Airplane Mode

Here’s a common experience I have as an academic coach:

  1. The student I’m working with is eager to learn and wants to get things done.
  2. The student’s cell phone vibrates due to notifications or texts every few minutes.
  3. The student is noticeably distracted by the buzzing cell phone, but continues to work.
  4. The student gets increasingly frustrated by the distraction.
  5. 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.

Retaking Control

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:


About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.


Works Cited

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.

Why We Like Skipping Steps

When I was a child, I took great pride in my ability to skip bars when swinging across the monkey bars. Skipping one bar was an important milestone, but skipping two bars made me feel really special. I even got to a place where I could skip three. I did it because it was faster, because it was a challenge, and also because I was trying to show off. I thought that it proved I was “talented” and “athletic.” In reality, I developed this ability through frequent practice: Monkey bars was the main activity I did at recess.

Later I skipped steps as I bounded up and down the stairs, both because it was faster and because I could. I wanted to be tall and strong, and I wanted to show the world that I was those things. I might have also been a wee bit impatient. I was lucky to never fall off the monkey bars, but my older brother Nick, who also liked to skip bars, once fell and broke his arm. I did, however, fall down the stairs a few times, spraining my ankle each time.

Things were no different in the classroom. As a student, I took pride in skipping steps when solving math problems. I also preferred to skip the key steps of taking notes in class and doing practice problems. I thought that the fact that I could do well in math while skipping these steps proved I was smart. When math got tough, I was caught off-guard. I did very poorly in my first math class in college.


For most of my life, I had overly dependent self-esteem. This means that my sense of self-worth was derived from praise, good grades, and comparing well to my peers. As a result, I was eager to look smart; I skipped steps in order to prove that I was smart enough to skip. If you had to work hard, I believed, that meant you weren’t gifted.

This misguided way of thinking was coupled with a fixed mindset: I was certain that talent and intelligence were unchangeable, set in stone by genetics. Thus, it was very important to prove to myself that I was gifted because I “knew” that if you weren’t, you could never improve.

It was not until my late 20’s that I learned about the growth mindset and independent self-esteem and realized how problematic my mindsets were. Since then, I’ve tried to compare myself less and less to other people, instead comparing how I am today with how I was yesterday, last week, and last year. Now, rather than trying to prove that I’m already good enough, I’m working hard on the process of becoming better.

When to Skip and What it Means

Skipping steps isn’t always a bad thing. On the monkey bars, it was a legitimate, albeit risky, athletic challenge. While I almost always encourage students to show all their work on paper when doing math problems because it lightens their cognitive load, I sometimes choose to challenge myself to skip steps or do mental math, not because I want to show off, but because I want the challenge.

What I’ve realized is that the ability to skip steps doesn’t really demonstrate intelligence or talent – it demonstrates a high level of skill development. It shows a trained ability. So skipping steps can be a way to see how well developed your skills are. It can be a version of doing it the hard way, if the goal is to challenge yourself and see how far you’ve come. For example, I’ve done so much public speaking that I sometimes give talks just using a vague outline, rather than a fully written speech, which is something I could not have done three years ago.

But we need to keep in mind that skipping steps is always risky. It isn’t the way to learn new content or navigate content we’re struggling with, and we shouldn’t skip steps in high-stakes situations like tests.

Beyond Academics

The desire for shortcuts is widespread.

Many people want a successful business, but don’t want to do the hard work or experience the failures of true entrepreneurship. Isn’t there a get-rich-quick scheme I could use?

Many people want the glory of an athletic victory, but don’t want to put in the hours of daily practice that are required to become a champion. Can’t I just find the sport where I’m so naturally gifted that I don’t have to practice?

Many people want to lose weight, but don’t want to exercise or practice the steady discipline of healthy eating. Isn’t there a magic pill I can take?

Many parent want to see their children develop executive function, but don’t want to give them space to try things on their own and potentially fail. Can’t someone just fix my child?

(see also: Grow vs. Fix)

None of this is to judge. I’m as guilty of this sort of thinking anyone. The best solution I’ve found is to choose a process-based identity, where I focus on consistent effort rather than immediate results, and then steadily engage in practices that reinforce that identity. I find that it helps to take my eyes off of the prize and keep my eyes on the process.


About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.

Tie Your Shoes

No serious basketball player would ever step onto the court without first properly tying his shoes. Sure Chris, but how is this related to academics?

Well, doing basic, boring things correctly is fundamental to all performance, from the NBA to the classroom. For example, not showing your work on a math test is like not tying your shoe laces before a basketball game. Sure, you’ve saved a little time, but at what cost?

John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach, understood the importance of getting the fundamentals right. The very first thing he taught his players was how to properly put on their socks. That’s right, Wooden taught Kareem Abdul-Jabbar how to put on his socks. Why? Because he didn’t want anyone getting a blister from a wrinkle in their sock because that could cause them to miss practice. Wooden led the Bruins to ten NCAA championships during the 12 years he was their coach.1

Success in school starts with similarly basic, boring things. The fundamentals of brain health – nutrition, exercise, and sleep – form the foundation on which our ability to learn rests. In a tech-happy world full of iPads and fancy educational apps, we need to remember that old-school studying – using the textbook, taking notes, asking questions, and making flashcards – are still very effective. It doesn’t have to be shiny and new and exciting to be valuable.

Brainstorming and making an outline is still the most reliable way to begin the writing process. Routine practice of math facts helps support students’ success as they ascend math’s upside-down pyramid. Showing your work on a math problem greatly reduces the likelihood of errors because it effectively manages cognitive load.

These things are as basic and boring as tying your shoes – and just as essential. None of these simple techniques are below you. Even professional basketball players have to put on their socks properly. No one gets to ignore the fundamentals.

So please, tie your shoes.


About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.


Work Cited

1 Wooden, John. Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court. Contemporary Books, 1997.

Image Credit

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.