Although much of 2017 seems like a blur, I can clearly recall, as December closes, my most productive day of the year.
It happened not in my home or office but aboard an airliner that required me to be away from email and text messages for four hours. With my smartphone more or less asleep, I got more work done during that half-day of travel than in most full days back on the ground.
In a column several weeks ago, I wrote about the eerie quiet of that flight, a silence made possible because the passengers weren’t talking with each other. It had made me wonder if Americans have become less willing to connect with fellow travelers, which is part of what travel is supposed to be about.
But the quiet had its appeal, and the silence of the smartphone seemed like the biggest windfall of all. With no emails, calls or texts to answer, I weeded my legal pad of notes no longer needed, made fresh lists of things to do, charted out professional chores for coming weeks. I was able to think about the future because the present wasn’t tugging at my sleeve so insistently, as it tends to do when my smartphone orders my day. At 30,000 feet, I started a writing project, submerged so deeply in the work that the hours seemed like minutes.
This kind of mental immersion, what analysts of performance often call “being in the zone,” requires the kind of focus that’s hard to achieve in a culture conditioned by the caprices of technology to accept distraction as a permanent state of mind.
“Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices,” author Nicholas Carr recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens.”
Carr cited one study that showed the test scores of students declined in the presence of their smartphones, even when the phones were turned off. Apparently, the close proximity of the device was a distraction. Students who left their phones in another room did best of all.
“We need to give our minds more room to think,” Carr concludes. “And that means putting some distance between ourselves and our phones.”
Putting technology on a leash is possible, as I’m reminded by the example of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes. He obviously gets a lot done each day, and one reason for his productivity, as I learned a few years ago, is that he’s not checking his email every minute or even every hour.
Which leads to my New Year’s resolution: From time to time, if only for a weekend hour, I will try to put my smartphone in airplane mode, even when I’m on the ground.
Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.