By HENRY G. BRINTON
ReadTheSpirit Contributing Columnist
Hold on! Just a minute! I gotta check …
Now take another minute! Did you ever think: Our daily social media fixes are really weapons of mass distraction?
Has this ever happened to you? Be honest. You are cooking something on the stove when you hear a ping from your smartphone. You say, “Okay, while that’s cooking, I’ll go see what that notification is about.” You look. “Oh, no, that high school classmate is totally wrong! I have to reply.” Or: “Ha, that cat picture is so silly!” Or: “What a cool video!” Or, “Wow! This Wikipedia article has a lot of cool information.”
Meanwhile, in the kitchen: Five-alarm fire.
Journalist Shankar Vedantam, who you’ve probably heard on National Public Radio, knows that most of us react to the beeps and buzzes of our phones with great urgency—like parents responding to a baby’s cry. But now, research is showing that we really should make an effort to avoid such distractions. When we become lost in this digital media, we lose our ability to focus.
In his Hidden Brain Podcast, Vedantam profiles Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and author of a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport believes that we underestimate the problems created by constant interruptions, and he insists that the situation is “more urgent than people realize.”
Here’s the danger: When we let emails or Facebook messages guide our workday, we are weakening our ability to do the most challenging kind of work—what Newport calls “deep work.” This is work that requires sustained attention: Writing a report, solving an engineering problem, or doing significant research.
So, what should we do about it?
Newport recommends that we set aside long portions of the day to focus on deeper thinking. This means no social media, limited email, and strict limits on appointments. The result is a life that is richer and more human than a life of automatically responding to emails and clicking on websites, which is what many of us end up doing all day.
As we enter the hectic holiday season, our distractions are going to increase with the addition of activities such as parties, concerts, shopping trips, travel to see family and friends, and the giving and receiving of gifts. These activities may be wonderful—but there also is a cost to a jam-packed holiday season. We are distracted us from the deep work that is at the heart of this spiritually significant season.
It is important, I believe, for each of us to carve out time for reflection during this busy time of the year.
Practical Ideas: One Page at a Time
Keeping a journal is one way to practice deep work. Making the time to write a single page each day about the significance of your experiences can lead to discoveries about your relationships with God and the people around you. Shirley Showalter is a Mennonite scholar and author who is an expert in memoir, and her website has a blog called “Magical Memoir Moments” that offers a series of meditations and reflections on life and spirituality. Her short entries are excellent examples of the kind of deep work that can be done through journaling, and her website invites us all to “discover the power of writing your story.”
Slowing down long enough to experience art can also be beneficial. Many religious traditions understand God to be the creator of all that is, and God’s creative work can be reflected in music or visual art that is made by human beings—people who are “co-creators with God” in bringing something out of nothing. My church will begin the Advent season with a sing-a-long performance of Handel’s Messiah, which inspires deep thought about the significance of the coming of Jesus Christ.
Taking the time to serve others can also help us to go deep, especially if service includes the opportunity to develop relationships with people in need. Yes, there are certainly many charities asking for donations at the end of the year, but the making of an online contribution does little to slow us down and enrich our lives. More significant are those efforts that connect us with our neighbors, such as the hypothermia prevention program that my congregation will be offering for a week in December, as part of an interfaith effort that continues through the winter. We will be providing food and shelter to our homeless neighbors on cold winter nights, but even more importantly we will have an opportunity to sit down with our guests each evening, have conversation, and make a human connection.
In her new book White Picket Fences, Amy Julia Becker writes about the transformative power of organizing her day around intentional practices of writing, reflecting and intentionally spending lots of time with people who are in need. In the process, Amy describes how she has learned to do what I would describe as “the deep work” of faith, family and community.
You know what she discovers as she makes the necessary “sacrifices”?
In the end, she writes: “We are giving ourselves to people we otherwise never would have met. But it doesn’t feel like sacrifice. It feels like what we want to do.”
May you dare to discover such freedom during this hectic final month of 2018!
More about Henry
HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.
A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of five books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.
Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons, triathlons and century bike rides, one of which landed him in the hospital for 11 days.