Is mobile productivity a myth?

The Wall Street Journal posted a provocative piece yesterday: “Why Aren’t Smartphones Making Us More Productive?” In it, business editor Dennis K. Berman cites a drop in annual productivity growth since 2004, saying it’s “as if a time-wasting flock of Angry Birds has buried productivity like a worm.” He quotes a Northwestern economist who says mobile technology like the iPhone “has done absolutely nothing” to help your productivity.

It seems a little premature to put the tombstone on the idea of mobile productivity. Berman, to be fair, isn’t doing that with his article, which concedes that it’s “inconclusive” and that “we’re left in the fallible realm of impressions.” I’ve read numerous responses to the article, though, that essentially interpret the message as “results are in: smartphones are making us less productive.” Some take it another step and issue an indictment against “mobile” as a whole; “The purpose of mobile productivity is a bit lost on me,” admitted a recent post on Lifehacker.

Here’s what we do know: if working or playing on your phone is the first and last thing you do every day, you’re not doing yourself any favors. We also know that it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking we’re being productive when we, in fact, aren’t being very productive. Almost everyone thinks they excel at multitasking, but almost no one is a truly efficient multitasker. Round-the-clock connectivity may lead to anecdotal wins – you impressed a boss or client with your immediate reply at 11pm – but that doesn’t necessarily translate to productivity in a big picture, meaningful-to-economists sort of way.

It’s easy to forget, but the mobile workplace is really still in its embryonic stage. New productivity apps put their predecessors to shame. Many companies are just beginning to grapple with the advantages and pitfalls of BYOD (bring your own device). The lines between smartphones and tables and laptops will continue to blur. Harry McCracken, mobile editor at Time, said recently that “that the keyboard changes an iPad from a media consumption device into a productivity tool.”

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.