one week in to having reverted to two feature phones, one a flip and the other a candy-bar in form factor. They make calls and I’m connected…and that’s about it. I receive text messages, but the days of essay long replies are no longer. I’m confident this iteration will be the lasting one. I can “hotspot” from the handsets, connecting a tablet that has all the “gee-whiz” apps one could every want. For me the secret sauce to the success recipe is that my online experiences/app usage is transactional based. This is akin to the days of old dial-up Internet where one would say “I’m ‘going’ online.” A transactional based action was occurring, even if it was to explore the web–that action had an endpoint.
    From me to you, I recommend that you attempt to approach your data consumption based on an intended purposes, as opposed to the all-too-common sessions where one looks for the end of the Internet…Cheers!

  11. Now standing desks are as ubiquitous as the smartphones and laptops and other tools we depend on to do our jobs. Companies are increasingly touting the availability of standing desks as an attractive office perk. Researchers continue to focus on the effects of sitting and standing for prolonged periods as public curiosity grows.

  12. Hi Cal, thanks to your books on how to become a straight A student and win at college I graduated from my college phi beta kappa and summa cum laude. I followed your advice on digital minimalism and quit Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. However, do you have any advice on how to STAY offline? I’m finding it’s easy to go offline for weeks/months at a time, but staying offline in the long term is a harder task.


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