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Is Smartphone Productivity a Myth?

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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 (s aapl) 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 (s rimm) 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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11 Responses to “Is Smartphone Productivity a Myth?”

  1. I use my phone mainly as a filtration device. It lacks the true processing power of a desktop obviously so I go through my RSS (to star articles), my emails etc so when I do get to a proper computer, only the most important details are left.

    However, programs like Evernote have been awesome for helping me maintain thoughts/focus on the go if any good ideas pop up.

  2. Well, smartphones are useful if you travel a lot and if you need to be always updated.
    But I don’t see all these circumstances when being constantly updated is a huge plus. Have you ever tried not checking your professional inbox for an entire day? Well, I always do (on purpose, when I need focusing on some really important activity) and without any issue.
    The truth is, if they need something really bad, your colleagues/customers will call you!
    So, the only thing smartphones do is adding procrastination excuses and distraction to your work hours.
    They help you connecting, though, and I think that’s the only real reason people buy them.

  3. Sure it’s a myth; if you have other channels around you that you use and are more efficient or familiar with. Just use the smartphone for a few months with little reliance on other tools, then ask this question. Given the OP’s explanation of their position, the answer already is given ;)

  4. While I agree that for some people their smartphone only adds a sense of productivity for me I find it crucial for several reasons. First of all it lets me easily clear up my inbox even if it just means flagging emails I need to follow up on later from my desktop. I also find it very useful as a calendar manager so I know where I need to be. The phone also gives me the freedom to leave my desk without having to keep checking my pc to see if I got that email I was waiting for.

  5. I think smart phone productivity is what you make of it, like anything else. I mean, I guess if all I ever did on it was play games or tweet, it wouldn’t be very productive. But I make my smartphone earn its monthly fee to T-Mobile. I take or edit notes on it with Evernote, use it as a voice recorder, and use it as a portable modem to give my laptop access to Internet when in airports or on trips. I compose/read/archive emails on it while riding the subway all the time. I’ve printed resumes from it in a pinch. My RSS reader is a big deal for my business so it’s nice to read through and take notes on 300 new items while waiting at the doctors office. I even manage my WordPress blog from my smartphone. And if I ever get tired of doing any of those things on my smartphone, I have the choice to just turn it off and disconnect from the world.

    • I think that’s probably a fair assessment. Personally, I don’t feel that my smartphone is an absolutely essential productivity tool (not to the extent of my laptop, say). But it is really useful for being able to stay in touch with what’s going on when I’m out of the office, and has saved my bacon on a few occasions when I’ve needed to urgently get some work done when not at the office.

      • @silverton

        I concur with Simon and only add that the value of saved bacon can’t be overstated in many instances. Inflection points between making deadlines or not; closing deals or not; can represent nearly infinite productivity points, when the alternative binary outcome is zero. It’s even worse if that zero on your balance sheet is simultaneous with +DealValue on a competitor’s balance sheet.

        That said, P.S. Jone’s suggestion that literacy and usage intention are what ultimately define utility is spot on. With my Android, I regularly speak 3 to 5 page documents directly into Google Docs. It’s utterly annoying to tap out blog posts on a handheld portal; but voice makes the task trivially easy. I use voice to text with the Rooftop app to directly collaborate with our team’s Highrise database, and the Basecamp project management website; both exactly the same way that I’d do from laptop or desktop. Granted, bandwidth and screen real estate constraints do slow me down maybe 30% to 50% in some instances; but the comparison to zero productivity in the pre-smartphone era makes productivity gains glaringly obvious, IMHO.

        The Econ 101 question is always, “compared to what.” Compared to dumb phones, a motivated and literate smartphone user is already a hyper productive cyborg such as the world has never before seen. Talk to @caseorganic about the how and why of today’s cyborg populations. ;-) In the palms of our hands, we carry extended cognition portals that link our minds in realtime and illuminate incredibly rich information, location, and contextual awareness layers upon the physical world. Without that portal, I’m a qualitatively different human being. Non-enhanced. Pre-cyborg. It might not be hyperbole to even say: crippled, handicapped.

        Apps like My6Sense learn from my behavior and can discern personal salience amongst a proliferating diverse of activity streams, saving me hours of time that used to be spent scanning across reverse-chronologically ordered Google Reader filtered feeds (qualification: “sort by magic” in GR has improved that process, as well). Tweetdeck makes #hashtag topical awareness a realtime fingertip experience.

        In terms of pure text output, for slowish typists, voice to text on a 4″ handheld portal can be materially more productive than hunt-n-pecking on a $195 ergonomic keyboard with screaming fast 3GHz desktop computer and 42″ LCD monitor. Because I’m a moderately skilled typist, maybe 70wpm or so, it’s perhaps 20-30wpm slower for me to use Voice to Text; but compared to zero, that’s a huge win.

        Pardon the scatter-plot style response, if I had more time I’d back up, proof, edit, clarify. Instead, I’ll click “Notify Me” below and do my best to answer questions if they come in.

        Perhaps we could think about doing some proper objective measurement of these types of every tasks to empirically measure the differential across some representative sample populations?