Brothers, Kill Distractions

Many are telling us today that we must limit the distractions in our lives in order to be more productive. While the temptation to be diverted from our work existed prior to the twenty-first century, our contemporary setting—with the development of personal technology and ease-of-access to the internet—poses a unique challenge to our ability to sustain undistracted attention on our tasks. With just one click on the laptop or tap on my smartphone, I can immerse myself in something other than the work I have in front of me, whether the diversion is an article, YouTube video, pending Amazon order, ministry email, or text message.

Recent studies confirm something we already suspected to be true: the ease with which we can re-direct our attention away to frivolous entertainment (or simply another task) through our personal devices has disabled us from thinking well. We have become conditioned to expect a distraction every couple of minutes—a text alert here, a desktop notification there—so we have lost our capacity to rivet our attention on a given task for any serious amount of time.

We should recognize the problem this increasing addiction to distraction poses for pastor-theologians. The nature of our work requires sustained thinking time (2 Tim 2:7; also 1 Tim 4:15; Ps 1:2), and we all know intuitively that the quality of our insights is directly related to the time with which we are able to maintain undistracted focus on a given biblical text, theological problem, or pastoral difficulty. Given how personal technology is conditioning our minds to expect diversions every few minutes, it is not an overstatement to say that our growth as a pastor-theologians will be largely dependent upon our commitment to kill distractions during our study time and to cultivate the severe discipline of concentration.

The first step here would be to take control of your workspace—presumably, your study at home or at the church office—and corral the personal devices most likely to introduce distractions into your day. The goal of this effort is to develop patterns of sustained concentration. For many of us, forming new habits of thinking will be much like engaging in an exercise program. We’ve become mentally sluggish and flabby, so our intellects can “run” for a few minutes at a time without needing a “breather” from YouTube or Twitter. We must start building endurance so that our minds can engage a topic, text, or troubling theological idea for multiple minutes—even hours—without stopping for a break.

The reason we need undistracted time to think is that the quality of our reflections decreases when they are punctuated by constant interruptions. Clear, deep, thorough, penetrating ideas are not formed by short bursts of mental activity. Like a fine piece of woodwork, it takes time to craft high-quality insights. A study out of UC Irvine suggests that it takes up to twenty-three minutes for the mind to fully re-engage with its subject matter after it has been interrupted, so even brief distractions can cost us more in terms of time than the actual length of the distraction itself. In other words, a two-minute detour onto social media may cost us upwards of twenty-five minutes in actual thinking time.  

This observation is important for us because useful insights do not emerge from the mind by fiat: they are often the fruit of compounding thoughts where rumination over distinct pieces of knowledge eventually leads to an illuminating synthesis. If the process of reflection is constantly interrupted, genuine progress from particulars to synthesis is impeded. Text message notifications, email alerts, phone calls, and door knocks derail the mind, and, similar to a train, our thinking requires much time and effort to get fully back online and return to cruising speed.

Practically, I recommend turning off all desktop and phone notifications during your study times. In order to remain available for emergencies, I set my phone to allow a few important people to reach me at any time. While I am studying, I ask the Lord to help me remain focused while I commit to not checking my inbox, browsing the internet, scanning social media, watching any videos, or engaging in any text messages. I set specific times to write and return emails, look at social media, and use the internet for non-study related needs, and I do my best to keep to those times. As I work on exegesis, theological reading, sermon preparation, or writing, I keep to that task for the entire time I have allotted. When that time is completed, I am free to move on to other tasks.     

While a pastor must be careful to not indulge his penchant for study by avoiding other shepherding responsibilities and personal relationships, he must also recognize that he cannot give adequate attention to his calling as the church’s theologian without much time alone with God and undistracted meditation on his text or topic. We must kill distractions.