Looking At Your Phone At Work Might Make You Even More Bored

By Emily Reynolds

There are plenty of things you can do in a five minute break at work — talk to a colleague, make a cup of tea or coffee, or even go outside for some fresh air. But with the advent of digital technology, many of us now spend the short lulls in our day doing something else: looking at our phones.

Previous research has already suggested (fairly unsurprisingly) that smartphone use increases as we get more bored or fatigued. It makes sense: if you’re doing a particularly tedious task at work, you’re much more likely to want to spend a few minutes scrolling on your phone than if you’re doing something deeply engaging.

But does looking at your phone actually relieve boredom? A new study from Jonas Dora and colleagues at Radboud University, available as a preprint at PsyArXiv, seems to suggest not.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether smartphone use would increase or decrease fatigue and boredom. On one hand, previous research suggests that notifications significantly impact people’s ability to concentrate on major tasks; on the other, looking at your phone could provide what the authors refer to as a “microbreak”, allowing a small period in which to recover from the demands (and boredoms) of work.

To explore this relationship further, the team asked 83 participants to rate their level of fatigue and boredom every hour they were at work for three working days. An app had also been installed on their phones, which monitored smartphone use during the twenty minutes before and twenty minutes after these self-reports (times that overlapped with the start of end of work, or with lunch breaks, were omitted from analysis).

Phone breaks were extremely frequent: in the twenty minutes following each questionnaire, participants picked up their phone 52% of the time, spending an average of around ninety seconds on it each time.

As participants’ fatigue and boredom increased, so too did the frequency with which they looked at their phones. For instance,  a ten-point increase in boredom, on a 100-point scale, resulted in a 40% higher likelihood someone would reach for their phone (though there was no evidence that they spent any longer looking at their smartphones).

So did participants feel less bored after picking up their phones? Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case. Researchers looked at fatigue levels twenty minutes before self-reports, finding participants actually reported higher levels of boredom after having used their smartphones (though the effect size was admittedly small — a single digit increase on the 100-point scale).

There are two reasons why this might be the case. Switching between tasks — even between a boring task and an enriching one — can carry a cognitive load of its own, with the reward of a brief glance at a phone not enough to make up the deficit. And rather than being a motivating break, looking at a phone may simply underline the gap between the things you find taxing and the things you find invigorating — thus making you even more fed up and bored when you return to work.

This research had a small sample size, so it’s important not to draw too many definitive conclusions from its findings. But it’s not the only study to find a negative relationship between smartphone use and boredom levels. One 2016 paper found that spending work breaks on the phone can lead to decreased levels of motivation: because you’re not allowing your mind to wander when you look at your phone, it suggested, you’re not getting any of the benefits you normally would during a break from work.

So next time you’re bored and feel yourself reaching for your smartphone, it might be an idea to resist it. Leaving your desk or even just looking out of the window for five minutes may be less compelling than what’s on your newsfeed — but you may find yourself less tired, less bored and less demotivated in the end.

Fatigue, boredom, and objectively-measured smartphone use at work [this paper is a preprint, meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version this report was based on]

Emily Reynolds (@rey_z) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest