Your Smartphone Is Stealing Your Leadership Skills

Sometimes, says emotional intelligence pro Daniel Goleman, the best advice is the simplest: put your device down and focus.

While our smartphones offer obvious benefits and conveniences, our tech devices also have negative unintended drawbacks. Consider this:

Our dependence on our phones harms our ability to function in the off-screen world. Researchers find negative impacts on our ability to learn, reason logically, solve problems, and be creative. Our phones may be smart, but are they making us dumber?

The human brain has an amazing capacity to take in and process information, assessing what is important and requires more attention, and what is not relevant. We can store a great deal of information in our brains, remember it, and draw on it out when we need it. But while our brains are powerful, we don’t have unlimited capacity. Unlike our technology, we can’t install another hard drive to store more information or upgrade to a higher-speed processor in our brains.

We have a crucial choke point in our focus. Cognitive science finds that a bottleneck in our ability to pay attention means we can hold in mind at any given moment only seven bits of information, plus or minus two bits. Seven digits is the length of a phone number. This limits what we can focus on at any given moment. That’s why so-called “multi-tasking” is a fiction—the brain actually shifts rapidly from one focus to another, losing concentration as it goes.


Focus is essential for dealing with complex issues leaders face every day, whether managing a diverse team, developing an effective business strategy, or negotiating with a difficult client. I believe that focus is a meta-skill, essential for us to be effective at anything we do. How can we navigate the infinite distractions around us and strengthen our ability to tune in to what matters despite the sea of distractions? The good news is that focus, like emotional intelligence competencies, is something we can develop. Just as we train our muscles to be stronger, we can train our brains to focus better. 

Build your capacity for focus

A number of research studies tell us mindfulness can build our ability to focus. Mindfulness, like many forms of meditation, requires a basic move where we focus on one thing—such as our breath—and, when our mind wanders from that focus, and we notice it has wandered, return our attention to it. That seemingly simple mental move—focus, get distracted, refocus—amounts to a mental fitness routine, strengthening the connection between our prefrontal cortex (the seat of rational thought) and what’s called the brain’s default mode. The default mode is the part of our brain that creates what’s sometimes called “monkey mind,” where our focus darts from topic to topic—in other words a distracted, wandering mind. By practicing the basic move of meditation, we build our prefrontal cortex’s ability to quiet that monkey mind. Just like lifting weights at the gym strengthens your muscles, the more you practice meditation, the stronger your mental muscles become. Even those who have just begun to practice show an increased ability to focus compared to non-meditators. The longer you’ve been a meditator, the greater your capacity for focus.

If you want to try it yourself, you might sign up for a mindfulness workshop in your workplace or community. Then give it a chance to make a difference; practice regularly for a month or two. I think you’ll find that even in that short time, you’ll notice your focus increases and your mind wanders less.

And, when it is time for a high-stakes meeting, consider asking everyone to leave their smartphones in their offices.