I often begin a new year with gusto – dreams of growing myself and extending my capabilities. I’m still in that phase for 2018 – and have begun setting myself small goals for each week.
Now, one of last week’s goals was a pearler. I decided I wanted to read a good book, for at least an hour a day. To make this quest more achievable, I decided to break the goal into three, 20-minute chunks – that I could distribute however I wanted. The only rules were I had to spend that 20 minutes focused on reading.
This shouldn’t really be a challenge for me. I’ve loved reading since my earliest days with Enid Blyton. I have more books than I know what to do with. But the last week highlighted how difficult it has become to stay focused on one thing, for any length of time.
See, I’d start my timer on my phone – then set it to “Do Not Disturb.” I’d begin the book – and then begin glancing at the clock to see how long had transpired.
Two minutes. Back to the book.
My mind wanders. What’s in the fridge? Am I thirsty? I get up. Then look – it’s been another two minutes.
Back to the book. I’ve forgotten what I’ve just read. Did I get an email about something related to this? Was I meant to send an email?
Two minutes. Pulling myself back from the computer. Read.
At the end of 20 minutes – I would feel exhausted. It was a monumental effort to simply stay focused on the book – let alone engage with the content. In all honesty – it was a shocking experience to realise how intrinsically distractible I appear to have become.
Forgetting How To Focus
Also during last week, I came across author Michael Harris’ essay titled I Have Forgotten How To Read. This brilliant, short piece (which I read – I promise – when I was meant to be enjoying Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Sorry, Dr Covey) highlights Harris’ experience of trying to read a chapter in one sitting.
He couldn’t do it. His mind wandered, the words swirled – he ended up bailing to Netflix.
In his essay, Harris quotes Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who says, “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information … is in fact affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.”
It’s concerning when the CEO of one of the world’s largest organisations – which is, in part, responsible for this age of distraction – says that he too struggles with this problem.
I wonder, however, what distraction means for our formation. Going beyond my inability to stay centred on a book – does a decreased ability to stay focused on anything that doesn’t continually charge our brains with dopamine restrict the ability for our character and personality to form?
Dr Gary Small, Director of UCLA’s Memory and Ageing Research, has spent the past decade exploring the impact of technology on the human brain. He shows – perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly – that the brain is malleable and adapts to the technology we surround it with. Given that digital natives spend close to eight hours a day using connected technology, their brain’s ability to stay focused – and to grow the soft-people skills of empathy, compassion and patience – are weakening.
In Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, the author describes the presidential debates in the age of Abraham Lincoln. A huge crowd packs a hall – and this is a collective of everyday Americans. Farmers and blue-collar workers mingle with officials and decision makers.
Lincoln’s opponent, a man named Stephen Douglas, opened with a three-hour address.
“When Lincoln’s turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed…”
Seven hours of political talk – and they were enraptured and focused. I recognise this may be a selective look at history through rose-tinted lenses – but the average length of reply in the last presidential debate was 30 seconds. Candidates are encouraged to speak in sound-bites, using pithy statements – and to reduce complex arguments to simple facts.
Why? Because we can’t focus on anything longer than that.
But what if true growth and learning cannot be crammed? What if the change that comes from patient perseverance with a topic or an idea requires time invested with it?
I Can’t Cram Character
As I look on myself, I see my distracted nature goes beyond my reading. It seeps into many parts of my life – into exercise and nutrition (seeking a quick-fix to health), into career development (seeking a quick way to grow business trust) and into my spirituality (seeking a quick way to grow, that avoids arduous discipline).
I try to pray, and my mind wanders. I try to stay focused on the Scriptures, and I meander away. I try to meditate, and my mind goes anywhere but the verse I’m chewing on.
But perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it is in the struggle of sticking at it – and the learning to show myself grace as I continually fall-short – that is where the growth is. Perhaps the development of my character won’t come when I can enjoy the presence of God for 60 minutes, or recite the gospel of John from memory – but will come because of the journey I have endured to get there.
So, I’m trying to set myself goals that combat the age of distraction, and then distractedly fulfil them. I try to show myself grace when my mind wanders, and to train myself to endure when I don’t want to. It sounds pathetic when I write it down – “Training myself to endure in reading” – but I do believe this is a critical ability for anyone seeking to grow and develop. To endure, and not conform to the pattern of the world – but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind.
So, I encourage you to join me on this strange journey of discipline and grace. As one beginner to another, I urge you to push beyond the superficiality and the distracted-way-of-life – and seek something more. Perhaps you’ll find it as you learn to focus in prayer – for a minute at a time. Praise God! Perhaps you’ll find it as you seek to read four verses before your mind wanders. Fantastic.
With each small step, we train ourselves to be capable of more, and to develop into something deeper than what this age tries to produce in us. And that is a goal worth pursuing.