I am easily distracted. What was I saying again? Oh yes, I find it hard to focus on something with any intensity for a significant period of time. I will sit down to work on a sermon or some other work I need to finish, and after long I will have the urge to just check my email. Or Facebook. Or the news websites. Or to load up some webpage to follow something that occurred to me. And sometimes I look back after an hour or two and wonder where it went.
Based on the increased take up in Facebook and the remarkable interest in Pokemon Go, it would seem that I am not alone in seeking distraction.
Much of our culture encourages distraction and multi-tasking is seen as an essential skill. However, I see some dangers in this from a Christian perspective:
- Christians are encouraged to have a strong single-minded focus on serving God
Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your heart with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt 22:37). That is single-minded devotion, not half-hearted attention. And the language Paul uses for the Christian life in Philippians 3 is similarly focussed and single-minded: to see life as a race which requires strain and effort in one direction.
Now there is clearly nothing wrong with recreation and down-time, as I will discuss in a minute. But digital technologies, especially smartphones, have the potential to suck large amounts of time and energy from our lives for no reasonable return. Mastering angry birds or collecting all the Pokemon characters will seem a pretty poor answer when, on the Last Day, we are asked how we spent the time we have been given.
- We lose important skills in thinking and reflecting on things deeply
I have noticed this happening to me. I used to be able to sit down and read pretty intense books for hours on end quite happily; now it is more of a struggle to focus for a lengthy time in a book that requires effort to get through. And this can push us to choose lighter things to get our attention rather than the heavier things that are worth the investment. Many read blogs but not books; others read trashy novels but nothing that requires effort to get through.
And in a Christian sense, if we fill our ears and minds with electronic devices and music and games constantly we don’t take the time to meditate and assess anything very well. We don’t stop and ask whether this thing is worth doing; we just blindly keep doing it for it has become a habit.
This can lead to the death of the ‘quiet time’ as well. In a survey of our church members 2 years ago we found very few had devoted times for prayer; many just prayed as they did other things or when they needed things. Although this is better than nothing, it leads to prayer for the immediate or the selfish items and not for the things the Bible encourages us to pray for like gospel proclamation and governments and justice. Growing in knowledge and relationship with God takes time and reflection; ‘meditation’ to use the Biblical word (as in Psalm 1).
- We blur the lines between work and rest
God set the world up with a pattern of work and rest (Gen 2:1-3). Now I know there are many different views on the Sabbath and I don’t want to get into all of that here. But having regular time to rest and reflect on God and his goodness is something we all need for our mental and spiritual health.
But because of the constant distractions around us often we don’t really have a mental rest at all. We check smartphones over dinner or in the evening in case we miss an email or a critical Facebook post. Our fear of missing something important drives us to be constantly connected. And we keep having new input mentally, much of which is worth very little, which we don’t have the time to think about very deeply.
OK, so that’s the problem. So what can we do about it? Should we become like the Amish who (I assume) have lots of time to reflect with no electricity to distract them? I don’t think that’s the answer, though we need to reflect on things we often don’t reflect on to make sure our phones and computers don’t control us, but we control them.
Here are some ideas for dealing with distraction. I cannot claim to have mastered any of these things, but they have all been helpful to some degree.
- Set aside a time to read the Bible and pray regularly. I know that’s hardly revolutionary advice, but so many of us simply need to carve out the time. For me, it’s in the early morning before my kids fill the house with noise. If I have time set aside I can read properly and without distraction and pray for the important things, not just the immediate.
- Control social media. I have often checked Facebook many, many times in a day, and I realized it served little purpose. Many of my ‘friends’ I don’t have much of a connection with, and the medium itself encouraged boasting and comparison to others. So I removed the app from my phone and am trying to only check sometimes and not compulsively. It has benefits, but also a huge potential for distraction for no good purpose.
- When you are supposed to be resting, or you have opportunity to spend time with family or friends, put the phone away. I see parents having ‘quality time’ in coffee shops by sitting at the same table and checking social media or playing games. That’s just a lost opportunity for real connection – trading something worthwhile for something worthless.
I don’t know if I will ever describe myself as ‘focussed’ and never distracted. It’s a process. But all of us who live in such a distraction-saturated world should stop and think these things through. What is the cost of always being distracted? What is the benefit? Make sure you have thought about it and are happy with where you draw the line.