*Warning: this is a long post, because I am processing something that has been on my mind for quite some time. If you don’t have the stamina to read it all, here is the gist. I am taking a step back from social media, email, and other digital distractions to pursue a life of excellence lived in pursuit of loving God and other people. I hope you will consider joining me.*
I have a confession to make: I like technology. I am a gadget geek, a video game lover, and a social media junky. I spent fifteen years working as a software and web developer. And I still regularly come up with ideas for web or phone applications that could make my life a lot easier.
I am also a pastor, a husband, a father, and a PhD student. This means that I have some pretty significant demands on my time and attention. There are times when technology has truly benefitted me in these roles, but more often than not, technology has proven itself to be more of a distraction than an aid.
Here is an example. Many years ago, I had to give up video games as a regular past-time. They had become too consuming, and I was trading time with family and excellence in my school work for the experience of living in virtual worlds.
Now that our kids are older, they like to play games like Minecraft, and they sometimes ask me to play with them. This is an area I have relaxed a little, because I know how much the kids love it (I enjoy it too). But, while games no longer hold the same attraction they once did, I still have to check myself often to make sure I’m not slipping back into old behaviors. It is fine for me to occasionally fire up Minecraft and play with the kids. It is not OK for me personally to do so on my own, when I could be doing so many better things with my time. The same is true of those little games on my smart phone. I just deleted a pool game that I downloaded one day in boredom, but which has steadily become an every-evening distraction.
Like games, I have found the many modern forms of online communication to be a huge distraction for me. I find myself giving up more of my life to Facebook, Twitter, email, and the like, while gaining very little benefit in return.
This is not to say these things don’t have redeeming applications, but for this pastor-husband-father-student the benefits do not outweigh the costs.
Not all communications should be viewed as distractions. There is no substitute for face-to-face and even telephone conversations. Even the most reclusive of us all need the mutually comforting exchange of ideas and friendship that we gain through conversation. But our culture is engaging in less and less real conversation these days, and it is something I dearly miss.
So, in an effort to redeem the time that God has given me on this earth, and to begin making more space for the Holy Spirit to work in my life and teach me to love God and others, I am putting my foot down, and saying no to the tyranny of distraction.
Here are five reasons why I have decided to take steps toward eliminating digital distractions from my life, and five more ways that I am making that happen.
5 Reasons that I am silencing the distractions.
1. Christians are called to pursue the renewing of the mind.
Romans 12:1-2 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
I am thankful for a recent article by fellow pastor and blogger Drew McIntyre called “Maybe the Thought Police Aren’t Such a Bad Idea?”, which reminded me that critical thinking is imperative to those who would receive God’s understanding and act as Jesus acts.
It is nearly impossible to allow God the time and space to do this work in us, when our minds are constantly distracted. I find myself longing for simpler times, when we were less-connected by the internet and smart phone, and when it was OK to have time in the day that is not filled with constant entertainment and chatter. I desire to give space for God to speak into my life and to renew my mind. I desire time to read devotional and academic books that help me to engage thoughtfully with my faith.
For me, this will begin by cutting off digital distractions that don’t add emotional, spiritual, or intellectual value to my life.
2. I don’t want to view life through an iPhone camera.
A while back, before I owned an iPhone and began to realize the struggle myself, I wrote an article about how our culture has become consumed with our smart phones, to the detriment of those around us, particularly our kids.
The other day, it hit me just how much of my recent life has been viewed through the screen on my phone. I record videos and take pictures of all the cool things going on around me, and miss out on the experience of just being present.
This really became apparent to me a couple of weeks ago, when we attended the Christmas production at our kids’ school. We were sitting too far away to get a clear video of them singing and dancing, so I snapped a quick picture of each of them, then put my phone away. I then proceeded to truly enjoy everything going on.
Afterward, the kids asked to see the videos of their production, and were genuinely upset that I didn’t take any. And then I realized, I’ve been missing out on the wider scope of life by trying to capture it in a phone-sized frame.
I don’t want to miss important events anymore, because I am too busy recording, tweeting, or Facebooking them. I want to really enjoy the life I have been given to share with my family by becoming fully present.
3. Distractions are stealing time from more worthy pursuits.
Those of you who know me, or who have read my sporadic posts for a while, know that I am entering the last year of my PhD program at the University of Manchester, where I am researching the Christology of John Wesley.
There have been many times in the last six years, when I have not been as diligent as I need to be about carving out time for research and writing. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I don’t want to mess it up by becoming distracted. By removing digital distractions from my life, I hope to free up more time for the important work that God has given me to do through academic research.
Related to this are my reading habits. I have always been an avid reader or books and articles, but of late, I have been corralled into very narrow reading patterns, often controlled by what I find available in my FB feed (some of which is very good, but none of which is adequate on its own). I would like to rediscover the joy of reading books for spiritual encouragement and discipleship, for academic and pastoral excellence, and for pleasure. This necessarily means stepping back from reading everything posted to FB and Twitter; instead filtering for those articles that I believe are most important for me to engage with, and leaving the rest of my reading to published works.
You will also notice that my blogging has been very sporadic for some time. I consider this a product of distraction as well. I process things well, when I write about them. God has given me an opportunity to encourage and engage with people over the years through this blog, and I would like to begin writing more regularly. I can’t do that if I am spending so much time doing other things online.
There are a myriad of other pursuits that I can give time and attention to, if I am not so distracted, but these are three important ones for me at present.
4. I will never be able to reclaim hours lost to digital distraction.
There are no “do overs” in this life. We have each been given one life to live before Christ returns. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to waste mine pursuing things that don’t matter in the long run.
I am not one of those folks who think entertainment is all bad, but let’s face it, we have taken entertainment to unprecedented levels in America. There is hardly a moment in the day when games, movies, or a variety of other “fun” things aren’t at our fingertips. I believe this always-on, instant-access mindset has led to the inability for many of us to be calm, quiet, and alone for any length of time.
I personally love to watch movies at the theatre. I dig the whole theatre experience, from the surround sound and big screen to the popcorn and Milk Duds. I also love sports, particularly football, college basketball, and boxing/MMA. They all provide an occasional escape from reality, and a much needed mental rest. But what once was an occasional diversion from the difficulties of life has become life itself for many people.
At the end of my life, I don’t want to look back, only to discover that my best years were spent locked into activities that do little more than use up time in the day. Like candy, entertainment is an occasional treat that can add excitement and spice to life. But taken in too large a quantity, it leads to mindlessness, disease, and the constant craving for more.
I don’t want to look back with regret, wishing that I could reclaim that which I have lost. I would rather live my life in such a way that I am able to redeem the time God has given me with pursuits that have a lasting value.
5. I want to pursue life-giving relationships.
I have already experienced moments of regret at the time I have had to spend away from family in order to fulfill academic and business pursuits. The older my children get, the harder I find it to leave them and their Mom for any length of time.
I will never be able to reclaim hours spent pursuing things other than my family, so why would I waste those precious moments on something with no eternal value.
If I must spend time away from family, let it be in pursuit of God, who alone has the power to transform my heart until I love my family as God loves them. Anything less is tantamount to stealing from my wife and kids.
Likewise, time spent building relationships with others is always time well-spent. We cannot be with family 100% of the time, so when we are away from them for work or other necessary pursuits, we should take care to invest in those with whom we come in contact outside the home, whether at church, at the office, at a store, or on the street. We should seek always and everywhere to be the presence of Christ in a world that desperately needs him. We cannot do that when we have our noses buried in a phone.
5 Ways that I will start silencing distractions
Now, here are five ways that I plan to begin removing digital distractions from my life today.
1. Deleting the Facebook App from my phone.
Facebook is, without a doubt, the biggest distractor in my life. Even before I got a smart phone, I found myself spending far too much time on FB each day. I told myself this was OK, because I mostly use it to find new articles to read, rather than to see what friends are up to. But after a few years of reading practically every article posted to my FB feed, I don’t feel any more prepared to deal with life’s demands, nor can I name one tangible way that my life has been improved by FB.
I also need to delete this app from my phone for the simple reason that the thought of doing so stresses me out. You know what that is a sign of? Addiction. And I refuse to live my life captive to addictions of any sort.
2. Turning off all notifications on my phone, including email.
Only a few short weeks ago I turned on email notifications on my phone, adding a plethora of new sounds to the already ample collection from Facebook status updates, Twitter likes, and app notifications. Now the constant dinging is literally stressing me out. If I forget to silence my phone before visiting a parishioner, I find myself constantly getting interrupted by the noise, my mind regularly being hijacked by whatever is going on in my pocket.
This is no way to live. So I am making the difficult choice to silence all notifications on my phone other than calls and text messages. This means I might not see your Facebook messenger chat to me right away. I might not get to your email for a couple of hours. I might not ever see that you posted something to my wall. And you know what? That is good for both of us.
I gave this a trial run a few days ago by turning off app icon notifications on my iPhone (the little red numbers that show up on icons, telling you that you have missed something). My stress levels immediately went down, and within a couple of days I stopped thinking about all the things waiting for my attention online. What freedom!
Today, I am finishing what I started and silencing all of my notifications. Can you hear that? Its the sound of my phone not controlling my life anymore.
3. Checking my email twice daily (mid-morning and afternoon).
I have a fascination with productivity blogs and podcasts. All of them deal with the nightmare that is modern email at some point along the way. Most of them recommend one or another method for putting email out of your mind by pursuing a combination of inbox zero, GTD triage, or outsourcing. The only one that seems to really work for me is limiting email to set times during the day, so that I don’t get lost in the quagmire.
So, starting today, I will only be checking my emails twice daily. Once mid-morning and once in the afternoon. Why those times? Because my best work is done first thing after I wake up, when I am not otherwise distracted. I am most creative and productive before 11:00 am. So why would I continue to give that time to something as mindless as email. Nothing I receive in an email is so important that it cannot wait until lunch to be addressed.
And in the afternoon, when my mind is already tired, I still have enough mental acumen to send or answer emails that pertain to the next day’s work and events. It makes no sense to email at night, when nobody should be working, anyway. And it helps me to mark the end of my work day with a productive task.
I’m sorry if email is your favorite way to communicate. But if you really need me, you can always just pick up a phone and call. I will be happy to talk with you anytime.
4. Limiting my engagement with Social Media to evenings.
I want to finish my work and spend quality time with my family before I even consider spending time on social media.
This is going to be difficult for me, because it will mean that I have to change my morning routine. I have made a morning habit of checking Facebook and Twitter on my phone, while I battle the sleep from my eyes over a cup of coffee. I will also have to schedule posts ahead of time, if I have something I want to share during prime-time, and will likely miss out on lots of online conversations. I might even start to become uninformed about things going on in the world.
I am OK with becoming one of the un-informed, in order to become one of the Spirit-formed.
5. Going for a walk.
Not long ago, I read an article about the daily habits of C.S. Lewis, who is one of my favorite Christian authors. His ideal day, he said, was spent in study and reflection, and was punctuated by a two-hour walk every afternoon.
I think a nice daily walk would be a good use of my time. It requires unplugging from my desk, rediscovering the beauty of God’s matchless creation, and a little extra exercise for good health. And without the distraction of my phone notifications (which won’t exist anymore), it becomes an opportunity to think and to pray; to spend time, alone or with a friend, in pursuit of things which have eternal consequence.
I like the sound of that.
Reality (Gut) Check
It is, in many ways, unwise to completely unplug. Through social media, I am able to very quickly engage with other pastors and ministry leaders, with whom I have no other connection. I am able to see quickly what things are happening in the lives of the parishioners under my care. And I am able to keep in touch with friends around the globe, who I have genuine relationships with, but who I cannot have live conversations with because of distance. So, I am not deleting Facebook or Twitter or disabling my email addresses. Yet.
But I would be lying if I said I don’t hope for a day when none of these distracting technologies will be necessary. I suspect it won’t be long before Facebook and Twitter are a distant memory. I just hope we don’t find even more disruptive replacements for them.
In the meantime, I am going to try to redeem some time. Is anyone else with me?