• Sean Keenan

How the Combination of a Smartphone and Anxiety Affect Deep Work

“Today’s the day. I’m finally going to finish that project I’ve been slogging along with the past few days. I’ve got the perfect idea to finish it, I have my work area all set up and organized, and I can finally do some deep work.”

Many days start like this, full of optimism and focus, until something happens.


Without thinking I instinctively reach for my phone. As I do, hundreds of thoughts start racing through my head and the anxiety starts to spike a little. I wonder who’s texting me and if so why. Do they suddenly hate me and wanted to tell me so? No, no, no that’s ridiculous, maybe they just need some help with something!

After what feels like a year, I finally see what has caused such a great deal of stress, a dominos discount notification. I quickly swipe it away and get back to work. Wait, what was I doing again? Oh, right this annoying project, you know what I still have some time I’ll just do it tomorrow.

Why does this happen?

This is just one example of the many different ways the combination of smartphones and anxiety can affect your work, especially if you’re trying to do deep work. Deep work, as described by Cal Newport in his book of the same name, is when you do professional activities in a distraction free environment. Despite seeming like a simple concept, it’s surprisingly difficult. Part of the reason for that is how modern society has trained us to read and digest information with devices such as the smartphone.

One of those ways was described by Michael Harris in his globe and mail op-ed “I have forgotten how to read”, where he says in comparison to the lineal fashions of a book, online reading forces you to focus less on comprehension of what you’re reading and more on things such as comments, links and the like (Harris, 2018).

This has not only affected our reading, but how we process most things now. We don’t focus deep on things now, we briefly look, find what we’re looking for, and move on to the next thing as the cycle endlessly repeats. This constant multitasking and quick switching ruins are ability to think and work deeply, as multitasking has been shown to be mostly ineffective.

This isn’t even accounting for the effects anxiety may have. Anxiety is already a major detriment to deep work, as once your mind starts racing it usually doesn’t stop until you disconnect yourself from the work entirely. Combine this with things like smartphones and the like, which are already a major stress beacon, and the stress and anxiety feel about 50 times worse.

Even just having your phone nearby in silent mode is still a detriment. Yes, you’re not using it, but with it always in sight it’s always on your mind. You may start wondering things like if anyone is texting me or if I’m missing out on something cool. This keeps building and building until finally the stress makes you cave in, you check it, see nothing’s happening, and then realize you’ve wasted 10 minutes just thinking about checking your phone.

How can you fix this?

In Deep Work, Newport presents many examples of people going on deep journeys into far away mountains and log cabins to disconnect from society. I understand why people do this and that it may be effective for deep work, though I feel this may be a little much for me personally to try. One thing I think I would be willing to try though is his perspective on boredom. I’ve always seen boredom as a detriment, like I’m doing something wrong. Newport sees it differently though, as he describes being bored as “comfortable”. He feels the lack of distraction in life actually tones down the nervous mental energy many feel, which may be exactly what I need.

Embrace the boredom, use it to think and recharge. Disconnect from my phone and just let my mind calmly wonder, maybe that’s the path to truly deep work.

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© 2020 by Sean Keenan.