At our farm, “horse logic” is an oxymoron we laugh at as we deal with the fallout of equine choices. “Smartphone” is another favorite oxymoron around here. Why? Because—although our phones are smarter, to the point that they are pocket computers, not phones—they can make us humans dumb, or at least dumb down our writing at work.

Notice I said they can make us dumb, not do. Being mindful of the effect of our supposed smartphones means we can choose not to let them affect our writing skills. But it starts with the awareness, the knowing that the phone is having a negative impact so we can work against it.

What happens to dumb down our writing at work?

The effect is subtle, not dramatic. It’s not as if we buy a smartphone and the quality of our workplace writing instantly deteriorates. It’s more like a slow degradation over time.

Why does the smartphone dumb down our writing at work? We’ll look at five ways below. And then we’ll tackle the bright side: how to fight back against the dumbing down so your communication skills continue to improve and your work days continue to get more productive.

How your smartphone dumbs down your writing

It gives you a false sense of urgency.

There’s an immediacy to the phone that gives us a “must reply now” mindset. We think that because we’ve seen the email, text or chat, we must reply to it right away. That leads to responding or reacting in a hurry which rarely leads to quality writing (or thought, for that matter). And the end result is poor communication and wasted time.

It distracts you from quality work.

If you are focused on your writing at work, but your phone dings and you reach for it, you’re not actually focused on your writing at all. In fact, even if it’s face down or in your bag or desk drawer, it can dumb down your writing.

Research described in a report titled Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity found that just having your phone in the same room with you decreases your ability to perform well, even if it’s turned off. In the study, participants either had their phones with them or left them in another room, then took a test. And being physically distant from the phone had a huge effect on test results:

“…the researchers found that participants who left their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones anywhere physically close to them while taking the test.”

It gets you used to poor writing.

The exposure to so many poorly written texts, social media posts and tweets deadens you to common punctuation and grammar errors. And let’s add memes to this list. If I had a dollar for every time I saw a meme with a mistake in it, I’d be wealthy! This poor writing becomes acceptable to our brains the more we’re exposed to it.

It’s addictive on purpose.

Our smartphones (and many of the apps on them) are designed to be addictive. Therefore, they condition us to need constant stimulation, looking to see who liked a Facebook post or replied to a tweet. As a result, it becomes habit to jump from task to task without concentrating on what we’re writing because a part of our brains has to know what’s happening on our phones.

(For ways to make your phone less addictive, watch this short 5-minute video explaining the addictive features and how to bypass them.)

They make us forgetful.

When we read something on a screen, we remember 10% to 30% less of the material than if we had read it on paper. As a result, our phones give us a false sense of having engaged with and understood content. And that lack of true understanding shows up in our communications because we can get it wrong—if we remember “it” at all.

It’s time to fight back against the dumbing down!

We don’t have to go along with this dumbing down of our writing at work, however. We can easily fight back against the effects of our smartphones and make sure our workplace writing continues to be clear and credible. How? With these six ways to avoid the dumbing down of the smartphone:

One: Resist the impulse to reply right away.

If it’s an email, wait until you’re back at your desk or laptop to type your reply. This is particularly important if your smartphone has you replying to (or, worse yet, shooting off) emails in your off time. You need the break from work. If it’s a social media post, well, more on social media later. If it’s a text or chat, think through whether you must reply right away or not.

Two: If you decide you must reply right away, take the time to get it right.

Use full sentences, proper grammar and correct punctuation. Re-read your message before sending it. Be mindful while replying, not quick.

Three: Put it out of sight when writing.

As per the research referred to above, just having your smartphone nearby negatively impacts your cognitive ability, so put it away when you’re typing on your computer or writing with pen on paper. (Even better, put it out of sight whenever you should be fully engaged in a task, including Zoom meetings and IRL conversations with another person, say at a restaurant having dinner.)

Four: Remove social media apps from your phone.

(Or even better, quit social media altogether.) You can access your social media accounts from your browser if you really need to check Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or TikTok during your workday.

Five: Turn off notifications.

Turn off your email, text and chat notifications. And if you’ve decided to keep apps on your smart phone (are you sure?!), turn off those notifications too so you’re not distracted by the possibility of a ping. (If your kids might need to reach you in an emergency, tell them to call your phone, not text.)

Six: Be armed with alternatives so your phone is not your default.

Carry a notebook and pen with you for jotting down ideas. Carry a book with you so you don’t turn to your phone to mindlessly fill up any downtime. And remember: It’s okay to be bored. Your brain can benefit from some empty space!

“But…can’t my smartphone be good for my writing at work?”

What about the flip side? Can your smartphone be used as a tool to improve your writing at work? I believe so, but it must be done intentionally and while avoiding the pitfalls described above. Three ways your phone might be a benefit are:

  • You can install a dictionary app for looking up words, or a grammar-checking app to correct your obvious mistakes. (But these are apps, so watch out for addictive features and turn notifications off!)
  • You can choose to read quality content, and the key words here are read and quality, as opposed to scan and opinionated junk.
  • You can put your phone to good use and improve your writing skills by listening to audiobooks.

Smartphones have their place when used with caution

Smartphones are not all bad. Our smartphones can be used in beneficial ways. But we have to set the boundaries and choose to be mindful about how we use our phones. If we do, smartphones will stop dumbing down our writing at work and who knows? Maybe as our workplace writing improves, we can be a positive influence on our coworkers and they will want to improve their writing at work as well!

Photo by Julia Larson from Pexels

Sharon Ernst is a retired freelance copywriter now on a mission to improve the business and marketing writing skills of today’s workforce with her blog, newsletter and online classes.