What makes a smartphone “smart?”

This may sound like a dumb question, but I have actually been asking it ever since I made a commitment to upgrade my time management system with the purchase of a shiny, new 2011 smartphone in January.

Setting aside the question of the costs (which I understand can top US$2,000 per year when internet charges are included,) I am focused on discovering whether or not I can boost my productivity with an intelligent choice. In doing so, I realize that I could end up deciding to maintain the status quo: a cheap Nokia cellphone and an old Palm PDA.

Important: this is a productivity effort on my part, not a shopper’s comparison.

I have never owned a smartphone, and after seeing some of the ways in which they have been used and abused by their owners, I am wary. I don’t want to become another smartphone addict who can’t stop themselves from using bad habits daily. Instead, I have delayed purchasing a smartphone, and I have decided to ignore the advertisements in order to make a decision.

So far, what I’ve gleaned about these devices has been interesting.

One of the main lessons I have learned is that smartphones aren’t all that smart when it comes to enhancing an individual’s productivity. To understand why this is the case, let’s first define what I DON’T mean by using the word “productivity.”

Convenience, not Productivity

Many of the most recent smartphone innovations have more to do with convenience than productivity. For example, if I’m traveling on the road and need to take a picture, a smartphone could take the place of a forgotten camera. Smartphones have been continuously redesigned to replace electronic tools such as:

- a camera
- a DVD / video player
- an mp3 player
- a camcorder
- a voice recorder
- simple browser
- an instant messaging system
- an email and text messaging system
- a GPS device
- a cell phone
- a radio
- a gaming device
- a laptop

It appears that smartphone manufacturers have focused their attention on cramming as many electronic tools as they can into as small a case as possible, which is has been an amazing thing to watch as a non-user. Even though the miniaturized, smartphone versions of these devices are usually not quite as robust as the original, it must be fun to be able to pull out a smartphone that does the trick every time, rather than having to lug a knapsack full of the technological gadgets listed. Friends and family should be impressed as I switch from one device to another as I sit on the beach.

When a smartphone replaces a knapsack-of-gadgets, that must be a good thing. But is using fewer muscles and taking up less space the same as being more productive? Isn’t that really about a little added convenience?

Convenience is not really what I’m after… I am more interested in being productive in the meat and potatoes kind of way: getting more done, making fewer mistakes, doing stuff cheaper, and pleasing those who are the recipients of my work. “Convenience” seems to be a lesser matter.

Entertainment, not Productivity

I imagine that with smartphone access to ebooks, music, pictures and videos that I’d always have a source of content to prevent me from ever getting bored. I’d always be able to escape some mind-numbing task, and disappear into something interesting and more captivating.

Of course, you may not like it if you happen to be giving a presentation at the very moment at which I decide that I’m bored, and I turn to my device t osearch for something more interesting. Yet this is exactly what’s happening around the world as smartphone users drift to better quality entertainment in the middle of meetings, conversations, weddings, dinner dates… heck, I’ve even heard that people reach for them while they are lying in bed, or sitting on the toilet.

A more entertained life has its advantages. The most recent research shows that jumping from one text to another floods parts of the brain with dopamine. (link here: http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/video?id=7397649) As welcoming as that sounds, it has little to do with productivity, unfortunately.

Information, not Productivity

If I were to leave for a business trip I imagine that while I’m in the taxi to the airport, I could check to see if my flight were on time. I could also see the news as it develops in the moment, plus watch stock prices, bond yields and currency fluctuations as they happen in the minute. A storm happening 3,000 miles away would be information that would be at my fingertips.

It’s obvious that I’d be better informed, and I imagine that I could save some time with the information that I could use to decide to change my travel plans. But would that translate into greater productivity for me? Maybe a little, but it wouldn’t replace the information I could get from a phone call or laptop.

Converting Down Time, not Productivity

At the same time, a smartphone does seem to facilitate a particular thought that runs as follows:
“Here I am sitting in the doctor’s office with nothing to do. I wish I could be doing something else instead, such as
sending email / watching a movie / reading an ebook / surfing the internet / creating a video / purchasing a nick-nack on ebay, etc.”

Smartphones make it easy for us to switch tasks from something that we don’t want to be doing to an electronic activity that we’d prefer to be doing.

Surely, that must be a good thing!?

Maybe not for me. I have a neat habit of taking naps in doctor’s offices, or anyplace where I’m seated and waiting. I also like to meditate in quiet moments, and I just love the serendipity of finding an old magazine with an interesting article.

Would I be less productive if I engaged in any of these activities instead of using my smartphone to IM a friend at work? Probably not.

At the same time, I have been known to travel with my mp3 player and Palm PDA to locations in which I know I’ll be waiting for some time. Combining these devices into my cellphone, which I have with me all the time, would give me more choices around converting my down time. I could still take a nap, but I’d do it with my smartphone in my hand, knowing that I could be doing something electronic when I wake up.

That’s a little more productivity… perhaps.

Sex-Appeal, not Productivity

In airport terminals all over the world for the past few weeks, people have been looking over the shoulders of those who possess the latest and sleekest gadget – the Apple iPad. I actually borrowed one the other day for a few minutes and it felt like an amazingly beautiful creation. Undeniably sexy. Used anywhere in public, it could hardly fail to attract attention with its design and functionality.

Gaining other people’s attention and admiration, as ego-boosting as it might be, is not an increase in productivity, however.

Real Productivity

The cases mentioned so far address the hype that has been used in smartphone ads. What I have noticed is a very different vibe around these devices than the vibe that existed around other time management tools that I introduced in my daily life in past years.

1991

As a new employee at AT&T Bell Labs, I remember seeing the first DayRunners and DayTimers and thinking that I needed to get one of those. I ended up with the former, and there was no mistaking the fact that the system of folder, little pages and inserts was for a single purpose: productivity enhancement. They were not for entertainment, communication or replacing anything in the knapsack-of-gadgets in a cool and sexy way.

Back then, having a planner showed that you were serious about being productive. (Or so we thought.)

1997

When the Palm Pilot was made available in the mid-1990′s, I remember being relieved. Not only could I manage my most important information more securely (with multiple electronic backups,) but I could also carry that information with me wherever I went.

As other software programs were released for the Palm, I saw them as interesting toys, but hardly the reason why the Palm existed in the first place. Like the DayRunner, the Palm was all about productivity.

2010

Now, I am attempting to make the next upgrade, but as you may have noticed, I am struggling to see what, if anything, a smartphone will add to my productivity.

When I adopted the DayRunner and Palm Pilot, it was clear to me that the new habits I needed to adopt to make these devices work would help me to be more productive. In the case of the DayRunner I learned to:
- bring my diary with me everywhere
- have backup refills
- browse OfficeMax for improvements
- check my calendar before making new appointments

With the Palm, I learned that I needed to:
- synche it with Outlook and the Palm Desktop every 1-2 days
- keep it well charged
- travel with a charger at all times
- always look for new software or hardware upgrades

These habits were new ones, but they were worth the investment of time and energy because of the overall productivity gains. Looking back I can see that any upgrade to my time management system requires that a user develop some new habits in order to realize the necessary improvements.

When I review each of these habit changes, however, I now realize that I was making upgrades to what I call the Fundamentals of Time Management: Capturing, Emptying, Tossing, Acting Now, Storing, Scheduling, Listing, Switching, Interrupting, Warning and Reviewing. Each of them is a physical action that is profoundly affected by the choice of tools that are used.

For example, the DayRunner changed the way I did my Capturing, as I now almost always had a pad of paper with me. I also was able to upgrade the method I used to Store addresses and phone numbers, keeping the same pages for years at a time.

When I bought the Palm, it also affected the way I did my Storing, as I could now backup all my information in several places and never have to worry about ever losing it. Also, having an electronic Schedule meant that I could do away with Task lists, Todo lists and Next Action Lists and make plans for time slots occurring days, weeks and months in the future, something that was too hard to attempt with pencil and paper.

These two upgrades made sense to me in a practical way — they changed how I executed the 11 Fundamentals. Meat and potatoes productivity.

Now, in 2010, the more closely I look at modern smartphones the more confused I get, because I can’t clearly see the productivity advantage. I don’t want to waste my time and money on fluff.

As I mentioned before, what really scares me is the fact that I might pick up some of the bad habits I have seen. According to the New York Times, the devices enable digital distractions, a modern-day addiction that is just as hard to break as any other.

One company I know well even banned smartphones from the boardroom because its directors and executives could not control the addictive habits that they have developed. And I’m sure I’m not alone in having friends who continually interrupt meals, movies, conversations, meetings, play dates with kids, sporting events, etc. to pick up their smartphones in anticipation of a ring, beep or buzz.

I am desperate to avoid falling into this trap, partly due to the etiquette and health risks, but also because they are so unproductive – the very opposite of what I am trying to accomplish with an upgrade. I don’t want to be distracted to the point where I don’t know what I’m doing.

It’s not that I think that smartphones will always be useless. Far from it. I believe that the combination of several devices into one could be potent, but they will only become so when the capabilities of one device are combined with another to impact one of the 11 Fundamentals in a new and innovative way.

For example, the calendar could be used to block certain kinds of interruptions, until I am ready to work on them during designated times for “Emptying.”

If I could challenge smartphone manufacturers I would say:
“Imagine a knapsack filled with all the gadgets now being squeezed into smartphones: a laptop, camera, mp3 player, radio, etc. Apart from the obvious convenience of a smaller size, how is the smartphone better?”

If I can’t clearly answer that question by Christmas, then I’ll be sticking with the cellphone/PDA combination that I use today. I’ll be tracking my progress in making the decision on my website and I welcome your reactions, questions and ideas in the comments below.

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