Article Jan 23, 2017

Recovering mindfulness: Relearning to focus in a multi-tasking society

The holiday season, for all of its glories, also has its inherent struggles, from family dysfunction to travel stresses and egregious caloric consumption. I was confronted with a new one this year.

It began when the stream of emails entering my inbox turned to a trickle, then barely a drip. My Twitter feed similarly slowed. Many of my favorite podcasts went on hiatus, and my preferred websites published less content. Even baseball’s Hot Stove League cooled, and professional golf came to a rare stop, providing me fewer stories about my favorite pastimes.

This pattern repeats annually, as the year’s final week provides many with much-needed rest. It’s a Sabbath for even the most secular segments of society.

Uncovering anxious toil

God used that slower pace to reveal an error that had been hidden from me during the busyness of life’s daily rhythms. Stepping away from work was harder than anticipated; the decline in productivity produced restlessness, as did the decrease in the amount of content—whether articles, podcasts or tweets—available to consume.

I realized that many of my efforts to be an informed and productive citizen were little more than “anxious toil” (Ps. 127:2). I was willfully submitting myself to sensory overload, a self-induced stress to keep myself busy. I gave work email permission to steal my attention, favoring the short-term “productivity” over the benefits of prolonged, concentrated effort. I was gorging myself on information, news stories, articles on this website and other Christian resources. Even my morning commute was filled by podcasts. Trying to consume content during every empty millisecond felt like the right thing to do in our information age.

It wasn’t until the temptation was removed that I realized how much time I spent distracted, disrupted and exhausted. Today we simply call this multi-tasking, which was once celebrated as a skill of the super-productive but is now recognized as a downside of our distracted age.

The blessing of mindfulness

There’s a reason “mindfulness” has become a buzzword in workplace psychology. A recent New York Times article defined the practice as, “The ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present and dismiss any distractions that come your way.” The author contends the practice is “less about spirituality and more about concentration,” but I disagree.

If we’re struggling to focus on the world that’s before our eyes, how much more are we overlooking the spiritual realities that lie beneath? I both work harder, and remember who I am working heartily for (Col. 3:23), when I am undistracted.

Rankin Wilbourne, author of the 2016 book Union With Christ,” contends that our imagination is vital to our faith. He defined imagination as “that God-given, uniquely human capacity to imagine what is real but not immediately visible beyond our eyes” in a recent interview with the PCA’s By Faith magazine. “The Bible calls to our imagination from beginning to end. When we are called to fix our eyes on things unseen or set our minds on things above, these are calls to our imagination.”

Scripture knows how forgetful we can be. Warnings are offered to people who are in danger. No one warns an Eskimo about heatstroke because there’s no threat of that actually happening. That’s why we’re implored watch ourselves (2 John 1:8), to not be deceived (1 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 5:6) and to “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.” (Eph. 5:15)

Tim Keller, commenting on Ephesians 5:15 in his book Every Good Endeavor, said, “To be wise is to know how to best use every moment strategically. And this insight comes from the influence of the Holy Spirit, who also strengthens us to live a life worthy (Col. 1:11) and is referred to as a ‘spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.’” (2 Tim. 1:7)

It’s impossible to walk carefully with our noses stuck in our phones. We know this, yet we do it anyways. A recent New York Times article on smartphone usage cited Nancy Collier’s new book, The Power of Off. Whe writes, “We are spending far too much of our time doing things that don’t really matter to us,” and that we’re “disconnected from what really matters, from what makes us feel nourished and grounded as human beings.”

We are blessed by the ease with which we can access information, but, like the best buffets, this can easily be abused. Gluttony starts with fulfilling a need. Then, there’s temporary joy in the excess. But we’re often left feeling dissatisfied and regretful, especially when we’ve filled ourselves on something besides the soul-satisfying nourishment of God’s Word and prayer.

Practicing priorities

There are ways to push back against the world’s endless droning and create space to worship Christ during the day. I’d forgotten that, when I don’t give myself over to distraction, even the smallest moments could be used to clear my head and commune with God.

A morning time of Bible reading and prayer is important, but there’s a reason acedia, which is defined as “spiritual sloth or apathy,” is known as the “noonday devil.” The day is long and we need to abide in Him throughout.

Putting down the book while I held my sleeping newborn son gave me time to pray for him instead. Standing in line at Starbucks without checking my phone provided a few minutes for prayer or, at least, time to reflect on my objectives for the day ahead. I’ve tried to give myself a fixed amount of time, say 15 minutes, to read the news, visiting my most important sites first. Setting aside that time for that single purpose limited my mindless browsing throughout the day. It’s similar to the advice that we should check our email at specific times throughout the day, instead of responding immediately to each email that enters our inbox.

One of my church’s elders told me prays during his morning commute. Using a pen and paper for brainstorming has allowed me to step away from the internet, even for a few moments. Turning off Pandora and Spotify has helped me focus during trying tasks (there are other times where the music can aid with menial tasks, of course). These steps have helped me remember to seek the Lord in the midst of work’s stresses. There’s plenty of other ways to do this.

There’s a reason David writes in Psalm 103:2-5:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good,
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

If King David can be forgetful, we must recognize our propensity to do the same and fight to return our focus to Christ, even in the midst of a busy workday.

ERLC2018