Turning off my phone improved my science


Smartphone apps are often designed to be addictive.Photo credit: Getty

At the beginning of 2021 I started my studies. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago in Illinois, I work at the intersection of polymer chemistry and immunology, using synthetic strategies to design safer and more effective vaccine and gene delivery materials. Although I had been productive early in my graduate career, my long hours and hard work in the lab were no longer leading to success and I felt hopeless in achieving my goals. Something had to change.

As I began to search for the source of my struggles, I became increasingly aware that my “quiet time” at the lab bench — for example, when I was running chromatography columns or microscopy experiments — was anything but. Instead of thinking about science, I watched TV or interacted on social media with my smartphone. Although I was able to mask this inefficiency by working longer hours, my work felt chaotic and disorganized. I worked harder than ever but got less done. I would come home after a long day in the lab and answer emails or Slack messages over dinner or in bed. All of this came to a head last summer when I sought help from the university’s undergraduate mental health services due to my inability to balance work and personal life.

Through a combination of counseling and personal reflection, I understood my problem: I was addicted to my phone.

Addicted by design

I wasn’t alone. Former employees of tech companies — like Tristan Harris, formerly of Google, and Frances Haugen, formerly of Facebook — have spoken publicly about the algorithms that underlie the addictive nature of social media and smartphone use. Apps can trigger the same reward mechanisms as slots, using unpredictable, addictive reward schedules and engagement-based post-ranking to capture user attention1,2. Studies have shown that people in the United States spend more than three hours a day on their smartphones, and smartphone use has been shown to be more motivating than food for college students3.

In order to focus again, I decided to reduce my connectivity by using a basic cell phone with no internet connection during work hours and removing unnecessary apps from my smartphone when using it. I could use an iPod for music and any messages I received would be waiting on my computer or when I got home. Others have come up with other strategies, including using software to limit screen time (now built right into iOS and Android) and implementing lifestyle changes like turning off their phones after sundown and scheduling off-time activities to avoid meaningless ones to prevent scrolling (see the book 2019). Digital minimalism from Cal Newport for more ideas).

Underscoring the addictive nature of smartphones, I experienced withdrawal symptoms when I first cut the metaphorical cord, staring at my iPod all day hoping for a dopamine rush that never came. However, over time, I began to put my quiet time to practical use. During long experiments I started reading essays and started writing in my free time. These practices have already yielded success: I am currently preparing a review article for submission to my advisor, and I have written this column and other personal reflections. I’ve also felt more involved in seminars and meetings – better prepared, asking questions and taking handwritten notes.

mental balance

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve felt my anxiety lessen and my productivity and creativity drastically improve while exchanging my chaotic work-life relationship for one with clearer boundaries and a plethora of new scientific ideas. Even when I carry my smartphone with me, I now feel less compelled to check for email or messages and can better focus on the tasks at hand.

As with any lifestyle change, changing my smartphone habits has presented challenges. Not all of my co-workers have supported my limited connectivity, and I’ve missed messages on communication services like WhatsApp and Slack. I’m also spending less time on academic LinkedIn and Twitter as I’ve deleted the latter entirely, which could hurt my career prospects. However, these glitches were minor and, in my opinion, a small price to pay for increased clarity and productivity.

As researchers, we face unprecedented challenges in managing our time and mental energy in the face of constant distraction. Burnout and mental disorders are rampant among graduate students and researchers at all levels, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and technology is at least partly to blame. My friends, family and academic colleagues have acknowledged that they too would benefit from reduced smartphone use, but many have told me that the fear of missing out and the social consequences are too great to bear.

If you find yourself in this situation, I encourage you to at least think about how often you allow your smartphone to interrupt your daily work. Be sure to build rest and uninterrupted study into your schedule to stand out from the digital noise of smartphones and modern technology. This could be critical to our success as scientists – and people – in the midst of a once-in-a-century global health crisis.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature Readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest contributions are welcome.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.