Breaking the Smartphone Addiction

In her new book, Sleeping With Your Smartphone, Leslie Perlow explains how high-powered consultants disconnected from their mobile devices for a few hours every week—and how they became more productive as a result. Such "predictable time off" might help phone-addled employees better control their workdays and lives.
by Leslie A. Perlow

Editor's note: Check out the crowd at a concert, a movie, a school play, a beach—heck, even a funeral—and you'll likely see several people sneaking prolonged peeks at their smartphones. They just can't help themselves. Ringtones and message alerts are siren songs that lure them back to the world of work, no matter where they are.

"Let's face it," writes HBS Professor Leslie Perlow. "When that phone buzzes, few of us have the mental fortitude to ignore it."

In her new book, Sleeping With Your Smartphone, Perlow explains how a small group of high-powered consultants made a concerted effort to disconnect from their devices for a few predetermined hours every week—and how they became more productive as a result. The following excerpt from the book describes how the scheduled disconnecting process, dubbed "predictable time off," helped these phone-addled employees to take better control of both their workdays and their lives.

Excerpt From sleeping With Your Smartphone

Sleeping With Your SmartphoneIt all began with an experiment that my research associate and collaborator, Jessica Porter, and I initiated in order to explore whether one six-person "case team" at one of the world's most elite and demanding professional service firms—The Boston Consulting Group (BCG)—could work together to ensure that they each could truly disconnect from work for a scheduled unit of time each week. This modest experiment generated such powerful results-not just for individuals' work lives but for the team's work process and ultimately the client—that the experiment was expanded to more and more of BCG's teams. Four years later, over nine hundred BCG teams from thirty countries on five continents had participated.

Sleeping with Your Smartphone shares BCG's story. It also serves as a guide for anyone who is on a team or leads a team—whether a junior or senior manager, from big organizations or small, in the United States or abroad—and wants to make the impossible possible: turning off more, while improving the work process itself. Sleeping with Your Smartphone proposes a way to make exactly that happen: a process tested successfully by BCG teams in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. A process I have seen implemented with good and not-so-good managers; on big and small teams, with tight deadlines and less pressing deliverables. A process that I have come to call "PTO"—because at the core, when people work together to create "predictable time off," people, teams, and ultimately the organization all stand to benefit.

To be clear, PTO won't solve all your problems. Nor is it about being always off in a world that is always on. Rather, it is about incremental changes that promise to improve your work-life and your work in ways that make them notably better.

Creating Change Where No One Could Even Imagine It

I chose to conduct the original experiment at The Boston Consulting Group because there was widespread skepticism about the possibility of such hard-charging professionals turning off. "It has to be this way," explained one consultant, echoing many of his colleagues. "It is the nature of the work. Clients pay huge sums of money and expect—and deserve—the highest-quality service."

“When people work together to create 'predictable time off,' people, teams, and ultimately the organization all stand to benefit.”

Most consultants simply accepted the resulting demands on their time as the price they had to pay for annual salaries of well over $100,000 for recent business school graduates to millions of dollars for the most senior partners, as well as for unequaled exposure to colleagues and clients of the highest caliber working together to tackle pressing problems faced by the world's leading organizations, not to mention résumé building work experience. Moreover, many actually thrived on the intensity of the work and did not want it to be different. Even those who wanted more time for their personal lives presumed they had no alternative but to leave the firm to achieve it, and many did, including some of BCG's most talented consultants. I figured that if change could be fostered here, it could be made to happen most anywhere.

Imagine my delight then, when four years after we conducted our first experiment at BCG's Boston office, 86 percent of the consulting staff in the firm's Northeast offices—including Boston, New York, and Washington, DC—were on teams engaged in similar PTO experiments. These team members were much more likely than their colleagues on teams not participating in PTO to rate their overall satisfaction with work and work-life positively. For example:

  • 51 percent (versus 27 percent) were excited to start work in the morning
  • 72 percent (versus 49 percent) were satisfied with their job
  • 54 percent (versus 38 percent) were satisfied with their work-life balance

We also discovered that significantly more of those on PTO teams found the work process to be collaborative, efficient, and effective.

  • 91 percent (versus 76 percent) rated their team as collaborative
  • 65 percent (versus 42 percent) rated their team as doing everything it could to be efficient
  • 74 percent (versus 51 percent) rated their team as doing everything it could to be effective

The happy result for BCG was that individuals engaged in PTO experiments were more likely to see themselves at the firm for the long term (58 percent versus 40 percent) and were more likely to perceive that they were providing significant value to their clients (95 percent versus 84 percent). BCG clients reported a range of experiences with PTO teams from neutral (nothing dropped through the cracks) to extremely positive (they reaped significant benefits). According to BCG's CEO, Hans-Paul Bürkner, the process unleashed by these experiments "has proven not only to enhance work-life balance, making careers much more sustainable, but also to improve client value delivery, consultant development, business services team effectiveness, and overall case experience. It is becoming part of the culture—the future of BCG."

The Cycle Of Responsiveness: The Root Of The 24/7 Habit

The reason PTO can be so effective for both individuals' work-lives and the work itself: busy managers and professionals tend to amplify—through their own actions and interactions—the inevitable pressures of their jobs, making their own and their colleagues' lives more intense, more overwhelming, more demanding, and less fulfilling than they need to be. The result of this vicious cycle is that the work process ends up being less effective and efficient than it could be. The power of PTO is that it breaks this cycle, mitigating the pressure, freeing individuals to spend time in ways that are more desirable for themselves personally and for the work process.

The initial discovery that illuminated all of this emerged from one of the surveys we conducted of sixteen hundred managers and professionals.

Of this sample, 92 percent reported putting in fifty or more hours of work a week. A third of this group was working sixty-five or more hours a week. And that doesn't include the twenty to twenty-five hours per week most of them reported monitoring their work while not actually working: 70 percent admitted to checking their smartphone each day within an hour after getting up, and 56 percent did so within an hour before going to bed. Weekends offered no let-up: 48 percent checked over the weekend, even on Friday and Saturday nights. Vacations were no better: 51 percent checked continuously when on vacation. If they lost their wireless device and couldn't replace it for a week, 44 percent of those surveyed said they would experience "a great deal of anxiety."

And 26 percent confessed to sleeping with their smartphones. Simply put, people were "on" a great deal.

We defined on as the time people spent working plus all the additional time they were available, monitoring their work in case something came up. And, we discovered that those whose workweek was more unpredictable tended to be on more. That was not surprising. What caught our attention was that the more people were on, the more unpredictable their work time seemed to become. By being constantly connected to work, they seemed to be reinforcing—and worse, amplifying—the very pressures that caused them to need to be available.

Our respondents were caught in what we have come to call the cycle of responsiveness. The pressure to be on usually stems from some seemingly legitimate reason, such as requests from clients or customers or teammates in different time zones. People begin adjusting to these demands—adapting the technology they use, altering their daily schedules, the way they work, even the way they live their lives and interact with their families and friends—to be better able to meet the increased demands on their time. Once colleagues experience this increased responsiveness, their own requests expand. Already working long hours, most just accept these additional demands—whether they are urgent or not—and those who don't risk being branded as less committed to their work.

And thus the cycle spins: teammates, superiors and subordinates continue to make more requests, and conscientious employees accept these marginal increases in demands on their time, while their expectations of each other (and themselves) rise accordingly. Eventually, the cycle grows (unintentionally) vicious; most people don't notice that they are spinning their way into a 24/7 workweek. And even if they begin resenting how much their work is spilling into their personal lives, they fail to recognize that they are their own worst enemy, the source of much of the pressure that they attribute to the nature of their business.

Imagine instead that people were not so accommodating and decided to find alternative ways to do the work. Imagine the upside of no longer having to accommodate to all the pressure to be on.

Imagine if in the process of making this possible, new ways of working were discovered that were more efficient and effective. Consider the win not just for individuals but also for the organization. The power of PTO is that it makes this all come true—by breaking the cycle of responsiveness.

About the Author

Leslie A. Perlow is a professor at Harvard Business School.
    • Heather Magallanes
    • CEO, La Bella Basket Diva's
    "Mobile devices have exacerbated an always-on work culture where employees work anytime, anywhere. They've contributed to the blurred distinction between when you're "on the clock" and when you're not."

    For us to achieve better customer service as well as organize the beginning of the work day, we have implemented a "no electronic" morning. From 7 am until 10 am we are all focused on finishing up the previous days work, emails, customers, work stations and the days "to-do" lists. This has not only increased productivity but has had a calming affect upon the entire office. No longer are we interrupted in mid thought or while in a meeting. This had made us all less stressed and allows everyone to get their thoughts together each morning.
    • Karlene Wieland
    • Chief Creative Officer/CEO, Bedtime Bones
    I'm interested in hearing other comments regarding how this would affect small businesses i.e. start ups where there is much less resource and infrastructure.

    When I worked for large companies I found this to be true when you could get the teams full buy in and cooperation. Thank you, HBR!
    • Tengis
    • Student, UCTI
    Eventhough organization could achieve and good interaction between employers. Sometimes people might use it for organizational gossips and chit-chatting, that might give them break from their work.
    • Diofrildo Trotta
    • CEO, Dio Marketing
    I fully recommend this book. Her lessons hardly impact my life, my productivity and my team's commitment to schedule.
    • Ali Samei
    • Student, Politecnico di Milano
    Actually I think it is not possible to have a really time off for mobile devices, and I am not sure if it would be true to force other to turn off their devices. maybe it would be better to adjust some time to have something like group activity by mobile application or use smartphone in our organization or group objectives.
    Anyway we must accept that this gadget is an essential part of our life and we have to use it!
    • Deepak Dhanak
    • Vice President, Global Head - Tax, ExlService Holdings Inc.
    The biggest issue we face today in breaking off from Smart phones is the sense of insecurity. Smartphone is not only medium of communication, it is also our secondary memory (to remember phone nos, events, appointments, take notes, pictures). In a way, they have made our brains go soft and we are highly dependent on them. If we can supplement this secondary memory issue, breaking off will be easy. Else, human beings are, by nature, insecure and breaking off in few cases will be possible but not in large number of cases to really make an impact.
    • Jaspreet Singh Walia
    • Senior manager - Operations, Ericsson India Global Services Pvt. Ltd.
    I absolutely agree that the problem stems from the cycle of responsiveness. While you can definitely seek a time-off, but you are so much adjusted to the demands, that you think that there is no way out. I believe that if you are still concerned about what may be happening in office or at work generally when your office timings are over, this means that you are not managing your time and work properly. While it may not be absolutely possible to switch off your mobile or be totally cutoff, but loosing your sleep and your family life for work means that you are not effective at your job.
    • Joe+G
    Yes and no. I don't look at it on the weekends and as long as bosses are okay with that, that's what matters. If you are constantly hounded by your boss over something that happened at 10 pm, then it won't work.
    • Anonymous
    I think that my team could work together to creat a "predictable time off" from our mobile devices. They all get mad when we are in meetings and members of our team are chating or answering messages through their mobile devices; what they have not noticed is that most of them do the same. We are all, already, agreed that during our coordinations meetings we are not allowed to take this devices.
    • Anonymous
    The article was "all-telling". The expectations of our global environment and inability to feel free to schedule a predictable time off have led to decrease in employee engagement. There are individuals who call cell phones at all hours, expect folks to monitor e-traffic while sick, on vacation etc. After reading this article, I'm convinced that if management were to support a philosophy such as this that employee engagement would improve.
    • Brian Scott
    • trustee, Camfed
    I suggest a further step beyond 'predictable time off' - predictable time on!
    We don't drive our cars or watch TV at every possible opportunity. Because of the novelty of the smartphone, we haven't yet gotten over the childish attitude of wanting to play with it all the time. Some of us have already!
    • Michael Woolbright
    • President,
    Smart phones are not only in the traditional office. Cub Scouts, PTA, Church, Facebook checking in for church, all of the challenges we face in the tradtional workplace are transfered to school and community locations too. As a single father and an entrepreneur, I am also guilty of "phone addiction". A camping trip with cub scouts last month was a huge test to turn the phone off. From Friday till Sunday night, no phone. No problem! I installed my first auto-respond to my emails and changed my phone message stating i would be "out of the loop" till Monday. It was nice. I've started to try turning it off or ignoring it- difficult, but like they say in some circles, one day at a time.... So just like the tradtional work styles have changed, it's the same for "volunteers" or "un"cash-paid"-paid" workers.
    • Pete DeLisi
    • President, Organizational Synergies
    Leslie, what an interesting topic! I don't think the answer is "predictable time off," as much as, learning to deal with the addiction and its causes. If someone is addicted to alcohol, for example, the answer is not to advise them to abstain from drinking certain times of the day.

    It's interesting that social science experts, such as, Sherry Turkle and Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at Stanford, have written books about the deleterious effects of electronic media. Our own research at Santa Clara University suggests that the addiction to electronic media may need more than abstention for periods of time; it may need a serious evaluation of what it is that is driving us to this compulsive behavior and a subsequent rebalancing of the time spent on electronic media.
    • Anonymous
    Being a remote resource (I chose to move for family reasons and the employer agreed to the remote setup), being available and responsive in a timely manner is utmost importance. I found that given the nature of our work, we could be productive at any time of the day. Some of my productive stints have been after the family falls asleep. The only way to have time for family in a predictable manner is to have a block of time that you will be away from work, starting with when the kid comes home.

    If the co-workers know I will be off during this time, they do not expect me to be around and expect a response to an email. If it is urgent a phone call will be appropriate. But the feeling is mutual -- to not intrude into some ones off time.

    When deadlines loom and pressure mounts, discipline to follow your policy is vital. As Clay Christensen says it is much easer to do something 100% of the time than to do it 99.9% of the time.

    Being in a different time zone than the rest of the team makes such policy even more important.
    • Srinivasan
    • Director, HP
    I want to separate the question into two parts:
    Part 1. Do I believe in people switching off from work for a period of time; and not being "on" all the time. I would say unequivocally yes.
    I probably belong to the old school of thought - that a well partitioned time between work and time away from work (which includes not being "on" as well) will do a lot of good to people's productivity and quality.
    I have tried hard to coach people that this would be good for the manager and the employee.
    In such a model the exceptions - when people reach out to you are truly exceptions (rather than a right of intruding into the time away from work).

    Part 2: Can you change the organization. That's a tough ask - when the always ON is looked at by organizations as your commitment; and hence the entire peer network starts to believe and do it...
    You could be perceived to be out of tune with the current ways of work...
    • Anonymous
    In my team, during office time i strictly advise my team members to turn off their mobile data connection. We are in our office and desktop outlook immediately notifies us so wasting energy on the air seems not so reasonable. In addition , during meetings sometimes we try not to get our notebooks/netbooks with us not to be lost during the "boring" meetings. We love to check our business or private emails and social media web pages during work time but at the end of the day we must understand that our brain gets tired of all this paralel processing
    • Mary Watkins
    • Deputy Vice Chancellor, Plymouth University
    Iam delighted to read this excellent article it is always good to have evidence to back up one's opinions! It is also a great stress reliever to leave work for a regular period which promotes good mental health.
    • Dr Shantha P Yahanpath
    • Lecturer/Management Consultant, Agape International
    Great article.

    As a lecturer in Finance and Strategy I firmly believe some of my students will be able to increase their output if they switch off their phones for a while.

    Also, as a consultant and coach I have come across executives almost "addicted" to their phones. They too agree that their performance is adversely affected by phones.

    My message to them is "while this little gadget is a great invention one should not let it take over you". I take the example of a sharp double-edged sword.

    Dr Shantha P Yahanpath
    • Roseann Fitzgerald
    Although I do not have a smartphone for my work, I do have one for personal use (that can access my work email). I think the best way to create a "Predictable Time Off" period is to have a clear understanding when your colleagues are working and/or on vacation. When I'm on vacation or begin my weekend, I go into my settings on my Iphone and just turn off the mail so I cannot access my inbox. It's a very healthy thing to do! And when you're back on the job, just turn your inbox on again.
    • Anonymous
    being in the conditions that the "world is always on", You have to be very self-confident and independent to start this process. The only way is to have the management support from the beginning
    • Kamal Hossain
    • Lecturer of Business, London School of Commerce
    Being always connected, that is the attraction of smartphones. It appeals to the executives of organizations due to this reason. To switch off the smartphones and be unavailable is a new concept. And it resulting in higher productivity is even a more challenging statement.
    In emerging economies, the thrill of new growth opportunities mean working more, staying more connected with the team. As these economies are still penetrating the age of communication and social networking tools through mobile devices, it is unlikely that PTO will work. Even the idea proposed might cause an employee to be branded as someone not willing to commit to the growth of the company.
    I doubt that organizations in emerging economies will collaborate to choose to switch off.
    Kamal Hossain
    Lecturer of Business Studies
    London School of Commerce
    • Mike Listello
    This is a great article to show our behaviors with new technology and the constant ability to connect to work and other digital items.

    I believe this is not as much of a work issue as a social issue. Many people use the same smart phones for work and personnel messaging. I will check my phone on the weekends to see if I have any calls from my family or friends. I will also check messages from work and try to provide quick responses to those messages that warrant one. I am guilty of working on some stuff at "off" hours but try to keep it at a minimum so I can spend time with my family and friends. I will say that I did forget my phone at my house on a long weekend trip. There was anxiety at first but it soon became one of the most relaxing weekends in a long while. So I do appreciate tuning off the phone during off hours.
    • Old-CIO
    • CIO
    What about those of us who are not "addicts". I hate my smartphone, but I answer it when it rings and check email on it constantly because that is what my position requires. When I feel my life or performance is being negatively affected, I will find another job where the requirements are different.
    • Sidharth Khandelwal
    • Sr Manager
    If this can further be integrated with calendar then nothing like it, Its an excellent way to ensure focus is maintained and we are not distracted resulting in higher effeciencies and effectiveness in all that we do.
    • Anita Murfet
    • SendOutCards Independent Distributor 57610,
    "EMFs - Uncontrolled they can harm, controlled they can heal." Fisher, Donna. Dirty Electricity and Electromagnetic Radiation: Understanding Electromagnetic Energy. Buddina Queensland Australia. Joshua Books, 2011. ISBN 978 0 9808 744 9 5

    Our smartphones facilitate necessary communication, however uninterrupted access is potentially dangerous physically mentally and socially.

    Every businesses type and size is obligated to establish a variety of employee duty of care procedures such as switch-off times, meal times and fitness activities.

    Regular disconnection, if linked to other duty of care procedures within the workplace, refreshes inspires and resets the brain to the fully present state, producing a win-win environment and increasing productivity.

    I applaud Heather Magallane's procedures (Reader Comment #1) What a privilege to be in your workplace!

    I would like to see influential business leaders and groups connect with the organizers of last year's 'Disconnect and Enjoy' hour and commence a movement to extend its application weekly, even daily.
    • Juan Ram?n
    • Student, Catholic University Asuncion, Paraguay
    Interesting article, actually smartphones are occuping practically all the time we spent in the day, we have to make a space for them, without misleading our work, employees and team. Even though it may be a good influence for our employees by doing better interactions between each other. Maybe can be used to create and expand gossip inside the organization breaking the good work flow.
    • Tapas
    • Member, Moodoff Day Org
    I will recommend this book to all. I know for few people it's diff to think an hour without their smartphone. But we need to think about the consequence of our social life. We have to use it smartly. We need to educate our kids and future generation for the same. This is the reason for the "Smartphone Addiction Awareness Day" - "Moodoff Day". Once in a year "A morning without Technology" - hope it helps to educate few people.
    • Ramu Iyer
    • Consultant, Slalom Consulting
    I'd recommend that managers who are responsible for leading and managing the talent in offshore locations learn from the insights in this book. In an ostensibly "flat world", we may want to re-examine our assumptions regarding the "always on" (7x24) demands that we impose in offshore and nearshore teams. In other words, we should think counter intuitively about the "non-BCG" (Boston Consulting Group) teams that are in non-Silicon Valley zipcodes outside the United States. Implementing PTO is an opportunity for enhancing collaboration with cross-border teams in order to create win/win outcomes. Why? Because when one "thoughtfully considers" (in a PTO moment), one has an opportunity to collaborate, if required, and deliver "exceptional results."
    • Nauzad Tantra
    • Mfg. Engg. Manager, NK
    Im not surprised with these results. The international labor organization has already established a long while ago that periods of rest away from work actually improve productivity.

    As a manager I am keen to ensure that my staff does not work overtime or come to work on weekends. "Their time" is important. That makes them more efficient while they work (less time at the coffee machine) because they still have to meet their targets. And the increase in focus interestingly also comes at a lower cost of overheads (the lights in our room are on for 50% less time now compared to earlier when they worked 60-70 hour weeks)!!
    • Anonymous
    I have never owned a cellphone and I work on Wall Street.
    • Jack Slavinski
    • SVP
    This topic and book certainly resonates with me with first hand observations in an intense technology environment in a rapidly changing firm on a senior team that I was a member of. From personal experience, when there is a hierarchical expectation of instant responsiveness, the level of smartphone (broadly put) behavioral reliance and usage can escalate to insane and unproductive levels. One can attempt to set a personal example of reduced usage, but since there is systematic reliance and adoption, its highly difficult to effect organizational behavior. I definitely agree that that this condition creates focus and productivity issues.
    • Richard Tolleson
    • CEO, Stop the Idiocracy, LLC
    Smartphones are self-flattering. We only see what we want to see, only talk to people who serve our needs and ignore people who might challenge us to expand beyond our limited assumptions.

    Has anyone else noticed that the American economy has weakened as these wireless devices have become ubiquitous? And they were supposed to make us more productive.

    Ha. Get ready for the Web 2.0 bubble to burst. Facebook's stock value was just the beginning.

    We are a culture of wifi junkies and electronics addicts.
    • Maria Kamil
    • Founder, Phone Fitness
    Even before there were smartphones, and before email was as pervasive as it is today, "Always On" was a problem. In the late 80's I headed brand marketing at Coca-Cola and Schweppes in the UK where my team was relatively young. After the 3rd team member broke up a long standing relationship, we instituted "date night." Thursdays we helped eachother to LEAVE the premesis by 16:00. Thursday was the one evening during the week you could predictably keep a "date." As team leader I communicated this to all the teams we dealt with. It worked so well, I implemented somethng similar at the next three companies I worked for. It is not the technology, it is the behaviour.