Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Deep Work" for the Christian Life (Newport)

NOTE:  I've also put together a general writeup on Deep Work here.

You are sitting at the kitchen table in the early morning intending to spend some time praying.  A minute later you hear a buzz and can’t help but to glance at the notifications on your phone.  Back praying once more, your mind wanders and you find yourself thinking about a meeting at work later that day.  This prayer time is going nowhere.  Why can’t I focus?  Why is prayer so difficult?

Sunday morning you are sitting in church listening to Pat preach.  You’re jotting down his points in Evernote on your phone.  Then a notification pops up.  Then you’re checking an alert on Facebook.  Back to writing some notes.  And back and forth.  As you drive home, your wife asks what you thought about the sermon--you draw a blank.  How can I not remember anything from 30 minutes ago?

You arrive early at the office and open your inbox.  Opening up your Chrome browser, you get a few tabs going: Facebook, Twitter, The Washington Post, your Gmail.  As you answer a few emails, you swing back and forth between your inbox and Facebook feed, then you read a bit of a news article.  Then back to looking up some information for a report that’s due later that day.  You blink and the day is over and you’re driving home wondering:
Where did my day go?  What did I even accomplish today?  

You are waiting in the line at the post office.  The overworked clerk is fighting a losing battle with the outdated shipping software and you resign yourself to losing the next 30 minutes of your life.  So you spend it swiping.  Swiping through Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, reading some news, sending a text, reading an email, deleting some old ones.  Getting things done.  The thing is, you leave the post office, feeling unfocused and tired.
Why does my mind race around?  Why do I feel so distracted?

At your Missional Community everyone is going around the room sharing prayer requests.  After two couples have shared you realize you have no idea what they said.  You had glanced a few times at your phone--really just to check a few irrelevant “breaking” news alerts that buzzed in your pocket and then found myself thinking about a multi-meter that you needed to return to Lowes.  You made it through listening to another couple’s prayer request and then your mind was meandering again thinking about how to phrase your own prayer request.
Why is it so hard to listen?  Why am I listening but not really hearing?

Can you relate to any of these scenarios?  
Do you desire to have a closer relationship with Jesus?  
Do you want to learn more of the bible?  
Do you want to have a better prayer life?  
Do you want a quieter, quiet time?

If so, then Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World is for you.  While the intended audience of Deep Work is clearly a secular business one, the lessons that he lays out are ones that can benefit anyone that desires to “be better.”  For the follower of Jesus, his call to limit distraction and to focus on the priorities in your life (and to figure out what those priorities are) should be a convicting one.  For the Christian reader, Newport’s thesis that learning hard things quickly and efficiently requires intense distraction-free focus (i.e., deep work) should ring true because these very principles are affirmed in scripture.  

Take for example, one of David’s songs (Psalms 46).  He ends it by echoing God’s call to each of us.

Be still.  And know that I am God.

God isn’t calling us necessarily to a physical stillness, of course, but instead he wants us to quiet our minds. He calls us to a focused meditation on his very nature.  After spending several verses extolling the virtue and might of God, David beckons the listener into a denouement—a  time to reflect and direct one’s thoughts to the nature of our Creator.  In Deep Work, Newport examines the biological process of myelination—the science of which affirms the idea that the very type of continual, undistracted, focused reflection that David calls us to can build a deeper understanding and relationship with God.

But what does biology have to do with your relationship with God you ask?  Well, myelin is a layer of fatty lipids and proteins that grow around your nerve cells.  The more myelin that builds up, the faster these nerve cells fire off.  The buildup of myelin (i.e., myelination) comes when you focus solely on a specific task or skill.  The specific ‘circuit’ associated with that task fires off repetitively as you work which triggers cells to produce and envelope your nerves with myelin.  This process then creates a ‘permanent’ skill or knowledge base.   Where learning and myelin buildup go awry is when one tries to multitask.  Multi-tasking fires off multiple circuits at once and doesn’t allow your body to isolate the specific circuit in order to learn a new language or write that term paper--thus no myelin is produced when you are distracted.

This God-designed biological process is important because it confirms Newport’s thesis: “learning is an act of deep work” and if you want to do it quickly and efficiently, you need to maintain an intense focus on the subject at hand.   If you want to get better—in your marriage, your academic studies, your relationship with God—you have to do the (deep) work.  Newport offers a useful equation for the reader:  

High Quality Work Produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus).  

The deep work of prayer

Prayer (i.e., the time we spend talking to God), is perhaps the foundational element of our relationship with Him.  Looking to the Gospels we see Jesus modeling both time spent in prayer and a focused and undistracted intensity in His prayer life.  The gospel writers repeatedly describe Jesus’ concerted efforts to seek out the “deep work” of building his relationship with God as He withdraws and spends undistracted time in prayer and communion.  Some key examples include:
  • Shortly after beginning his ministry, Jesus withdraws to pray in solitude early in the morning (Mark 1:35),
  • After hearing the news of John the Baptist’s beheading, Jesus goes off by himself to pray (Matthew 14:13)
  • Before naming his disciples, Jesus prays to God all night (Luke 6:12),
  • Before and after feeding the five thousand, Jesus prays in solitude(Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:31; John 6:15)
  • At Gethsemane, Jesus enters into three different prayer periods (Matthew 26:36; Mark 14)
  • With his dying breath on the cross, Jesus’ prays the words of King David’s own song of trust in God amidst feelings of abandonment (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:5)
Jesus’ lifelong focus on prayer is best captured in Luke’s wry observation that “Jesus often withdrew to pray” (Luke 5:10).  In other words, prayer was a focused habit for Jesus.  The question for followers of Jesus then is how do we advance toward that same place.  Following Newport’s template for producing high quality work (in this case, a deepening relationship with Jesus), we can focus on spending focused and intentional time with God.  Using themes from Deep Work, I’ve created a month long challenge geared to help retrain and refocus our thoughts from distraction toward myelination in our relationship and prayer life with Jesus.

Take the 30 Day Deep Work Challenge

  1. Find rest on your Sundays.  Turn off social media on Sundays.  Disable internet connectivity on your phone as soon as you leave for church until you get home (or at least turn off those pop up notifications on your phone).  Use this time to do the deep work of growing as a Christian.  Orient your heart and focus your thoughts.   The “attention residue” from even a quick glance at an email during the sermon degrades your ability to re-focus on learning and internalizing the message.  Focusing takes practice.
  2. Wake up and put first things first.  Resist the urge to check social media/email when you first awake.  Spend those first moments actively focusing your thoughts on Jesus.  Thank him for three things in your life.  Spend time reading or listening to the Bible and thinking about its application to your own life.  Get up 15 minutes early if you need to.
  3. Schedule your nights and weekends and create value.  Be proactive—not reactive.  During the week, set aside blocks of time for important tasks/projects/papers.  During these time blocks, disable internet connectivity.  For your nights and weekends, write down three spiritual and/or personal goals/projects.  This could be anything from learning about the theology of baptism, to memorizing a Psalm, to making a long-term tithing plan, to serving your community as a family, to being a better dad or husband, to reading with your kids, to playing catch with daughter, to doing a puzzle with your son, or to starting a missional community.  Set aside an undistracted hour during the weekend to make progress on those goals.  
  4. Embrace boredom and leave your phone in your pocket.  At least once a day, resist the urge to check your phone while stopped at a light, while at the post office, or while waiting in line at the Safeway.  This addiction for on-demand distraction is literally short-circuiting your brain so that when you want to concentrate on deep work, you won’t be able to.  
  5. Tell Someone.  It’s easier to stay accountable if you know someone’s going to ask you how it’s going.  

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