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Living Among the Beeps  //  Recoving focus in a world of digital distractions

Living Among the Beeps
 

Beep!

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I hear that sound several hundred times each day. From my alarm clock first thing in the morning, to the microwave and coffee pot, from my beeping car to the ding of the elevator, and of course… my perpetually beeping and buzzing cell phone. To an outside observer, my life might very well seem like a never ending series of beeps. There are beeps telling me to start something and beeps telling me when something is finished. There are beeps to notify me, to remind me, and to warn me.

I live in a world of beeps.

A few days ago, I was sitting in my office trying to carve out an intentional moment of quiet when I found myself in an unexpected mental wrestling match. Somewhere in the distance, a microwave chimed and immediately my ears perked up, but that beep wasn’t for me so I returned to my reading. A few moments later, a cellphone began ringing down the hallway, and again I broke my concentration to listen, but the ringtone wasn’t familiar and that beep wasn’t for me either. Finally, from across my office, my computer gave a familiar beep to notify me of a new email in my inbox. A half-second later my cellphone chimed in to notify me of the same email, and I was defeated. I put down the book, got up from my chair, walked across the office and checked my email.

I live in a world of beeps that continually distract me.

The great irony of that moment was that I was trying to read a chapter from Tim Challies new book The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion talking about how technology has begun to shape us and distract us. Challies writes, “We become so shaped by our devices that we lose our ability to focus… More and more of us are finding that we just can’t stop long enough to read. We can’t sustain our attention long enough to study” (The Next Story, 116). Consider me guilty as charged.

 

The Danger of Distraction

Over the past few weeks, I’ve become increasingly aware of how distracting these beeps can be and how desensitized I can become to them and their effect. Think about it, what exactly are all those beeps doing? Some are taking us out of significant moments, others are thrusting us into new busyness. Many are dividing conversations or interrupting connections; robbing presence for the sake of productivity. They represent a troubling trend for all of us in an increasingly digital world.

We are becoming an increasingly distracted people.

Challies suggests that this new kind of digital distraction is starting to reshape us in two significant ways:

1. We are tempted to forsake quality for quantity.

Buying into the cultural assumption that “more is better”, we begin to pursue things like speed, productivity, efficiency, and multitasking at an unsustainable pace. Instead of focusing on a few things well, we give scant attention to many things; skimming instead of studying.

2. We lose our ability to engage in deeper ways of thinking.

We find ourselves struggling to maintain the concentrated, focused thought that requires time and cannot be rushed. As a result, we become content with shallow thoughts and shallow living.

An Undistracted Life

There’s not a quick fix to this emerging trend, but I do think there are some healthy, intentional steps we can take today to start counteracting the influence. When I finally was able to focus and finish the chapter, I found four helpful tips that Challies suggested for us:

1. Discover Distractions.

Take a moment to identify the distractions in your life. It might be as simple as measuring your use of media or naming the distracting beeps in your day. What do you find yourself doing that tends to dull your mind instead of sharpening it? Take a moment and make a mental list of the things in your day that beep on a regular basis. By my count, I’ve got a dozen that hit me before I even get in my car and head to work.

2. Delete and Unsubscribe.

When you’ve identified the distractions, it’s time to become ruthless with your boundaries. Perhaps you need to block a wasteful website or unsubscribe from a blog with no redeeming quality (hopefully not this one!).  It might mean turning a few of the many devices surrounding you so that you can be fully attentive to one thing. I know I’ve even gone so far as to turn off my Wifi just so I can focus on a lesson without distraction.

3. Cultivate Concentration.

In the same way that a culture of distraction did not pop up overnight, it will take time to relearn concentration. It almost feels embarrassing to admit, but we’ll need to practice sitting still and focusing on one thing again. Start by picking one thing and dedicate yourself to it. Perhaps it’s a 30 day challenge, a new book, or something else, but focus on quality over quantity.

4. Seek Solitude.

As you begin to remove distractions from your life, the temptation will to quickly fill that space with new ones. You’ll need to be intentional about replacing distractions with something healthier, and in a buzzing, beeping, fast-paced world, the healthiest substitute will probably involve some silence and solitude; the intentional, quiet, focused pursuit of time with God. What would it look like to simply sit in a chair for fifteen minutes, free from distractions, free from busyness and beeps, simply enjoying and attending to the presence of God in a focused silence?

What beeps are driving you crazy? We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about escaping distraction and relearning the fine art of focus. Share your comments and suggestions below.

 

Aaron Brown
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project's editor and web guy.