By Peter Amsterdam
October 27, 2015
One of the great struggles that many of us face today is giving our focus to what is most important. We are surrounded by distractions on all sides and increasing pulls on our attention. The pace of life. The Internet. Our cell phones. Social media. Technology in its many forms. Keeping up not only with the many demands on our time but also with what our many “friends” and even casual acquaintances are doing right now all around the world.
It’s hard to buckle down and give full attention to one thing for a period of time without being pulled away by competing interests. Distractions come in many forms, and there’s something for everyone. It might be Facebook. The news. Reading about the latest gadgets. Chatting with friends. Diet, nutrition, health, and exercise tips. Keeping up with trends and culture. Or getting lost in the endless world of online entertainment. You could watch YouTube, TV shows, sports, and movies 24 hours a day and never run out of new content. We are glutted with information and entertainment. An unlimited array of offerings call to us, and it’s all too easy to take a short break and “just check out this one link” or answer this one email, or check out your social media updates. Before you know it, 45 minutes have passed.
Distractions can be pervasive and powerful, and they can take us away from the important things we should be doing. I’ll use a personal example. Studying and writing doesn’t come easily to me; I have to work at it. When I’m preparing to write an article and have to read through a lot of study material, or when I’m working on my first draft and it’s not coming easily, it’s easy to give in to distraction. Perhaps I hear something going on outside my study, a few people talking, and I think, I’ll just go see what’s happening for a couple of minutes. Nothing wrong with that, right? True, but it’s during the time I’ve scheduled to write, and when I go out there, I end up talking with people and hearing about a situation that I didn’t need to be involved in. Twenty minutes later, I may have had a nice break, but I also lost 20 minutes of writing time and relinquished my focus and concentration. I then have to go back to my books, see where I was, get back in the groove, and buckle down again to write. That distraction stole some of my time, plain and simple, and I was a consenting party.
It’s especially easy to succumb to distraction when doing work that is difficult. If you have a personal goal that you want to achieve, but you’ve gotten hooked on an interesting TV series, you might think, I’ll start that project once I’m done with the series. If I just finish watching those last few episodes, then I’ll be able to focus. Or perhaps you have a friend in town so you decide to put off a daily commitment till after he or she leaves. Then I’ll have more time, you figure.
C. S. Lewis addressed it like this:
“If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”1
There will always be something else that needs to be done. There will always be a “good reason” for putting off your important project till later. As C. S. Lewis said, “Favorable conditions never come.” We usually have to do our most important work in unfavorable conditions, no matter what. Understanding that truth is key to managing life’s prevalent distractions. The alternative is to allow distractions to manage you.
Every prong in your life—career, spiritual, family, friendship, health, finances, and more—is hugely affected by your ability to do what matters most. To achieve your goals and fulfill your God-given responsibilities, you need the discipline to focus on the majors, put in the time, protect yourself from interruptions, and resist distractions.
This topic is multifaceted, but I’ll include just a few tips that I have found helpful relating to resisting distraction, strengthening my focus, and progressing in my priorities.
Put first things first. The time you spend with the Lord and in His Word will help put other areas of your life into perspective and help you determine and define your priorities.
Allocate purposeful time with [God] every day. Find a spot you like … wherever it is, meet God there every day. Open God’s Word, read it for fifteen minutes or so, consider how it might apply to your life, and then pray. …You’ll be surprised by how powerfully this small increment of time can affect your life when you surrender it to God.2
Make a schedule; build a routine. Remember that each day counts toward your larger life goals. You have to define exactly what you’re aiming for and be clear on your “why,” which will give you more motivation and endurance to get through the dry patches.
Leadership expert John C. Maxwell said, “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” Time spent planning your schedule and building new, positive routines is time well spent.
Putting a schedule together is not so much about determining what you’re trying to get done; it’s deciding who you want to become. Most of us sit down and we say, “Oh man, I’ve got 30 responsibilities, and I’m going to be in trouble if I don’t get them all done.” Then you list them and try to cram them all into your schedule. But this approach prevents us from doing the harder, deeper work of asking, “Who do I want to become over time? What kind of husband? What kind of father? What kind of friend?” And then asking the follow-up question: “What needs to be put into my schedule so that I become this kind of person?”3
Tackle the toughest stuff first. As the saying goes, “eat the frog.” Do the hardest thing on your list first thing in the morning. Once you’re done with that, the day can only get better, and you’ve saved yourself hours of dread. Give yourself a reward for completion of a tough task to reinforce focus and completion.
Offline time is productive time. If you don’t have to be online to do your work, get offline. At the least, limit your connectivity, access to sites, or online options that will not equal progress. Turn off your cell phone. Unplug.
Set time limits for breaks and “distraction time.” We can’t focus 100% of the time; we need breaks, downtime, and times of renewal. So when you need a coffee break or want to clear your head, be intentional about it. Give yourself five or ten minutes to take a break, do some exercises or go for a short walk, enjoy chatting with a co-worker or checking FB, then get back to your task.
Seek out a mentor or accountability partner. Having someone who knows what your goals are and the commitments you’ve made toward them is very helpful. Arrange a daily or weekly phone call or email—a time to report on your progress. Having someone we are accountable to is a powerful motivator and helps ensure follow-through.
Think about how good you’ll feel when you’re done. Gretchen Rubin writes:
“Remind yourself that finishing a dreaded task is tremendously energizing. Studies show that hitting a goal releases chemicals in the brain that give you pleasure. If you’re feeling blue, although the last thing you feel like doing is something you don’t feel like doing, push yourself. You’ll get a big lift from it.”4
Keep in mind the principle of delayed gratification, which is the ability to resist a temptation—a distraction, in this case—in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later, such as reaching your goal. And when you do push through or reach a milestone, celebrate! Sacrifice toward a big goal should be interspersed with little rewards along the way.
Ask God to give you strong focus and endurance, particularly to tackle and see things through that are difficult for you. Fulfilling our responsibilities, doing a good job, being diligent, keeping our word and manifesting integrity in our work and personal schedule are all aspects of our Christian character. As God’s children, we have been granted the right to seek God’s help for every aspect of our lives, goals, and responsibilities.
And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.5
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight [distraction], and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.6
It’s been said that your focus shapes the course of your life, and I believe that’s true. Every moment of focus you give to your priorities, to the things that matter most, and to God’s call in your life, is directly shaping the overall course of your life. That time and effort is being put toward building your future. By the same token, the chunks of time that are whisked away by distractions and unimportant or meaningless activities do not enhance your future or contribute toward your goals; they detract and delay progress.
If our choices are smart ones, made consistently over time, we will eventually reap huge rewards. It’s the principle of the compound effect. The challenge is that we don’t always see the payoff immediately, the first day or week or even month. Still, each of us has been granted the free will and responsibility to choose what we will and will not focus on every single day. Much more hinges on the choices we make day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute than most of us probably realize.
Here’s some food for thought: “Choices are at the root of every one of your results. Each choice starts a behavior that over time becomes a habit.” And, “Your life is the product of your moment-to-moment choices … you have incredible power to change your life by changing those choices.”7
2 Bill Hybels, Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2014), 44.
4 “Six Tips for Forcing Yourself to Tackle a Dreaded Task,” LinkedIn Pulse, May 13, 2013.
5 1 Corinthians 9:25 KJV.
6 Hebrews 12:1 KJV.
7 Darren Hardy, The Compound Effect (NY: Vanguard Press, 2010).