After my first son was born, I noticed something changed at church: I could no longer pay attention to the sermon. While disappointing, it wasn’t particularly surprising. I had responsibility for a little, fragile human who, in some ways, seemed an awful lot like a ticking time bomb. I never knew when he would sound the alarm of needing food, comfort, or sleep. Then, almost as soon as I felt I had my feet back under me, our second little man was on the way, and my attention wasn’t so much divided as much as it was permanently fractured.
In some ways, this makes sense: as parents, we think about our children so frequently, that it takes serious effort to bring our attention somewhere else. But recently I’ve begun to realize that there is something else at play – something that is paradoxically deeper and more challenging to identify, while at the same time easier to challenge once it’s known.
I touched on what this is in a recent post: the cultural elements at play in our lives. We live in a climate of ‘total work’, where the purpose of man is to work, and the priorities and values of our culture follow on from that mindset. Josef Pieper identifies this in the first chapter of Leisure, the Basis of Culture (affiliate link).
The philosophy of total work has some serious knock-on effects, particularly in the Information Age, and it’s in Pieper’s arguments against this philosophy that I realized my kids are only a small part of the reason for my inability to focus.
Distraction has infiltrated our culture and our habits.
In the second chapter, Pieper drills down to show us that in this philosophy, contrary to the lines of thinking held by ancient Greek and medieval philosophers, knowledge itself can only be gained through the effort of work. If we work hard for it, so much the better. We are better, more virtuous people for the effort. If we want to know more, we have to do more to gain that knowledge. This is the philosophy of ‘total work’.
Nowadays, it’s arguably much easier to access new knowledge, and in the absence of real effort required to acquire information, I think a lot of us default to increasing the quantity of information we take in. We can make ourselves au fait with the latest news, research, gossip, and humor with the click of a few buttons. This offers some serious social capital, but at what cost? I have a couple of ideas.
First, the ‘total work’ philosophy spins us into a frenzy to quantify how we spend our time -whether in paid ‘knowledge work’, housekeeping, or caring for our children. You can count how many emails and instant messages you write or respond to, the number of dishes you’ve washed, and how many diapers you’ve changed. However, you can’t quantify the effort required to debug a piece of software (so my husband tells me), the value of living in a clean and tidy home, or the worth of cultivating children who grow up to make a positive contribution to society. When we get caught up in the affirmation we receive from completing the quantifiable jobs, we overlook the big picture and run out of time for the more complex, but more important, work on our plate.
Even our faith is reduced to a to-do list. You read your Bible that day (tick), you pray that day (tick), you go to your house group and church on Sunday (tick and tick). Christianity sorted, conveniently broken down into specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based tasks. The effort required to bear the fruit of the Spirit in your life? That is much more difficult to put a number on – and arguably of much greater value.
Second, I believe that ‘total work’ thinking sets us on a course to constantly take in more information. Any free moment is spent reading the news, googling a question, checking status updates, clicking through to another article, reading (or skimming) those articles. Whether we view this as a necessary job because we need the information, a justifiable treat because we’re learning something, or simply a break from working hard, we are so reluctant to stop working, so fearful of boredom, that we are stuffing every moment of our day with stimulation.
We are called from distraction to leisure.
When we get swept up in this perpetual activity, we are skirting over a key way we actually gain knowledge: by using our default mode network. This is the name given by modern brain science/psychology to several interconnected areas of the brain that become active when we are not focussed on a particular task. These areas of our brain enable our diffuse mode of thinking, which I discussed recently. We know that in order to discover creative solutions to problems, to move information into long term memory, and to make deep connections between things we’ve learned, we have to allow our minds to drift.
Philosophers like Aristotle knew this as well. As Pieper tells us, they understood knowledge in two parts: the ratio, which is intentional, focussed thinking, and the intellectus, which is contemplative knowledge, an effortless gift of insight.
It is so easy to run out of space for the intellectus. When we are wrapped up in getting it all done and in distracting ourselves from boredom, we lose the opportunity and the skill to mull over and process all of the information we take in over the course of the day, whether that’s from our quiet time, a behavioral issue with one of our children, or a challenge we are facing at work.
The ratio is completely necessary. We have to take in the information, the concepts, the details, the Scripture we need. Jesus even tells us to seek in order to find. But we are also told in the Psalms to be still and know. That word ‘be still’ means to ‘abate, cease’. The Ancient Greeks translated the Hebrew word in this Psalm to ‘have leisure’. Pieper says that we value work so much that we mistrust what is effortless. Yet, clearly, a key part of knowing anything deeply, including God Himself, is accepting a gift of knowledge that we cannot gain through our own effort.
In light of this, I don’t think we are called to give up our phones and use browser extensions to block time-wasting websites in order to simply get more done. Instead, we are called to go deeper, to use those tools to cultivate habits that bring into balance our need for the ratio and the intellectus – and to keep distraction and amusement in appropriate measure.
We can cultivate focussed minds.
In You are What You Love (affiliate link), James K. A. Smith argues that it’s our habits that expose what is really going on in our hearts. For many of us, our habits expose our preference for distraction over presence and for the self-affirmation we receive from our productivity over gratitude for God’s gifts. We have to dig to a deep level in order to engage with the way we have been shaped by our culture, and to counter it with truth.
First, we have to recognize that many of us are nearly always distracted. I know I am. We think we toggle between focussed, productive work and rest. In actuality, we usually toggle between feigned focussed work and amusement or distraction. Amusement has its place but when we are in the habit of being distracted, whether it’s through TV, all of those open tabs in our browsers, social media, etc., we are neither working as well as we could, nor are we likely to be making space in our lives for actual leisure.
My husband is listening to Deep Work (affiliate link) by Cal Newport on Audible. I love his key takeaway from this book: we are not going to recover our ability to focus by taking sabbaticals from technology and distractions, whether they be annual, monthly, or weekly. Instead we need the state of distraction to be the exception. Most of the time we should be focussed on whatever we are doing (working, spending time with our families, chatting with friends, etc.) or letting our minds wander. If we want to develop our ability to focus when we need to work, study, or listen, our default mode needs to be that of attention, not distraction.
Second, we need to revive the concepts ratio and intellectus. Are we balancing our intake of information with time to contemplate it? We need to to take in whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent. I think this can include paid work, learning about raising children (generally) and our kids (individually) in an intentional way, as well as our devotional lives. We also need to ponder these things contemplatively – which means we have to intentionally stop ‘taking in’ more new information than we can properly process. Time to let our minds wander is a gift – one that is key to our mental, emotional and spiritual health.
Third, we should aim to develop habits that cultivate our love for good things. Practically, this will look different for everyone. Again, fasting from distractions on a weekly basis won’t mitigate the issues that stem from constant multitasking. We need to take steps to actually allow our default mode network to become active when we have a spare minute. Here are a few ideas:
- Give your phone and laptop a home in your home. When you carry your phone around in your pocket, it’s extremely tempting to grab it in your down time. Instead find a place to leave it, maybe near the front door or near your landline. Also, I find I easily revert to the laptop to check things if my phone isn’t available. The more steps you have to take to pull out the computer, the less likely you are to distract yourself with it, so tuck it away.
- Wait for that browser to load before you open a new tab for something else. We are so accustomed to fast information that we can’t wait a few extra seconds for the page to come up before we’ve started a search for something else we’ve remembered. Let your mind wander instead.
- Set a goal to keep your phone out of sight while you’re in public as much as possible. Queuing at the shop, waiting for an appointment, awkwardly not talking to people after the church service,at the playground with the kids. Take a book if you think you might have a long wait. Or take the initiative to start up a conversation. Or let your mind wander. It’s good for you.
- Aim to keep margin in your life. This is less about commitments and responsibilities, and more about moving more slowly from one thing to the next. For example, when I finish a book, I immediately want to open the next one. Or if I read one article, I want to click through to the next. Even wrapping up a quiet time in the morning, I want to get on with the next scheduled activity, keep going, and not stop. However, I’m learning that I need to keep space between things like this. Five minutes of quiet to savor the atmosphere of that novel or to contemplate a profound truth brings the opportunity to know more deeply, to remember more readily, and to come to the end of the day with a stronger sense of peace.
Maybe you come up with your own ideas, maybe you start small, but imagine slowly growing in these disciplines. You pop your phone into your bag before you leave for church, but you forget it’s there until you are home again. You’ve made a new mom friend at the playground. You are more empathetic and less upset with your kids (partly because you are catching them before their shenanigans get out of control). You’re actually remembering things from the sermon on Sunday. Best of all, you actually want to get up for your quiet times in the mornings. You are getting more done in less time, because you are able to apply a habit of focussed attention to whatever task is at hand – and you are properly recuperating between tasks by practicing leisure.
As we find our habits easier, we are growing in Christlikeness. Our actions demonstrate that we no longer buy in to the philosophy of ‘total work’. Our value doesn’t lie in how busy we are or what we produce. We don’t need to quantify every moment, nor do we desire to be distracted by taking in more and more information in every spare moment. Instead, we gratefully accept that we didn’t receive the free gift of salvation in order to earn our keep in God’s family. God continues to give us unquantifiable gifts that we don’t deserve. Our time spent at leisure, letting go and contemplating God will bear fruit in due course.