Illustration by Liz Fosslien

Chances are you’ve experienced the following: You’re with a small group of friends at a nice restaurant. Everyone is enjoying the food and conversation when someone decides to take out his phone — not for an urgent call, but to check email, Instagram, and Facebook.

Maybe you’ve witnessed this behavior and found it unsettling. So what do you do? Do you sit idly by, thinking disparaging thoughts? Or do you call out the offender?

For years, I accepted ill-timed tech use as a sign of the times. Sherry Turkle, an author and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, diagnosed the situation succinctly: these days, “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”

I used to do nothing in the face of indiscriminate gadget use. Now, I’ve come to believe that doing nothing is no longer O.K. Staying silent about bad technology habits is making things worse for all of us.

Why People Check Their Tech at the Wrong Times (and the Simple Trick to Stop It) Click To Tweet

Social Antibodies

Paul Graham, the famed Silicon Valley investor, has observed that societies tend to develop “social antibodies” — defenses against new harmful behaviors. He uses the example of cigarette smoking: smoking in public became taboo over the span of just one generation after social conventions changed. Legal restrictions played a part, but a shift in the perception of smokers — from cultured to crude — laid the groundwork for public support of smoking bans. Similarly, the remedy to screen indiscretion may be developing new norms that make it socially undesirable to check one’s phone in the company of others.

Like cigarettes, our personal technology use can become a bad habit. People enter a zone when they use their gadgets. Checking email or scrolling through Facebook can be intoxicating and disorienting. Tech makers design these products using the same psychology that makes slot machines addictive. The variable rewards built into apps make time pass quickly, and can make people oblivious to what’s happening around them.

“Most people I know have problems with Internet addiction,” Graham wrote in 2010. “We’re all trying to figure out our own customs for getting free of it.” Ironically, despite his awareness, Graham has poured millions of dollars into addictive sites and apps, including Reddit and the gaming companies Machine Zone and OMGPop.

To be clear, I’m not pointing fingers. Like Graham, I am conflicted. My book, “Hooked,” is a how-to guide for building habit-forming products. I wrote the book in hopes that more companies could utilize the techniques used by Facebook, Twitter, and the like to make their products more engaging. However, the byproduct of making technology better is that sometimes it’s so good people can’t seem to put it down.

The trouble, as Graham points out, is that “unless the rate at which social antibodies evolve can increase to match the accelerating rate at which technological progress throws off new addictions, we’ll be increasingly unable to rely on customs to protect us.” In other words, if we don’t build social antibodies, the disease of distraction will become the new normal. But how do we develop and spread social antibodies to inoculate ourselves against bad mobile manners?

At Work

One solution is to take an explicit approach. At almost every corporate meeting I attend, someone (typically the highest-paid person in the room) starts using his or her personal technology. The behavior is toxic in many ways: it sends a message to everyone in the room that gadget time is more important than their time; it distracts people who assume the boss is sending work their way; and, perhaps worst of all, it prevents the person using the device from participating in the discussion, which means the meeting wasn’t worth having in the first place.

The best way to prevent this waste of time is for someone senior to mandate a “no-screen meeting.” In my experience conducting hundreds of workshops, the discussions declared device-free are by far more productive. Setting expectations up front is equivalent to administering a distraction vaccine.

Among Friends

In other situations, being explicit isn’t as easy. Take the dinner-party scene described earlier. Unlike in a corporate setting, no one at a dinner is the boss, so no one has the inherent right to enforce a device-free fiat. For a while, “phone stacking” — in which people tossed their phones in the center of the table, and the person who first reached for his phone during the meal had to pay for everyone — was sort of a thing, but it never took off, because the whole exercise felt punitive and patronizing. Most people already understand that using their gadgets in an intimate social setting is rude. But there’s always that one person who doesn’t.

So what’s the best way to get the transgressor off the phone? Embarrassing him in front of others isn’t a good idea, assuming you want to stay friends. A more subtle tactic is required. The goal is to snap the offender out of the phone zone, and to give him two options: either excuse himself to attend to whatever crisis is happening, or put away the tech. Over time, I’ve hit on one way to effectively call someone out while keeping things cordial: Ask a question.

Posing a direct question does the person a favor by pulling him back while sending a clear message. The technique works like a charm. For one, the unexpected question elicits an entertaining reaction — sort of like what happens when you hold someone’s nose when he’s dozing off. He gasps and sputters, but in this case it’s not your fault, because you, as questioner, can play dumb. “Oh, sorry, were you on your phone? Is everything O.K.?” If there really is an emergency, the person can excuse himself, but more often than not, he’ll tuck it back into his pocket and start enjoying the night.

Let’s do Something

Asking a direct question and declaring device-free meetings are simple tactics that spread social antibodies. Though personal technology clearly isn’t tobacco, it’s important we know that our devices are also designed to keep us hooked. By better understanding the psychology behind our technology, we can put it in its place.

Now is the time to take a stand. Fight fire with fire by sharing articles like this one on social media. Set limits, and don’t resign yourself to being ignored. The idea is not to disavow technology completely, but to encourage people to appreciate its power, and to be aware when its power over them is becoming a problem. In the end, technology should serve us — we should not serve it.

Nir’s Note: What do you think? How do you make sure you, your colleagues, and your friends don’t get distracted by technology. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and *please share this essay if you found it interesting.*

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  • Peter_B_Reiner

    How about banding together and finding a way to build politeness into the design of the devices themselves…http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v531/n7592_supp/full/531S9a.html

  • Asking a question is a great way to re-engage the person on their phone. I think this works for anyone who hasn’t had this technology available for most of their lives. However, I’ve noticed this is a bigger problem with the younger generation (those in their teens and early 20s). They’ve had smartphones for most of their lives and don’t consider it as rude to be on the phone in social situations. I’ve also noticed a lack of asking for someone’s permission before taking pictures of them or filming them and sharing it on social media. I’m more concerned about smartphone culture influencing a disregard for other people’s privacy.

  • Susan Hubbart

    NIr – I liked the article and will definitely try what you have suggested with friends when we are out to dinner. It doesn’t seem to be just the younger generation, I am finding. I think it is across the board with certain folks who tend to have mild additions. I am not counting myself out. I have had to refrain many times from grabbing my phone, for example, when there is a debate or a question about who it was in what movie. Once anyone picks up the phone to look something up, it is easy to start looking at email, etc.

    BTW, I just tried to share this article on LinkedIn and Facebook and the headline that came up was different than the one on this page. I prefer this headline over the other that used “F***” so I didn’t share it. Any idea why that happened?

    • Thanks for the heads-up, fixed now. Can you try sharing again?

      • Susan Hubbart

        Thanks, Nir! I just posted to LI and FB. 🙂

  • Marc Roth

    = I think I’m far more likely to be the offender than the offended.

  • Nicholas Gruen

    If you’re in a high functioning place, being able to look at your email and/or even write emails back is a good use of time. There are parts of many meetings that you don’t have to pay that much attention to – and parts you do have to. So if you’re functioning well, you should, and others should be able to spend the time more productively. If a lot of people are on their phones it can also send a message that the speaker is wasting their time.

    Of course this isn’t a complete answer – because people can be undisciplined and rude in their phone use. But blanket rules sound like they’re for a pretty low quality organisation to me.

    • Taffygrrl

      People think they’re that high-functioning. They’re not. (Just like everyone thinks they’re an above-average driver!) Google “cost of task switching.” So tired of sitting in meetings where everything has to be repeated because a few people decided to do emails rather than listening to what was going on.

    • chrisf

      We are occupied with being busy though and as a result often unproductive. Plenty of studies (eg Dr Gloria Mark from University of CAL) and books (eg Deep Thought – Cal Newport encourage mono tasking to develop deeper more productive work.

      If a meeting has a component that’s not relevant it can be tempting to fill the time with a quick glance at the emails but that distraction will be detrimental to your ongoing focus for the meeting. You’ve created a little habit which is that ‘it’s OK to check my phone in a meeting’ so you’ll be craving the dopamine hit on a regular basis. It would be more productive to embrace the present moment and just be.

    • Legend79

      Absurd. High function…is that another catchphrase we’re supposed to buy into like multitasking? Last time I checked a meeting was…well about the meeting and not answering emails. Therea time to answer emails, and time for the meeting.

      There is this ridiculous notion today that immediate answers will save the world and put the cat back in the bag. It’s unfounded in the majority of cases…unless it life or death immediacy is overrated. We did a test at work. We compiled samples of emails, texts ,etc that were deemed of an immediate nature and analyzed them as to their outcomes. 9 of 10 could have waited, should have waited and the only reasons for the dire need was that the managers were control freaks or poor delegaters and their staff couldn’t make simple decisions on their own.

      You know whats truly high functioning? Paying true attention to the task at hand!

      • I’d love to know more about your study that found that 9 out of 10 urgent messages could have waited. Can you share what you did, how you did it and what you learned?

    • Kieron_is

      I don’t agree at all that “the higher functioning”/more “superior” you are in an organization gives you more right to do this. I agree the decisions you make should be having a greater impact on the organization because of the experience you supposedly have, but sitting there and not giving your team your full attention is disrespectful, de-motivating. Nothing wrong in excusing yourself if something extremely important comes up, and if it is a long meeting where there are sections that don’t involve you and everyone understands that then fine. in principle though, if you are in the meeting its because you have something to contribute and therefore you should give the meeting and your colleagues your full attention. Would you sit there as a person in a “high-functioning” position but in a meeting when you are the most junior person in the room check your phone when your CEO, Chairman etc. are speaking?

  • Ricardo Duran

    Interesting article. I think for me, it starts with educating myself on how I use technology outside of the workplace. I am guilty of looking at the iphone or ipad during meals with my family rather than have great conversations. Once I overcome this obstacle in my private life, then it becomes easier to tackle in my professional life.

  • Avijit Dutta

    Great article Nir. I’m going to try your tips next time I’m in such situation. It’s absolutely annoying when people try to justify indiscriminate use of technology in an aggregate setting. As an audience we shouldn’t be selective of which minute we should focus and which one to skip. That’s simply bad social decorum.

  • Udit Sajjanhar

    Nir – Nice article on how to come over the internal triggers of other people to *check* their phone. This reminds of Tristan Harris’ talk in the Habit Summit last year.

    On a personal front I do two simple things which kill the external triggers – 1. All notifications, except from the messages app are mute. 2. I always keep the phone upside down when not using it. What this does is not disturb me when I am doing something important and not using the phone and also gives me the freedom to read notifications later when I *want* to.

    Also, it feel quite odd that you are writing about this stuff given that all your work has been focused on getting people hooked. Its like cigarette companies writing on the pack that smoking causes cancer. However, that being said, I would love see some work on the effective use of technologies that make our lives better and not turn us into addicts.

    • Thanks for the tips Udit.
      Though the optics might look strange, I don’t see a conflict in why I’m writing about this. My goal is to use habit-forming technology to help us do the things we want to do, while also raising awareness about how to put technology in it’s place by understanding the deeper psychology and societal implications.

      • Udit Sajjanhar

        Yes just saw your post/video on Morality of Motivation and I agree with you on the points expressed there. Its just that I see so many people addicted to their phones that i feel sorry about them. At-lest smoking is considered socially unacceptable, but just checking your phone because you got a notification is perfectly OK. I wonder what will happen when virtual reality gets mainstream.

        • Stef Nimmegeers

          I’m also wondering what the effect of wearable devices (like smartwatches, augmented reality glasses in the future) will be on this phenomenon. One thing I already notice is that peiple with an Apple Watch get distracted way more easy in a conversation…

    • Kieron_is

      I don’t think its odd Nir is writing about this at all, in fact I think it would be odd if he wasn’t. For the same reason it is important for alcoholic beverage brands to communicate the message of “please drink responsibly” to their customers.

      Forming habits is not bad, its good, it makes it easier to do things that make our life better. Bad habits are bad, people need help to break them. Staying connected regularly/habitually with the digital channels we enjoys using isn’t bad per se, but doing so in ways that make other people feel undervalued, annoyed etc., or that distract a team from giving the task at hand its full attention are bad.

      Thanks Nir. I look forward to reading more from you on this topic. Great solution you provided too, very behavioral economics based.

      • Thank you! You absolutely got the message I’m trying to convey!

      • Theburnerman

        I love your comment

  • Taavi Krusell

    I can handle the mobile use in internal meetings and personal events, but it absolutely grinds my gears, when I am in a business meeting and one of the counterparts starts staring at the phone, to me it shows the person has utmost disrespect towards the people he is meeting.

  • fwade

    I actually ask for (and receive) a distraction-free discount from clients….Here’s an article I wrote on the topic/goo.gl/MGMDQS

  • Yoav B Guttman

    One of my biggest pet peeves…will give the ‘ask a question’ approach a shot.

  • Nicholas Gruen

    We’ve got a lovely lot of worker bees on this site.

  • Galen Moore

    Nir, I like the idea of bad phone behavior as a kind of disease humanity needs to halt the spread of. It’s easy to dismiss it as just annoying, but technology does impact how we treat each other and how we get things done. Anyway, I liked it so much I included it in a small newsletter I edit on the topic of distraction. Hope you find some of the other articles interesting. http://bit.ly/1YHLYAe

  • Great post! I try really hard to personally set my limits each day and really focus in on the people I’m with. Sometimes its hard because we are so programed to always be on. I have already started planning my companies growth and with that comes a quite room as well as a device free meeting room. At the very least if devices have to be used they will be designated ones that are not connected during the meeting so that everyone can be involved.

  • 952Limos

    Guilty of this myself

  • Tim Underwood

    There’s an assumption here that the behavior is negative and needs to be stopped. Certainly it can’t all be positive, but some of it may be enhancing the conversation.

    Recently a senior colleague of mine complained that people were on their phone while he was doing a presentation. My (rather reckless) response was that perhaps his content wasn’t engaging enough. Then once he calmed down I told him that I was looking up surrounding material related to what he was talking about (both of these statements were true).

    I also told him he was being a bit of a luddite – that multi-screening is just what people do now and perhaps he should be the one to adapt rather than fight it (this was especially pertinent since we worked at an marketing agency and planned for this behavior constantly.) Maybe that’s true in SOME situations. Perhaps we should consider that people raised with technology are more capable of multi-threading their attention and recognize situations where that might elicit a net positive and plan for that.

  • MerriDee Fraters Copeland

    I have banned the use of cell phones from the family table from the beginning, but I find this happens frequently when I am out with others, especially in business settings!