Smartphones: The Most Pervasive Interruption Technology Ever

Over the past few years, excitement has been growing for the idea of an “everything device” that you carry in your pocket. Why carry many separate physical and electronic devices for your phone, address book, calendar, planner, GPS, books, magazines, etc.? An iPhone, Blackberry, or Android-based smartphone will do it all.

There’s just one problem.


Interruption Technology

Just 15 years ago, interruption technology was mostly confined to the land line telephone. People used this interruption technology sparingly, calling businesses and homes at “reasonable” hours. And many people had rules for keeping interruptions to a minimum, such as my parents’ rule of not answering the phone during dinner.

Fast forward to 2011. Most people carry a cell phone at all times. Voice calls are now just one small part of an ongoing stream of interruptions. Many people set their phones to alert them for each incoming text, instant message, calendar event, and/or e-mail. Some go further with social status notifications from Twitter or Facebook, while others may want to be alerted every time a friend is nearby or their favorite team gets a score.

In addition to all of these “pushed” interruptions, there are self-induced interruptions. It’s all too tempting to frequently check (or “pull”) weather, scores, stock prices, etc. Many people elect to keep pushed interruptions to a minimum, but then obsessively check their smartphone. Whether self-induced or pushed, an interruption is an interruption.

On top of all this, social norms restraining interruptions have largely disappeared. Though some people with phones allow interruptions sparingly, many others check their phones constantly wherever they are, even while conversing, dining, or driving.

Interruptions are not just an issue with smartphones. Computers are becoming more distracting with alerts, notifications, animations, popup ads, and the ever present temptation to multitask unrelated activities. Numerous studies find that computers, smartphones, or any other form of interruption technology challenge our ability to do anything that requires sustained attention, such as reading, writing, working, playing, and conversing.

Clearly there are many types of interruption technology and they impact many of our activities. But most people carry phones, and many people spend quite a bit of their time reading. So let’s take a closer look at trying to read on a smartphone.

Reading on a Smartphone

How do you read on a smartphone, a device that constantly interrupts you?

You don’t. Okay, that’s a little strong. Phones such as the iPhone or Galaxy S display crystal clear text and have software that makes reading a breeze. They’re great for texts, tweets, short e-mails, short posts from your RSS or news reader . . . and any other small chunk of text that doesn’t require sustained attention to absorb. Some people have no problems reading longer text, even entire novels. But for many people it’s hard to read and fully absorb more than a few hundred words on a device that constantly interrupts you or tempts you to interrupt yourself.

What you can do is either turn off the interruptions or use a different device, the right device, for extended reading.

Turning Off Your Phone’s Interruptions

You can turn off interruptions on any kind of phone by simply disabling all alerts and connectivity. iPhones or Android devices have airplane mode. Blackberries have a silent profile. Less sophisticated phones usually have a way to turn off cell phone reception.

Airplane or silent modes are typically used to preserve battery life and/or silence phones in theaters or places of worship. Turn off the interruptions, and you may be able to read for as long as you like. How often have you heard people say they catch up on their reading on long airplane flights?

Silencing a phone may work well for some, but others may not want to be cut off completely from the rest of the world while reading. With a bit of fiddling, it is possible to configure some smart phones to only let through certain types of important phone calls or alerts. Reducing interruptions to just a few times per week would make for a reasonable reading experience, I would think.

Use a Different Device for Reading

I’ve tried turning off my Blackberry’s interruptions. It didn’t help. I simply checked more frequently for voice mails, e-mails, etc. Apparently, I’ve trained myself over the past decade to use my cell phone as an interruption device, no matter how smart or dumb it is. It’s not an easy habit to break, even if I wanted to.

My solution: Use a different device for reading.

I acknowledge that my smartphone is an interruption device not suitable for reading at length. I confine my interruptions to this one device. And I set it out of reach when reading something long or doing anything else that requires sustained attention such as writing, conversing, or eating dinner.

Which device is best for reading? In my case, it’s an iPod touch. What’s best for you will depend on your preferences for size, display type, battery life, price, and most importantly the kind of reading you do. For some people this may be an iPod touch or color tablet. For others it may be an E-ink device like the Nook or Kindle. And for some the traditional printed book is best. I suggest experimenting, taking note of what works best for you for sustained reading.

Interruption Technology in My Own Life

While writing and revising this post over the past month, an interesting thing happened. I became ever more aware of interruptions from my Blackberry, mostly self-induced. I came to think of it as an interruption device. And I changed.

I now follow the two device strategy. I repurposed my iPod touch into a reading device, by moving everything off the home screen that wasn’t related to reading or settings. And I no longer use my Blackberry for anything that requires sustained attention.

Here’s the best part: I move my Blackberry out of reach when I don’t want interruptions. At dinner, it’s 10 feet away. When working, it’s 5 feet away. When reading, I put the Blackberry in its charging cradle, which flips it into interruption-free bedside mode.

I like the results. I’m getting distracted less and sustaining attention more. Fewer interruptions mean better attention when I read, write, work, play, talk, or eat.

Now that I think of my phone as my one and only “interruption device,” I can set aside interruptions any time I want. It’s simple. Just move the phone.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

6 thoughts on “Smartphones: The Most Pervasive Interruption Technology Ever”

  1. I am glad to see that someone younger than I shares the same view. Evidently it isn’t only a generational difference of views. I consider messaging, tweets, and constantly checking and sending e-mails, reading and posting to social media, to be an abuse of good technology. The Japanese have the right idea. They use smart phones for business purposes, such as purchasing merchandise, boarding airplanes, paying for parking meters, etc. I hope that the constant interruptions that you have so elegantly described is a passing fad that will eventully go the way of hula hoops and pet rocks. If not, I shudder to think that we will become a culture with attention spans of a 4-year old.

  2. If you’re going to carry a different ‘device’, why not just make it a book?

  3. Great comments, Donald and Bill.

    Books are often a great choice as they never interrupt. On the other hand, an ever growing amount of reading material is only available electronically. Devices such as a Kindle, Color Nook, or iPod touch can access a wide range of reading materials without much interruption. They also include helpful features like searching, carrying many books at a time, and looking up words in a dictionary.

  4. Hi Joe, nice post.

    I agree with you completely, but would add another interruption mechanism: the one caused by ‘upgrades’ that require that you stop cracking nuts while you relearn how to use the hammer. I’ve had to do that a few times in the last couple of decades.

    Also, although some upgrades can be relatively painless (such as, for instance, progressing along a single manufacturer’s upgrade path) some are so horrendous as to deter the move to what may actually be a better device — not only do manufacturers have no incentive to help you port to a competitor’s device, they have a serious incentive to make such a move as painful and difficult as possible.

    I’m with Donald: I’ll stick to books for reading. Although they’re made of trees, I heard somewhere (dammit, wish I had a widget that would auto-store references for such things) that although Kindles and such can be more environmentally friendly than those old book things, that’s only true if you don’t swap them for new ones for at least five years… and since any widget that’s even half that old is probably obsolescent if not already obsolete, that’s not going to be very likely for most sheeple.

  5. Thanks for you thoughts, Colin. You’re absolutely right about upgrades – and with some devices (like Blackberries) even updates are rather intrusive. On the other hand, Apple’s iOS system for updates and upgrades is not so bad, and the new Chrome O/S is even better in that way. So perhaps these good ideas from Apple and Google will become the norm rather than the exception within a few years.

    As for environmental friendliness – I think those calculations are pretty hard to do right. For example – I know more than a few people who own so many books and magazines that they literally take up well over 10% of their home’s space. If all people owned fewer than 50 hard copy books, then I have no doubt that average dwelling size would be a little smaller, leading to smaller environmental footprints (for dwelling construction, maintenance, heating/cooling, disposal, etc.). But your point is well taken – at the moment it seems like average device life is on the order of 6-24 months, not 5 years.

  6. I found having a cell phone is ok for the use i put it through .For i was brought up to respect one anothers conversations and to take note what people say . Sometimes people cry out from their inner self and with constant interruptions a person with a problem could even turn to suicide because society chooses to answer the phone instead of listening to him . So for the last 15 or so years the only time my cell phone worked for me was once and once only . I still have one in a draw somewhere . Can you imagine sitting in a movie house , opera or church or being operated by a doctor and these phones goes off – how interuptive ! I dont need a cell phone ringing during my time with a person in need . I think society needs to take a step back and look at this “thing” and put it to use correctly .

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