When Should You Leave Your Phone in Your Pocket?

By Jessica Stillman, a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. A regular contributor to Inc.com, she has blogged for Forbes, CBS MoneyWatch, and GigaOM, among others.

Working on the go can sometimes be hugely productive and sometimes a soul-sucking compulsion. How can you tell which is which?

Mobile phones are great because they’re, well, mobile, and smartphones are great because they’re smart. Put those two qualities together and you have an incredibly powerful tool for getting stuff done on the go.

But you knew that already. And you also probably know that this sunny vision of checking your email in line at the grocery store or finishing up that negotiation in the airport lounge is far from the whole story. While our beloved gadgets can sometimes be a near miraculous productivity booster, we’ve also all experienced the flip side of always-on access — the annoyed spouse, the twitching need to keep checking, that one last game of Angry Birds that robs you of time to think and relax (or sleep).

Working on the go is sometimes great and sometimes compulsive and counter-productive. How do you know which is which and draw healthy boundaries?

Smartphones gone bad

To start to get a handle on this difficult and common problem, it helps to recognize all the ways that your gadgets can actually cause harm. There’s plenty of research on the subject, including studies that your phone really can be addictive. “The reward system (in the mid-brain) that underlies addiction evolved to make us consume food, so we don’t starve to death. But our survival also depends on access to information, especially social information. So the brain’s reward system has adapted, and is now just as interested in news and social relations as it is in dinner,” explains psychologist and Stanford lecturer McGonigal in a recent interview.

Your better half may just be right then that your compulsion to keep glancing at your phone isn’t healthy. And he or she is also correct (or at least research-validated) that this obsession with your devices may be harming your relationships. Science also shows that all those peeks at your phone — no matter how quick you tell yourself they are — actually do damage your relationship with whoever you’re ignoring to check your inbox or feed.

But working while you’re out and about isn’t just potentially harmful if you’re with other people. It can also be less than amazing even if you’re all alone and only doing it to stave off boredom. What seems like empty minutes to you, is actually crucial downtime for your brain, according to a host of experts, and eradicating those pauses from your life can seriously dent your ability to think big picture and be creative.

“Numerous studies and much-accepted wisdom suggest that time spent doing nothing, being bored, is beneficial for sparking and sustaining creativity. With our iPhone in hand – or any smartphone, really – our minds, always engaged, always fixed on that tiny screen, may simply never get bored. And our creativity suffers,” Brian S. Hall has explained on RedWrite, while Scientific American featured another impassioned write-up on the importance of downtime recently. In short, doing absolutely nothing now and again is essential for maximum productivity and innovation.

When it’s a good idea to work on the go

That’s a long list of possible drawbacks of constantly pulling your phone out of your pocket or purse, but just because it’s important to know that constantly working can be addictive and brain-frying doesn’t mean you should never work on the go, time use and productivity experts agree. You just have to be thoughtful about exactly when you choose to reach for your device.

The key, most seem to agree, is only focusing on tasks you can actually complete in the time you have available. If you’re just looking at something that you’ll need to look at again later, “you are setting yourself up for rework,” warns productivity expert and author Carson Tate.

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money, agrees. “Phone checking is counter-productive when you’re in a situation where you can’t actually bring a task to closure. For example, maybe there is such little time that you can only write half a text or read (but not respond) to an e-mail before you need to do something else. This leaves you with a lot of open loops in your mind, which creates more stress than if you had waited to read the text or e-mail until you had a chance to respond,” she explained to EasilyDo.

Make sure you take this straightforward truth to heart by setting simple guidelines for yourself. “If you can read and take action on an email message in less than two minutes, just do it.  If the action required takes longer than 2 – 3 minutes create a folder labeled email tasks and move emails to this folder,” Tate offers.

How to resist temptation

Saunders and Tate also agree on one more essential principle of a healthy and productive relationship with mobile work — make sure you set aside some time when its totally off limits for deeper thinking or deeper social connections. You might need artificial boundaries to accomplish this or benefit from setting aside special time for potentially addictive activities like social media.

“When I’m immersed in deeper work like writing or working on a mentally intense project, I will sometimes leave my phone in another room or turn it off and close my e-mail tab so I’m not prompted to look at it,” Saunders notes, adding that “when I’m at events or with people, my phone stays in my handbag. I don’t check it until afterward unless there’s a very specific reason like I’m meeting someone who might get lost. I usually won’t even pull it out when there’s a lull like when they go to the bathroom or to grab our coats because I want to stay present to the moment and not have my mind veer off to something else.”

Similarly, Tate advises device addicts to “use the out of sight out of mind rule. Turn off all of the social media alerts, turn off all of the new email message alerts and if necessary, make it physically difficult to access your phone.” She also suggests that you “decide when and where you will check your social media sites.” She checks hers over breakfast, for example, and then bans herself from looking again until later in the evening.

What rules or tricks do you use to make sure working on the go is productive?