The last six months have been super slow when it comes to running a retic business and I’ve found myself with a fair bit of time on my hands. Also since January, I have had an ongoing muscular issue that has seen me most days in mild pain/discomfort and looking for a distraction.
Since March, I have noticed my ‘screen time’ has increased (it was already in the ‘significant user’ zone) and my use of ‘the screen’ (primarily social media) to simply kill time was growing.
Alongside that, my ability to hold a complex thought for an extended period seemed to be decreasing. Reading was becoming harder, and study harder still. I was concerned at where this was heading and while I’d known of the idea of ‘brain re-wiring’ for a while I didn’t like the thought of investing the effort required to get things back on track. So not long ago I decided to take back some control.
Yeah, it was pretty much like that: enough of this — time to stop some stuff and recalibrate how my mind operates.
All the research around this area indicates we are headed for 20 second concentration spans and a life dominated by screens. I’m a fan of technology, social media and the internet. I like what it has brought to our lives, but I’m also aware of its double edged nature and my own seemingly easily addictive personality.
To begin, I read a couple of books — the most useful of which was Deep Work by Cal Newport, a book that suggests that in the future the ability to think and concentrate for long periods will be a rare (and valuable) commodity and that we need to regain the ability to do this kind of work. ‘Shallow work’ is low value and easily replicable, but deep work requires extended time of concentrated focus. He offers insights into how we can do this, but that’s for another post some other time.
I have noticed over the last few years that when I sit to write a sermon or to read a book I am quickly distracted by random thoughts and apparently ‘urgent needs’. I wrote them down one day. The list looked like this:
- check weather for Saturday
- Invoice X
- has Y paid invoice? – check bank acc
- does Bunnings sell shed door flashings?
- when is McGregor/Mayweather fight?
- when is high tide?
All answers are available online so I find myself feeling this is important now so I chase down the answer. And what I am doing gets fragmented — smashed actually!
So, I’ve put in place some practices to try and establish new patterns and habits. Here’s a bit of what I am doing to reshape my way of interacting with the online stuff. I’ve put these in order of how valuable they have been to me.
Mornings go analogue
I often used my tablet for my morning prayer and Bible reflection, but on opening it there were always a million notifications to deal with so sometimes I didn’t get to the Bible and got distracted down a Facebook dogleg. I regularly gave up on meditation and prayer and just surfed the net. Lately I have been practicing using a book — a Bible with pages — before I pick up my phone/tablet. It’s a small discipline, but it sets the tone for the day.
ALL notifications off
And then it simply makes sense to turn notifications off for everything and I have been doing this over the last week or so. It has freed me from the distraction that comes when I am reading a book. Someone liked my Instagram post…better check it out. It’s just phone calls and text that get through and often the phone is on silent after 5pm so even then I may not get them. The effect has been quite dramatic on my ability to focus and interestingly I had no idea just how many apps had automatically turned themselves to ‘notifications on’.
Toolbar bookmarks deleted
On Chrome I had all my primary bookmarks loaded on my toolbar, which meant I would often realise I hadn’t looked at X for a while and would check in. Inevitably I would get stuck in the ludic loop and emerge an hour later. Since I deleted it I have noticed I rarely visit Swellnet or Coastalwatch, etc.
Essentially not pulling out the phone to kill the five minutes I ‘wait’ for a doctor/kids/train, etc. I want to have that headspace I used to have as I think it was valuable for allowing ideas to percolate. This is so hard! I often feel like I have so much to do, but by practicing not doing it I seem to be re-training my brain and my capacity to behave differently.
This was one of my biggest struggles — watching TV without surfing the net or firing off a few emails and invoices seemed like wasted time. Why not kill two birds? Because I can’t do it very well and I end up not remembering what I have watched. It also fuels an addiction and seems innocuous at first, but when I found myself reaching for my tablet every time the TV was on I realised I was settling into a new pattern that wasn’t going to be healthy.
When I walk the dog I used to take the phone and listen to a podcast/take photos/maybe even just skim social media. The same when I’d go to the shops, or drop into see a mate. Now I try to leave it at home when I can unless I know I’ll need it for a call. I do feel a bit naked without it, but maybe that’s just an adjustment that needs to be made.
Not in the toilet
Yeah…I am one of those people. I guess it’s like reading a magazine, but lately I found myself grabbing my phone each time I went to the toile. Again, it’s just a simple practice but one that needn’t have crept in in the first place. I can stop doing that very easily and it is another small step back to sanity.
I am one of those people who will read texts when stopped at lights and enter GPS stuff on the go. I am guessing that is only a hop and a skip away from engaging in other stuff. I find it hard to ‘not touch’ when I’m driving, but the last two weeks have shown it can be done if I am conscious of it.
Not in company
This was a hard and fast rule for me that I stuck to pretty rigidly for a while, but then I noticed others doing it — checking in and checking out of the conversation — so I began to do it too when I was getting bored, even though I didn’t like it. It’s pretty rude really, but it seems to have become the norm. Now I’m the self righteous one tut-tutting while others do it. Ha.
I began by doing this manually in my notes, but have now downloaded a couple of apps for my devices that track my time in them. I imagine that feedback will be valuable as I like to see stats and that often helps me know if I am ‘winning’.
I’m a long way from completely giving up screens and internet activity as I think it’s a part of our world and we just need to figure out how to do it wisely. When I’m not digging holes and laying turf, I spend most of day on screens, some of it work and some of it play, but it is unavoidable. I watch Netflix on a screen, I edit pics on a screen, I read the newspaper on a screen. I rarely buy real books now so even ‘reading a book’ involves a screen.
How has it been?
Trying to re-train myself has been quite challenging, certainly not as simple as flicking a switch. I have had days when I have done it easily and then other days when I have been weary and turned to a screen to zone out. I’m interested to see what develops in terms of increased concentration span and renewed ability to focus, because I believe Newport is correct that these are key skills that we need to cultivate.
One immediately observable change was in how I prepared my teaching for Sundays. For the last few years I have been doing a couple of hours of reading and thinking on Monday and then doing other things Tuesday to Thursday. I always found that when I picked up the computer on Friday morning I could jump right in and write a sermon quickly and easily because over the week there had been ‘background processing’ happening. The raw ideas from Monday were ticking over in there even if I was unaware.
This year as my screen time has increased I have found preaching hard every week. I have rarely hit a Friday where I have been able to sit down and smash it out like I used to.
After just two weeks of trying new things I woke on Friday at 4.30am (not my usual practice) but felt awake enough to jump up and get started on work. I turned wifi off and managed to get a 25 minute sermon (9 pages of text) written and edited in three hours. I didn’t have any fantastic ideas to work with when I sat down but as I began the ideas flowed and it all took shape. Maybe it was just the difference of having mental processing space?
Either way, I’m on a mission to re-capture a less screen dominated life and a less zombie-like existence.
I’ll let you know how I go.
Andrew is a part-time pastor, part-time retic bloke, full-time husband, dad and coffee snob (he’s also one of 98five’s 3 Minute Message pastors). He describes his blogs as unrefined, theological musings, random personal reflections and occasional naughtiness. backyardmissionary.com | Follow Andrew on Instagram