When I was kid I used the watch a cartoon called “The Jetsons” about a futuristic family that zoomed around town in mini-aircraft, had robot servants, and could make dinner with the push of a button. It seemed like of world as fictional as that of Harry Potter, but in fact, much of what I found magical in The Jetsons is now an ordinary part of my everyday existence—from skype to smart watches to the ability to watch TV on my phone.
While these technologies have increased our connectivity in some ways (How did people survive before email?), they have also become sources of on-going distraction. Places of silence and solitude have become hard to come by—a desire for those things is rarer still. We’ve gotten used to constant entertainment. We listen to music while we exercise, we watch TV while folding clothes, we read our kindles on the train, and we check our emails while in line at the grocery store. It’s not uncommon for any given room to have more active screens than actual human bodies present.
Of all of these things, I was the worst of offenders. It was my teenage sons who set the rule, “No phones at the dinner table.” I regularly checked my inbox at bedtime, in the middle of the night, and first thing in the morning. I played games on my phone WHILE watching movies with my family…because being entertained wasn’t enough for me. I needed distractions from my distractions. Over the past few years, I’ve been learning the art of being still, what Newport labels “bored.”
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport boasts, “I’m comfortable being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill…” Newport is not defining “boredom” as my Depression-Era parents would define it (laziness, idleness). Newport presents “boredom” as simply being free from diversions and interruptions. Modern technologies enable (enslave?) us to live in a constant state of distraction and multi-tasking, all with the promise of making our lives simpler. Ha!
When I realized that I was in bondage to technology in general, and my phone specifically, I picked up the book The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an age of Distraction. It was the subtitle that drew me in. In that book, author Matthew B. Crawford quotes a note by novelist David Foster Wallace, found shortly after his death. It read: “Bliss…lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” I began to long for moments of lying in the grass watching clouds blow by or sitting in a café with nothing but a warm cup of coffee in my hands.
I was further inspired to curb my digital appetite when I learned that my Internet habits were actually changing the contours and capacities of my brain. “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion.” In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicolar Carr describes an experiment that proved that the brain pathways that activate moral and psychological domains of the brain take time to respond to stimuli. “The experiment, says the scholars, indicates that the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.” It’s no wonder that empathy has recently become a topic of much research and social concern. We’re losing our natural capacity for empathy, and so now we have to learn it remedially.
It seems that the ability to be constantly connected has not made us more efficient and better at our work, but less and efficient and sloppier. There are no longer easy boundaries between office and home, work and rest, important and trivial. Everything endlessly clamours for our attention: Email, text messages, Instagram, FaceTime, Evites, Zoom chats, 24/7/365.
“She didn’t spend time bemoaning her fate. She looked to herself, took responsibility, made a plan.”
We cannot become hermits—not if we want to engage in the world with a positive impact for the Kingdom of God. Total disconnection is not the answer. But partial disconnection—planned, deliberate blocks of time away from the beeping and buzzing of our digital world—might be a workable solution. Newport describes a process that is similar to what I have been training myself to do (by God’s grace, and through His Spirit!). He talks about developing rhythms and rituals involving both time and space that provide for stretches of “deep work” (focused attention on a single idea or task) interspersed with moments of shallow work (email responses and administrative tasks) and connectivity (checking headlines and texting family members).
Newport explains, “An often overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.” Indeed, building structure into my life through the creation of a Rule of Life has enabled me to make connectivity something that serves me, and not the other way around. For several years now, I have done as Newport suggests, created blocks of time in my day for “deep work”—including times for contemplative prayer, times for research, times for ministry, and times for writing. In these moments, I keep my phone on silence, I ignore email, and I turn off music. These are highly satisfying blocks of time, and always productive –though not necessarily in conventional ways.
As a result of the research of Newport, Carr, Crawford, et. al., coupled with my personal experience, I’m convinced that creating a Rule of Life is essential to missionary effectiveness and sustainability. Thomas Moore says, “Every thoughtful person, no matter what his or her lifestyle may be, has a rule (meaning a pattern or model for living).” I realized that even before I had a Rule of Life, I had patterns and habits, but they were unhealthy and destructive (see above: checking email in the middle of the night!). Those who believe a Rule of Life would be confining are usually unaware of the fact that they are living under the tyranny of the urgent. Even Jesus had a Rule of Life.
“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
 Cal Newport, DEEP WORK: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. (S.l.: Grand Central Pub, 2018). 17.
 Matthew B. Crawford, The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). 169.
 Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Norton pbk. [ed.] (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011). Kindle loc 3620.
 Carr. Kindle loc 3613.
 Laurence Ganzales, Deep Survival (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005). Kindle loc 2384.
 Newport, DEEP WORK. 100.
 Newport. 117.
 Brian Rice, The Exercises Volume One: Conversations (York, PA: Leadership ConneXions International, 2012). Kindle loc 4816.
 “Bible Gateway Passage: Luke 5:16 – New English Translation,” Bible Gateway, accessed October 10, 2018, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+14&version=NET.