Today, to an extent never before known, we are distracted by the trivial, the novel and the (seemingly) urgent. Every day we wake to limitless information and 24/7 communication. The dentist’s office wants you to reply “YES” to confirm your appointment. Flash sale—take advantage now! An email preview pops up in the corner of your screen. News of a tragedy that just took place on the other side of the world. Celebrity gossip. Beeps, ringtones, notifications, calendar reminders and vibrations. What a person on the other political side said in reply to the person on your political side. The latest post from Becoming Minimalist (no, wait, that’s a good distraction).
Where was I?
Oh yes, we’re distracted by the trivial, the novel and the urgent.
The truth is, the distractions coming from our phones, computers and other electronic devices are far from being the whole problem when it comes to our getting derailed from the things that matter most to us and the world around us.
Our newer tech- and media-based distractions are actually just add-ons to many of the old diversions that have plagued humanity for countless generations, like having mixed-up priorities or viewing ourselves and other people in unhelpful ways. They’re internal before they’re external. These kinds of distractions are ones we tend to overlook, yet I would argue that they actually present the more serious obstacles to living for things that matter. So, from now on, here is where I’m going to be focusing much of my attention (and yours). We’ve got to look to what’s going on in our hearts if we’re going to open up a pathway to pursue our souls’ greatest desires. This isn’t a book about blaming external circumstances; this is a book about looking inward.
When a distraction becomes a lifestyle
In the Things That Matter Survey, we asked, “Do you feel that you are spending your time and resources on less important pursuits at the expense of things that matter most to you?” More than three quarters—76%—of respondents answered, “Yes, distractions keep me from important pursuits.” (Specifically, 40% answered “Sometimes,” 20% answered “Frequently” and—saddest of all—16% answered “Always.”)
We also asked, “Are these distractions becoming a bigger or smaller problem in your life?” Over half—52%—said that distractions from their highest priorities were growing, while 32% said the distractions were decreasing. The remaining respondents were unsure.
My takeaway from this? Distraction is a big problem that isn’t getting any better, and we are well aware of it.
Now, of course, not all distractions are wrong all the time. Many times, there’s nothing wrong with doing things that divert our minds—watching a TV show, or reading a novel, or gardening, or whatever else entertains or relaxes us. Sometimes we need distraction from our labors or our problems—that’s when distractions are good.
But distractions have a dual character. “The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion,” said 17th century polymath Blaise Pascal. “And yet it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is that above all which prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to destruction.”
The problem begins when distractions take over our lives and push out more important pursuits. Indulging in distractions can go from being an occasional pastime to becoming an ingrained part of our lifestyles. This is what happens when we spend all our spare time gaming. Or we exercise so much that our working out doesn’t give us energy; it uses up our energy. Or we shop for hours because we don’t want to go home. Or career ambitions become workaholism. If this kind of behavior continues, then we’re at risk of getting to the end of our lives and wondering, Why did I waste this life on things that don’t matter? I wish I had more time.
When a distraction becomes a lifestyle, we lose control over the lives we are living. We lose intentionality.
How distractions take over a life
Few distractions begin as a lifestyle. At first, they are simply fun and interesting. We enjoy the new game, the new television show, the new hobby, or the new website. We like the new phone, the new store, or the new idea that could become the new money-making opportunity in our lives.
Some things we are drawn to quicker than others. But for the most part, the shiny new object is just a welcome distraction from the hard task of living life.
Slowly, however, the new distraction begins to take more time and more energy from us. We get better at it, or invest more into it, or find increased enjoyment in it, or start to make money from it. We begin to make accommodations to partake in it even more.
Soon we rationalize why it’s good to do even more of it. We steal a few extra minutes here or there to enjoy it. But the number of hours in the day never changes. So eventually we start to sacrifice the most important things in order to indulge ourselves even more in the distraction. Before we know it, this has become a way of life, not a welcome diversion from our problems.
The distraction has now become a lifestyle… and we have lost some of our control over the lives we are living because of it.
Sometimes we recognize this right away and course-correct. But other times, years are wasted, relationships are lost and purpose is slowly, subtly frittered away.
With risks like these, distraction should be a greater concern to us than it usually is.
How to put distractions in their place
How can we respond when distractions have become our masters rather than our servants?
First, we can be vigilant in self-examination. We ought to frequently sit quietly with ourselves, examining the trajectory of our lives and the distractions that keep us from being the best version of ourselves.
Second, we can verbally articulate what distractions are keeping us from our best work, keeping us from those we love the most or keeping us from fulfilling our highest purpose. As I mentioned, these distractions may not always be unhealthy on the surface—but if they have spilled into places where they do not belong, they may become so.
Third, we can be diligent and intentional in removing these distractions. This can be difficult and requires moments of wrestling within ourselves. But learn to fight.
Last, it is important to remind ourselves of the value of the most important duties in front of us. Your most important work will never be the easiest—in fact, it will probably be one of the hardest things you ever do. Being an intentional parent, loving spouse, faithful employee, inspirational artist, good boss or selfless member of a community is never the easiest road to travel. But in the long run, there is more joy and happiness to be found there than anywhere else.
Distractions don’t get to define you. You get to define you.
Adapted from “Things That Matter”by Joshua Becker. Copyright © 2022 by Joshua Becker. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photo by @ProjectP/Twenty20