Do smartphones make you less productive?

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY A lot of folks are springing for the iPhone 5 even ahead of the device's formal commercial release on Friday. Indeed, some analysts think all the money Americans will spend on Apple's (AAPL) latest smartphone will significantly raise GDP over the next quarter.

But all the hubbub over the iPhone and other increasingly potent smartphones raises another question: Do they boost our personal productivity?

I was sitting in the airport the other morning checking my email when I clicked on a link someone had sent me to a Lifehacker piece by Harj Taggar, a partner at Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley firm that funds startups. He had deleted his email app from his phone (he could still get in, but it required a lot of steps) and wrote about his experience.

The net result? Mostly positive. Because he wasn't readily available when he was away from his desk, other people responded to urgent requests that didn't require his input. He enjoyed "the lengthening of my attention span" as he was able to focus on projects without the habitual need to check email. And "the days have actually started feeling longer to me," he wrote. When he was walking from one place to another, he'd look around at his surroundings, rather than keep his nose buried in his inbox. Time no longer passed in a blur.

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I'm not sure I'm quite ready to take this step of deleting my email button, but I like the idea. Especially on weekends, I've noticed that my smartphone has a more negative effect on my life than my old, dumb cellphones ever did. I tend to take the phone with me to coordinate family plans with my husband (if we split up at the zoo, for instance). But because my inbox is right there, and I can see how many new emails I have, I'm always tempted to check it. That breaks any spell of Sabbath relaxation I might have had going. Relaxation on weekends is key to being productive -- not burnt out -- during the week.

As for random airport email checking during the week, that's time I could be writing or reading. I always complain about not having time to make it through all my magazines. Maybe that's because I'm looking at my inbox, rather than reading The Economist, in security lines.

There are, of course, productivity upsides to a smartphone. If I need to get a response out to something, I can do it from a train or while my kids are watching TV, rather than needing to stay at my desk. Multiply that over millions of smartphone users, and you have more projects going more quickly than they otherwise would. But if we spend so much time checking email that we don't think deeply, we haven't necessarily gained anything in the balance.

Does your smartphone make you more or less productive?

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