Let me tell you the story of a house. Not my house, mind you, but a house that somehow managed to derail my thoughts for a full week.
Over the past couple of years, my husband and I have tossed around the idea of moving. We know exactly where we want to live, how much we can afford, and the type of house that would be right for our family. But like many things in life, it’s never been the right timing. Whenever we start to think seriously about it, something immediately comes up that forces us to shelve the idea, whether it’s a years-long health battle, a car that finally breathes its last breath, or one of the many unexpected expenses of life.
It’s never been an issue of the heart. We would just put the new house idea aside and enjoy our current home, which, to be truthful, serves our needs just fine anyway.
Every so often I’ll jump on a real estate website to check on our home’s value, see what homes are selling for in our neighborhood, and peek at what’s on the market in the very specific location we have our eyes on.
One such time, I stumbled across a house, a rare one in this area, that was exactly what we were looking for. I showed to it Chris and jokingly said, “Too bad we didn’t find this two years from now,” knowing full well that we couldn’t handle a move on top of everything else in this season of life.
But I couldn’t get this house out of my head, especially when the price dropped even more. As I obsessed over it, I started doing calculations and making some of my famously detailed lists. In short, it consumed me. I still went through the motions of work, kids, and daily life, but I was distracted, so distracted.
I was actually thankful when I saw that little “sale pending” update on Zillow.
So why, when I knew a move wasn’t likely, did I get so wrapped up in this distraction? It turns out that there were some things in my heart that needed to be dealt with, and it was something as simple as a seemingly perfect house for sale that provided the opportunity to do just that.
Even though I’m perfectly content to stay in my current house as long as God wants us here, and even though I’m slowly, very slowly, learning the beauty of living in the present and not trying to take matters into my own hands, I let the distraction cause discontentment and lack of trust in God’s timing and provision and completely lost focus on the things that God has very clearly shown me He wants me to work on in this season.
But I also learned something about myself: All this deep heart work I’ve opened myself up to, this journey of growth and self-awareness, and an ever-increasing God awareness has led me to quickly notice when my heart posture isn’t right.
After one week of wasting so much time and mental energy, I knew I was off track. Instead of letting months go by, I quickly corrected, identified the heart issues that came up, and put the situation behind me.
Here’s the thing: despite the opportunity for growth and refining, I don’t want to let myself get off course like that again, even for a week. But I do it every day, with minor things, like always having my phone in sight or consuming too much content or trying to cram too much into my day. How do we stay focused, not only on tasks at hand but also on Jesus, in an age of constant distraction?
Casper Ten Boom, father of Corrie Ten Boom of “The Hiding Place,” was a watchmaker in the early 20th century. Anyone who has a clock knows that little by little, time drifts and one day it ends up a few minutes off. In order to keep the clocks in his shop set to the correct time, Casper would travel to Amsterdam every week to recalibrate his watch to the official time, then head back to his shop and reset all his clocks. We often need to recalibrate our lives in this way.
We start the year or month or week with our calendars neatly planned, with the best of intentions to get up early, eat clean, and avoid procrastination. We vow to spend less time on our phones and more time with the real-life people around us. We set goals of projects to accomplish and books to read.
And then we get tired and just want to stay in bed. We get hungry and eat convenience food. We absentmindedly pick up our phone and start scrolling. We get distracted and take our eyes off the prize. It happens to the best of us. Our lives “drift,” just like the clock.
This is why it is essential to carve out scheduled time to check in with yourself and with God. These “recalibration sessions” will remind you of why you set goals and plans to begin with and show you areas where growth is necessary. Use these times to reflect on how and why you got off track, then find creative solutions to set boundaries and safeguards around your time, heart, and thoughts. Here are a few to get you started.
2. Put Your Phone Away, Far Away
You don’t have to look far to find statistics on how our phones are changing us. And when you see sales increasing for “dumb phones” and hear about the guy who created the “like” button for Facebook deleting the app from his own phone, you know the problem is bigger than your own lack of attention span. Having a computer in your pocket has many pros, but too much of a good thing can quickly go wrong.
Just having your phone in the same room lessens your ability to concentrate and solve problems. Even while writing this blog post, I have picked my phone up multiple times for absolutely no reason other than that it’s sitting next to me. So take breaks. And have others hold you accountable.
Last year I took three weeks off of social media, and, by the end of that time, I had no desire to go back to my old habits. But a few months later, I noticed that my usage had crept back up again. So I started setting boundaries, like making every weekend a social media-free weekend, setting screen time limits to stay off my phone in the evenings and early morning hours, and using the do not disturb feature or apps like Forest or Focus Booster when I’m trying to get work done. When I’m home with my kids, I put my phone in a drawer or another room. And whenever I can do something on my computer instead of my phone, I do that instead.
If you don’t know where to start, Andy Crouch, author of “The Tech-Wise Family,” suggests taking a break from technology for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year to reengage with what’s right in front of you, and “12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You” offers plenty of ideas for creating healthy phone habits to harness the best parts of technology while avoiding the pitfalls.
3. Prioritize Real Life
When I first started taking social media breaks, I found myself saying, “It’s so nice not to know what’s going on in everyone’s life!” It's not that I don't care about people's lives, but a good amount of my overwhelm was from being bombarded with too much information all the time. Even just fifteen years ago, we only knew what was going on in the lives of those closest to us, those we interacted with in person regularly or picked up the landline or a basic cell phone to call. The world was smaller, our minds and hearts were less cluttered, and it felt like life had breathing room.
I rarely struggled with being present back then, but now I find myself jittery if I don’t know what’s going on. That’s not how we were made to live. Engage with your real life and use technology to enhance your everyday life, not distract you from it.
4. Notice Your Weak Spots
I’ve noticed some patterns in my life. The more tired or stressed I am, the more prone I am to pick up my phone for no good reason. A common piece of advice in habit-formation research is that the most effective path to overcoming a negative habit is to replace it with a positive one.
For example, when I start thinking about a friend, instead of jumping to their profile to see what’s going on in their life, I’ve started texting them. I also keep my prayer journal open on my counter and instead of picking up my phone to escape or distract myself, I’m training myself to pray through one page. Before I listen to any podcasts for the day, I first listen to a few chapters of my audio bible (this is my favorite narrator). Find your own replacement habits to help you strengthen your weak spots and retrain your defaults.
5. Make It Easy For Yourself
If you don’t set yourself up for success, the chances of follow-through are slim. Give yourself a leg up by creating routines and setting visual reminders to keep you on task. Put your workout clothes out the night before to cut out steps in the morning. Set up a space with your bible, a coffee mug, and a journal, so first thing in the morning you have an inviting space to start your day. Put a box or basket on top of your fridge to put your phone in when you don’t need it. You’ll be amazed at how these seemingly small steps can make a difference in your focus.
6. Batch Your Tasks
Multitasking is such a badge of honor these days. We scurry around doing everything at once but not doing anything with excellence or focus. You may feel like you are getting more done because your pace is frantic, but you’re probably not.
Enter single-tasking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to focus on one person at a time or read one article without toggling between three other tabs? As much as possible, focus entirely on one task at a time, and when that’s done, move on to the next. Batching your tasks will help you with this even more. Instead of checking your emails all day, set two or three times aside to do this and leave the rest of your time for other to-dos. Give yourself a pocket of time to do food prep for the week so you aren’t trying to make each meal from scratch while also supervising crafts for the kids or packing backpacks. You’ll find your mind is clearer, your heart rate is slower, and you actually remember what you did. Single-tasking slows you down and forces you to pay attention.
A New Normal
The world around us isn’t going to help us stayed focused. It’s up to us to notice our own actions and be intentional about changing our old patterns. What are some areas of your life where you find yourself constantly distracted? Do you have any tips or routines you’ve created to help you focus on what’s important?