Do you struggle to memorize Scripture?
Do you find yourself constantly distracted? Unable to focus on what matter’s most?
Join the club. So what can you do about it? Enter Deep Work by Cal Newport. In his book, Newport identifies that an epidemic of people living distracted and consequently unproductive lives exist. He argues that the advent of “the Internet,” and other social media platforms, has exacerbated this problem. Instead of running after distractions, Newport advocates for what he calls “deep work”:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate (3).
In other words, deep work is focused and meaningful.
Although Newport doesn’t seem religious, his writing resonates with Christian theology. For example, Newport argues that finding meaning in the world is more satisfying than creating your own (88). Tim Keller makes a similar argument in his book, Making Sense of God. Keller argues that if God does not exist, neither does meaning. So we don’t find meaning in our work; we must create it for our work. But doing so leaves us in a fragile situation. What happens if we lose our job? We might view our life as meaningless.
But the Bible tells us that all things, even our work, can be done for God’s glory. So then, we will not be rattled by job loss. We will view it as an opportunity to know God.
Rebuild Your Focus
To do deep work, we must rebuild our focus. Focus, just like our muscles, can be strengthened. Surprisingly, Newport criticizes the popular notion of “Internet Sabbath” (160). He does so because the Internet Sabbath (taking an extended break from the Internet) does not train your focus on a consistent basis. Just like weight lifting, you will not get stronger from working out only once a week. So Newport lays many different strategies for rebuilding focus consistently:
Schedule Time for Deep Work
It is vital to set aside time regularly for deep work. For pastors, this means scheduling uninterrupted time for Bible study and sermon preparation. Eliminating distractions such as social media notification is extremely important. Figuring out your “method” is also important. Will you plan a few hours every day for deep work or a whole day of the week? Your context and schedule will determine what method works for you.
Schedule Your Internet Use
To combat against the distracting-nature of the internet, schedule in advance when you will use the internet and avoid it altogether outside these times. The problem isn’t the internet per se. The problem is the constant switching: You go to check your email but then jump over to ESPN to check the score of the game, and then jump back to email, etc.
When you use the internet regularly, you are tempted to switch from low stimuli high-value activities (deep work) to high-stimuli, low-value activities (e.g. checking email). The slightest temptation can pull you away from your focus (162).
Newport encourages all workers to have focus be the tenor of their lives. Even if you have to answer a lot of emails, schedule time to check email. Then keep the times NOT on the internet absolutely free of the internet. Remember, this is like strength training for your mind: consistency is key. Finally, you must also schedule your internet use at home. The gains you make at work can be lost by excessive internet use at home.
Don’t Do Work at Night
For one week, track all the tasks that you accomplish after 5 p.m. Checking and responding to emails will probably be one of the top things you do. How many of those emails were absolutely essential to respond to? Probably not many. What this shows is that the work you do at night isn’t that important. Now, I’m not talking about meeting with people or teaching a Bible study in the evening. But the “maintenance” work you do at night can wait until morning.
Embrace Limits; Work Deep
Your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited (150). If you spend the majority of your time doing “shallow” tasks which don’t really matter, you will miss out on fulfilling God’s calling for your life. Distractions and fatigue eat away at your focus. Embrace your limits. Realize you can only focus deeply for a portion of the day and guard it!
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