Is Smartphone Productivity a Myth?


I’ve been using a smartphone for around four years now, and I have a confession to make: I’m fairly sure that during that time, my cellphone usage has, if anything, become far less productive than it had been when I had only a regular old dumbphone. But with apps, email and Internet access, how could that possibly be?

Even though having a phone is an important part of my job as a remote worker, the value of an always-on, constant tether to the office isn’t really as great as one might expect, especially when that device connects me not only to work, but also to almost limitless possibilities for procrastination, diversion and play.

It seems that play is by far the most popular thing people use smartphone apps for. A recent Nielsen survey found that 60 percent of apps downloaded are games. Productivity apps? Way down the list, at around 26 percent. And while a quarter of all apps downloaded seems like a fairly big chunk, I have to question what types of apps fall under the blanket category of “Productivity” (Emoji Plus and Better Christmas List are close to the top in the iOS App Store bestseller list for that type of app, for example) and how often those apps actually get used once downloaded (I’ve downloaded at least six to-do list apps in the past three months, and opened them maybe a dozen times combined).

So if charting project timelines isn’t what most people are doing with their devices, then what is? Taking pictures. The most common activity by far for cellphone owners in general is snapping photos, with 76 percent of respondents in a recent Pew poll sharing that task in common. Just 29 percent ever use an app at all, let alone a productivity one.

Even as an email device, a smartphone is quite limited. If I receive an email that requires instant response, I’ll send one out, but usually it’ll be a quick message to let the sender know I’ve seen what they have to show me, and I’ll wait till I get to a computer to either respond at length or act on the content of the message. Sometimes having received the email will make me seek out a computer faster, but a vast majority of the time it won’t.

I pay more attention to Twitter because I have a smartphone. Is that a productive pursuit? In a strict sense, no, but in a broad sense, it does help further my work. But again, most of the time real engagement waits for the desktop, when I can track down links and access real resources with ease. If I’m checking out Twitter on my iPhone, I’m mostly just killing time or uploading a picture I just took.

James Kwak argues that all a BlackBerry really does is act as a totem of mythical efficiency. After four years of lived experience, I’m inclined to agree. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be getting rid of my iPhone anytime soon. Didn’t you hear? A new version of Angry Birds just came out.

Is smartphone productivity a myth?

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