Here is an interesting test. Can you read for 30 minutes straight? Not 30 minutes of blog articles, but 30 minutes of a book or a longer article. No pausing, stopping, checking social media, e-mail, getting up for coffee. Butt in the chair, reading for 30 minutes uninterrupted by yourself. Of course you can, right?
Then prove it. Not to me; prove it to yourself.
I continually shock myself by how hard this can be. Why? Because we have allowed ourselves to be conditioned to be distracted constantly. Whether it is a work environment that forces us to jump from task to task because we are always interrupted, or self-inflicted because we crave novel stimulation, it is an epidemic.
I have written about attention here before, but it merits revisiting if for no other reason than I need reminded. The ability to give sustained focus is essential to what has come to be called knowledge work. It is also essential to intellectual development.
I find it discouraging how hard it can be for me to sit and read. I like to read, but I am easily distracted, and a good part of that is self-inflicted. I’m thinking about other things while I’m reading and I have the urge to scamper off and pursue them. If my brain isn’t playing bunny-trail-bingo, then it’s usually trying to get me to shut down and go to sleep.
What does this mean? A couple of things. First, paying attention to something is hard. It takes effort and concentration and practice. It is very easy for the “focus muscles” to get flabby.
Second, we have an enemy. The distractions seem to be most pronounced when I am trying to read something with a high likelihood of encouraging me in the faith. Today, it was Augustine of Hippo’s sermon on one of the Psalms. I enjoy his writing on the Psalms as he takes them in directions I wouldn’t always have foreseen, or he sometimes does a little Bible hopscotch to land somewhere else to make a point. But many times I find myself struggling to stay focused.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
John 10:10 (ESV)
Satan has many strategies to derail us. He certainly understands that sustained absorption of the Scriptures and the counsel of the saints is counter to his purposes. He doesn’t have to make us hate them; he just has to keep enough low-level hum going in our heads that we don’t really engage with what we are trying to read.
Consider this a spiritual fitness assessment: 30 minutes with Scripture or some similarly edifying work. Can you stay engaged and not break contact with the text? If you can, great. If not, consider working on the goal to give spiritually nourishing texts sustained time. I’m not suggesting you have to just be plowing through the text for 30 minutes. Reflection is good. Pausing to pray or underline or jot a note is part of engagement. Sharing quotes to Twitter or jotting ideas for other things is not.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pay some more attention to Augustine.