We live in an ever-increasing age where numerous technological developments vie for our attention. Slowly but surely we are programming ourselves constantly to be on the alert and listen for imminently arriving bleeps and buzzes from our electronic devices informing us of a newly arrived e-mail, text, phone call, or tweet. I have become more and more alarmed at the number of people I see driving down the road with their eyes casting a downward gaze upon their phones—look at the road, not your phone! Bad driving habits aside, by continually using our smart devices we are eroding our ability to do focused and concentrated work.

            When I was in my pastorate I didn’t know it, but at the time, I had created some “deep work” habits, a term that Cal Newport explains in his latest book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. I used to take Mondays as my day off, but first thing Tuesday morning I was at my desk bright and early—usually by 6am. My goal was to lock myself in my office and not emerge until I was done with my Sunday morning message, bio and food breaks notwithstanding. I figured that I could put in ten or more hours of concentrated work and get the sermon completed. I purposefully blocked that day off on my calendar and would not take any appointments—I would tell people I was booked. I was, of course, available for emergencies, but for the most part, that day was exclusively dedicated to writing my sermon. Some of my colleagues thought I was crazy and said they could never write a sermon in one day, but I found it odd that, in reality, they did precisely this. They would start writing their sermons on Friday afternoon and roll over into Saturday. So all I did was move-up my sermon prep time and create an artificial rather than real deadline. What’s the point in all of this?

            Newport recounts how much we are distracted by our smartphones, computers, and social media, which chips away at our ability to concentrate and get focused work done. He says that he now averages five peer-reviewed journal articles a year, which is actually quite an accomplishment, yet he never works past 5pm and rarely works on Saturdays. How can he accomplish this feat? Deep work. He turns off e-mail, his phone, closes his web browser, shuts his door, and works in a concentrated manner. This allows him the concentration he needs to get work completed.

            If you want to be more productive, you have to train yourself to do it. You don’t have to swear-off technology and switch to a dumb phone and a typewriter, though there could be some advantages here. But you should be deliberate about your work habits. Block off time in your schedule, be disciplined about it, shut yourself in, focus on your sermon prep (or whatever your task may be), and get’er done. You’ll probably find that when you focus your attention, you’ll be more productive, work more efficiently, take less time, and have more time for other aspects of ministry or family life. On the other hand, you can leave the cell phone on, get constant tweets, texts, and e-mails, stop to look at the internet, and what not, and take twenty hours what you can actually accomplish in half that time. Water is a very pliable substance, but when concentrated in a high-pressure stream, it can cut through thick steel. Water is your concentration—you can fritter it away with all of the distractions of life, or you can focus it for intense moments of concentration to get tasks accomplished.