Why smart devices are making us dumber

pen and paper

I largely abandoned paper notebooks a long time ago, despite being someone that has an unhealthy love of stationary shops. I travel a lot, so anything that adds weight to my bad needs to justify its space. Given I take all my notes on Evernote, I felt that bringing a notebook with me was redundant.

However, I recently stumbled upon research that made me go out and buy a Moleskin (and some pens, highlighters, pencils – oh the joy). Here are the main reasons why you should schedule a trip to your local stationery store.

You’ll remember more using paper

Research from Princeton University and the University of California has shown that taking notes by hand in a notebook leads to better recall of the content compared to those typing notes on a laptop. In general, when we take notes on a laptop, we tend to do so robotically and type things out verbatim, but when we write notes out by hand, we mentally process the information much more effectively.

If you are attending a meeting or a lecture, or something else where recalling what you learn is important, leave your devices behind and just bring a notebook and pen. Your brain will thank you for it.

Paper cuts out distractions

One of the great things about paper is that it doesn’t constantly distract us by flashing notifications. And even if we don’t respond to those notifications, they are having a big impact on our ability to think.

Research from the University of London has shown that when we are bombarded with distractions and notifications, such as incoming emails and calls, we lose an average of 10 IQ points. And this is if we don’t give in to them and keep on working.

While 10 IQ points might not seem like a huge deal, it’s the equivalent of not having slept the night before, and twice as much as you would lose from smoking some pot. Essentially, the distractions (even “unopened”) reduce our mental sharpness. In addition, the energy exerted in avoiding checking the distractions tires out our willpower muscle.

It’s almost impossible to multitask using paper

I used to be a chronic multi-tasker. I hate to think how many times I would hit Command-Tab on my MacBook to switch applications. But when I came across research that showed just how much this was affecting my productivity, I stopped that quick smart.

Research conducted into task switching (which is basically what multi-tasking is) has demonstrated that the simple act of constantly switching tasks costs us up to 40 percent of time. To extrapolate that into a typical workday, if you happen to be a rampant multi-tasker, like I was, you are unnecessarily expanding your workday. And if you only work an eight-hour day, the bottom line is that if you start focusing on one task at a time, you could leave work at around 2.30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., and achieve the exact same level of output.

Switching to paper for projects that involve writing, thinking, or brainstorming, can be a very effective way to be a single-tasker. It’s impossible to switch applications when you are writing in a notepad.

It won’t give you insomnia

If you are like many working mums, you probably hop back on at least one of your devices to pump out a bit more work (or Facebook time) after the kids are in bed. While this might feel productive, it’s actually making it harder for you to get a good night’s sleep.

You’ve possibly heard that the blue light emitted from screens (whether that be your smart phone, tablet or laptop) messes with your sleep hormones. Research from Harvard University has demonstrated that exposure to blue light supresses the production of melatonin, which is the hormone responsible for making us feel sleepy at night time.

So if you are trying to squeeze in a couple more hours of work, switching to a notebook will make sure your sleep doesn’t suffer.


About the author

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organisations can create a culture where innovation thrives. Dr Imber was recently profiled by Dynamic Business: Feed unconscious minds, embrace good failure: Dr Amantha Imber talks innovation strategies. She has also contributed guest articles to the site.