Here’s a common experience I have as an academic coach:
- The student I’m working with is eager to learn and wants to get things done.
- The student’s cell phone vibrates due to notifications or texts every few minutes.
- The student is noticeably distracted by the buzzing cell phone, but continues to work.
- The student gets increasingly frustrated by the distraction.
- The student does nothing to change the situation.
It may seem like the student is being foolish – she could just turn the phone off, after all – but this scenario actually isn’t her fault. She’s been raised in a world where cell phones are ubiquitous, where tech companies design their products to be addictive,1 and where examples of people turning their phones off are extremely rare. She simply doesn’t know any better.
My intervention typically goes like this:
“Hey, so let’s check in for just a second on the phone thing. Please know, I’m totally good – it doesn’t bother me – but it seems like it’s bothering you. Have you ever considered putting your phone in airplane mode while you’re studying?”
All phones come with a setting that most people only use when they’re on an airplane. It basically turns your phone into a watch. You can use your phone to tell time, but you lose the ability to text, call, or use the internet until you deactivate airplane mode. And, most importantly, your phone is prevented from receiving distractions from the outside world: no unwanted interruptions, texts, or notifications; no buzzing, beeping, or vibrating.
Now, here’s the secret about airplane mode: It isn’t just for airplane passengers. It’s a tool I use every day.
Students often do an impressively good job staying focused on their work amid the distraction of a buzzing phone. But, at the same time, it’s clear that they are paying both a cognitive cost and an emotional cost. Let’s take a closer look at those costs, and let’s keep in mind that adults pay needlessly them too.
How Phones Disrupt Learning
When cell phones interrupt active studying or homework, they are disrupting what’s called focused mode, which is the brain mode you use when you’re paying attention in order to learn.2 If you get interrupted during focused mode, you might miss important details from a lesson or make silly errors on an assignment. Difficult concepts require that you have full access to your working memory, which, on a good day, has only four slots.2 Distractions occupy precious territory in your limited working memory, needlessly adding to your cognitive load.
Furthermore, because you’re allowing distractions to permeate your environment, your brain is less inclined to remember what you’re learning because you’re not demonstrating that you really care. If you want to remember something, you have to convince your brain to care by acting like you care, even if you really don’t. This works because actions speak louder than thoughts. Your brain sees that you have not chosen to deactivate your cell phone, and decides that whatever you’re working on must not be all that important. If it were important, you would have turned off your phone.
These problems are compounded by the fact that you’re going to be repeatedly distracted by your cell phone after studying.
Downtime might seem unimportant, but it’s when a totally different but equally important brain mode comes into play: diffuse mode.2 Diffuse mode is what your brain does when you’re resting, exercising, or doing mundane chores.2 It is a time when your unconscious mind tries to understand whatever you were working with in focused mode.2 And diffuse mode is also when your brain consolidates the memories of what you’ve been studying.2
The brain needs time to process and digest new ideas, and that requires true downtime. Texting and games and social media are simply too stimulating. For true downtime, you need to turn your phone off or put it in airplane mode.
And new research has just come out showing that even being near a cell phone can hurt cognitive function, even if the phone is turned off.3 This means that airplane mode is really just a first step. Putting your cell phone in an entirely different room is even more helpful.
Cell phones also create unnecessary stress when you’re trying to work. Learning and homework are hard enough without the addition of distractions.
A cell phone that buzzes several times in a row could mean something bad has happened. It probably doesn’t mean that, but what if it does? You might feel anxious about the uncertainty and feel compelled to check your phone, but you know that this is distracting you from your work, so then you feel guilty for checking. None of this emotional cost is paid when you’re in airplane mode. Instead, you’re able to work on in peace.
True downtime is also when you recover from stress.3 Your cell phone often prevents you from getting the true rest that you need to recover from stresses in your life, but you have the power to change that.
Most students are only vaguely aware that for the vast majority of human history, people didn’t have smartphones to fill every spare moment with stimulation. They have no practice embracing boredom, and they have very few experiences witnessing other people be okay with just doing nothing for a few minutes. This is why it’s tremendously important for adults to lead by example here.
And you can also model changing course when you forget to put your phone in airplane mode. When your phone interrupts quality time with your daughter, apologize for forgetting to turn your phone off (or at least silence it), and then proceed to do so. Let her see that you’re working on getting this right. Let her see that it’s hard to remember. And let her see you assert your values in the face of this techno-cultural onslaught we’re all facing. Prove to her through your actions that she is a higher priority than your phone.
Of course there are many times when you cannot be in airplane mode. But you can probably shut down your phone more often than you think. We all need to make an effort to remember what it was like 20 years ago when it was normal and totally okay to be out of reach for a few hours. We don’t need to be accessible to everyone 24-7.
Technology is supposed to help us, not harm us. It is supposed to be wielded by us for our purposes, but all too often it has become the puppet-master, pulling our strings without us even noticing.
Choosing airplane mode is an example of being an active agent in our own success, rather than being a passive victim of modern technology. It’s a way to reclaim control over our attention when we’re working and socializing, rediscover countless opportunities for rest and recovery, and maybe even find some mindfulness here and there.
Here are two short videos that further explain what technology is doing to our brains:
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Alter, Adam. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin Press, 2017.
2 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
3 Ward, Adrian F., et al. “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. Volume 2, Number 2. April 2017.
4 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.