Keep Your (Mobile) Enemies Close

Anyone who puts “good at multi-tasking” on their résumé is a liar.

I used to think I could simultaneously listen in a meeting, check emails, outline my next feature and plot ways to get downstairs and watch the movie crews filming “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” in our rotunda (we work in the literal-slash-cinematic Daily Planet building). Maybe that combination strictly belongs to my movie-loving comic-nerd psyche. We might all think we’re capable of doing several things at once, but our brains physically can’t do it.

“Attention is very much like a flashlight — you focus it on certain things,” said Ken Graetz, director of teaching, learning and tech services at Winona State University in Minnesota. “What’s happening with multi-tasking is you’re focusing your attention on something else and not really attending to that other thing.”

Unfortunately, we’re all in denial on this, which means we’re perfectly comfortable whipping out the phone during a learning session. Besides being disrespectful to the presenter, it’s also detrimental to the learner’s focus. Everyone acknowledges this at some level, but that doesn’t stop us. That means it’s up to learning leaders to get us to stop, a feat that’s doable if you befriend the beguiler.

The first step is to acknowledge that playing Candy Crush during a training session isn’t actually a distraction to the person smashing the sweets. Rather, it’s a conscious choice to divert attention from a presentation to a device, Graetz said. Where mobile devices like laptops and phones become a distraction is to the people around the user, who have no choice in the matter. Sure, the person who’s playing doesn’t give two peppermint-shaped hoots about his or her development, but the poor schlub sitting one row back can’t focus.

That’s where the second step comes in, and it might seem counter intuitive. There is no way saying “No phones” is going to keep employees, regardless of age, from diverting their attention from a presentation to their phone. In April, mobile analytics firm Flurry reported the number of “mobile addicts” — people who check their phones more than 60 times a day — had increased 123 percent to 179 million. Chances are at least one of those 179 million people work at your organization.

While we’re on the topic, here’s a small but interesting psych sidebar (“psych-bar”):  Psychology Today reported in July 2013 that 40 percent of American suffer from “nomophobia,” as in “no-mo(bile)-phobia.”

So instead of cutting the users off from their substance of choice, try incorporating mobile into what they do. Graetz recommended using apps that allow attendees their own version of the presenter’s slides or sending out poll questions that can be answered.

A good example of this is AMC’s StorySync apps that allow viewers of The Walking Dead and other shows to take quizzes, read trivia and interact with other audience members while the show is on. It keeps people engaged in the carnage on screen and still allows them to get their mobile fix. Who’s to say it wouldn’t work for learning?

As they say, keep your friends close and your mobile enemies (distractions) closer.

This blog post originally appeared in Talent Management's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.