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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Apr 23, 2021


It turns out that smartphone use is associated with shorter-term thinking and a focus on quick wins. The more you use your smartphone, the less likely you are to pursue longer term achievement of bigger goals. So this week we ask the question - Is your smartphone killing your dreams?



Hello and welcome to episode 112 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we’re looking at whether your smartphone is killing your dreams. Pretty dramatic.

I’ve picked up my smartphone 32 times already today. Now, how do I know that? Because pickup number 32 was to check how many pickups I had used today. My average pickups per day is 86. I have no idea if that’s good or bad, or how you might compare. Either way, smartphones have become an integral part of how we work, how we socialise and how we relax. There are few parts of our lives that smartphones haven’t managed to invade.

You might suspect that all that smartphone use is making us more reactive and impulsive. That ‘ding’ or vibration from your pocket can easily steal your attention, if only for a split second. Our brains are notoriously bad at handling this. Once something has grabbed our attention, it takes a while to get back to what we were initially focusing on.

Recent research shows that those who spend more time on their smartphones also tend towards chasing smaller and more immediate rewards. They tend to steer away from longer-term rewards that require greater effort. They are more impulsive. This effect is particularly pronounced for those who use gaming and social media apps.

Is smartphone use causing this impulsivity, or is smartphone use a measure of impulsivity? It’s hard to say and look it probably goes both ways. 

Now, you might say, I’ve heard social media apps are addictive, so maybe it’s not my fault. It’s definitely a mixed picture when you look at the research, but the most recent articles suggest it’s unlikely that social media apps are addictive. They are distracting, absolutely. They fight for your attention, for sure. But they’re not truly addictive in the way that cigarettes might be, or gambling or drinking might be for some.

Instead, this research suggests that smartphone use and impulsive decision making go hand in hand. When we take a short-term focus we can end up missing out. Our smartphone can be a diversion for our time, but it can also be a diversion from our goals.

You can use the screen time data on your smartphone as a measure of your impulsiveness. Take a look now - see what you have been up to over the past week. Greater discipline with your smartphone use could well extend into other areas of your life. Even if the smartphone isn’t making you more impulsive, it’s a great way to tackle your impulsiveness.

Part of the value we bring as leaders is a long-term focus. It’s our ability to look beyond what’s immediately in front of us to the emerging opportunities and threats that helps us to add value to those we lead. In order to take a longer-term view, we really need to understand what an impulse is and how we can fight it. An impulse is effectively an urge - something in the moment that compels us to do something. An impulse can be physical, mental or emotional, or a combination of all three. Here are a few tips for dealing with those impulses:

  1. Be aware of the impulse - acknowledge it. It’s the classic “name it to tame it” approach. Acknowledge that you’re really tempted to pick up your phone and dive into whatever distracting app is your preference. That will help you to avoid the impulse.

  2. Ride it out. This applies to many psychological challenges that we face. If you’ve tried to quit smoking, no doubt you were taught this technique. And why not? It works really well. In the moment it feels like an impulse is just going to build and build and build, so we may as well just give in. But there will come a point where any impulse passes. Ride that wave with a confidence that it will become less of a challenge over time.

  3. Fix it at the source. Use screen time and other apps to limit phone usage. Turn off notifications that distract. Use the technology to help you.

  4. Be more intentional. I’ve spoken before about planning for self-control. Will power in the moment is notoriously bad. Instead, we need to plan for the times when these impulsive time wasters tempt us the most. So, for example, in the evening I read books on a Kindle rather than on my iPad. Not only is it far easier on my eyes, there’s absolutely nothing on that Kindle to distract me, except perhaps another book.

  5. Change your mindset. It can often feel that avoiding an impulse is losing or missing out. Instead, it is something you should reward yourself for. Watch how your ability think longer-term increases, and as those distractions become less distracting - reward yourself for the progress you’re making.

So this week, take a quick look at your smartphone screen time, and the extent to which your goals and dreams have become smaller. 



K. Thomson, S. C. Hunter, S. H. Butler, D. J. Robertson. Social media ‘addiction’: The absence of an attentional bias to social media stimuliJournal of Behavioral Addictions, 2021; DOI: 10.1556/2006.2021.00011