Smartphone use during a work break leads to mental fatigue, poorer performance

NEW BRUNSWICK, N. J. — We’ve all done it. For many of us, it’s something that happens everyday almost automatically. After working on an important project or task for a little while, you decide to take a break — only to pick up your smartphone and start browsing social media, read email, check out the news and maybe get in a quick round of Candy Crush Saga. Taking a break is supposed to be a time to relax and mentally recharge so that you can go back to your work with a fresh perspective. However, a new study out of Rutgers University finds that cellphone use during a mental break doesn’t really allow the brain to relax and can actually result in a poorer performance.

For the study, a group of 422 undergraduate students at Rutgers were assigned a set of 20 word puzzles to complete. Halfway through the task, the students were separated into three groups; one group took a break and were told to use their cellphones to go shopping online, another group took a break and were instructed to shop either via their computers or using a paper circular, and a third group didn’t take a break at all.

Interestingly, the group that took a break with their cellphones displayed the highest levels of mental fatigue, and had the hardest time solving the word puzzles following their break. The cellphone group’s post-break efficiency and quickness was basically on par with the group that didn’t take any break at all.

In all, the cellphone group took 19% longer to finish the puzzle task, and solved 22% fewer problems than participants in the other two groups combined.

“The act of reaching for your phone between tasks, or mid-task, is becoming more commonplace. It is important to know the costs associated with reaching for this device during every spare minute. We assume it’s no different from any other break – but the phone may carry increasing levels of distraction that make it difficult to return focused attention to work tasks,” explains co-author Terri Kurtzberg, an associate professor of management and global business at Rutgers, in a release.

Researchers believe that smartphone use is so addictive and commonplace during everyday breaks because just seeing our phones is enough to illicit thoughts of checking notifications and viewing a never-ending stream of information and news.

The study is published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.