Are We Too Distracted to Pray?
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Now Reading: Are We Too Distracted to Pray?
3 years ago
Fifty. That’s the number of times I pick up my phone each day. According to one study, it’s actually 46 fewer times per day than the average person.
I’ll pick my phone up when I get a notification, when I need a small piece of information or when I want a distraction. Truth be told, I pick it up far too often when I’m trying to pray.
I’ve always found it challenging to focus during prayer. During prayer time, I’ll often find myself thinking about the day ahead, the work I need to get done, or even the novel I’m currently reading – pretty much anything except communicating with God.
According to the book I’m currently reading, Deep Work by Cal Newport, those two problems – checking my phone so much and being too distracted to pray – are related.
Deep Work doesn’t actually mention the topic of prayer once. It’s a productivity book that emphasises the need to overcome our distraction-filled work in order to do complex, high quality work.
But as I’ve been reading the reasons it gives for why we struggle to focus on “deep work,” I’ve realised they’re all big contributors to why I’m chronically distracted during prayer. Let me share two reasons in particular:
In our modern work environment, it’s not uncommon for people to work on multiple projects throughout the day – going from one meeting to the next, starting one project and soon having to transfer your attention to something else.
Research done by a business professor named Sophie Leroy identifies the problem with this work strategy – when you stop work on Task A and switch to Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow.
A residue of your attention remains stuck on Task A. In fact, it can take upwards to 20 minutes for your attention to fully transfer to Task B.
Reading about this concept felt like receiving the correct diagnosis after years of struggling with a mystery condition. When I’m trying to talk to God, I struggle with keep my thoughts away from all the other things that have been demanding my attention in the previous 24 hours.
I’ve noticed as well that this has gotten worse over the last two years. What’s changed? I’ve gone from being a university student whose focus was taken up by the deep study of a handful of subjects to being a full-time employee for an organisation that requires me to shift my attention between dozens of different tasks each day.
Newport points out in his book that it’s common for people to treat undistracted concentration like the habit of flossing – it’s something you know how to do, and you know it’s good for you, but you neglect it due to “lack of motivation.”
However, the research tells us that our problem with focusing isn’t primarily a matter of motivation. Focus needs to be trained, much like you might train a muscle at the gym. Expecting to be laser-focused on demand is as absurd for most people as believing they could bench press 200kg despite never having set foot in a gym.
I started reading this book with the goal of increasing my productivity, but it has given me an unexpected revelation: I’m too distracted to pray.
In some ways, this comes as a relief. I’m not just struggling to connect with God because I’m inherently terrible person whose very mind rebels against attempts to commune with the divine.
I’m struggling because I’ve allowed my life to become filled with distractions and I’ve neglected to intentionally train my “focus muscle.” To overcome these problems, I’ve made three changes in my life:
A mentor of mine once compared our mind during prayer to putting down a glass of water. As you move around holding the glass, the water inside sloshes back and forward. Once you put the glass down, the water does not immediately become still. It requires time to settle.
This same is true for our focus during prayer. I often find that the first 5-10 minutes of prayer are less about me communicating with God and more about getting my mind into that state of stillness.
As a result, I try to block out at least 20 minutes every morning for prayer. 20 minutes because I can’t overcome my residual attention on other things in much less time than that. In the morning because that’s the least distracted time in my day.
When Jesus was teaching his disciples how to pray, he said “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” If He was giving the advice today, he might have added “go into your room, shut the door and put your smartphone on airplane mode.”
When I’m praying, my mind will take any excuse to distract itself with something more superficial.
The solution has been to isolate myself from distractions. I go into a room by myself and turn off every device that could give me a notification. It’s only then that I can focus on talking to God.
This final step is the hardest but most rewarding. We need to train our focus every day. How? By resisting the temptation of distraction.
There are dozens of opportunities to do this over day. One that I’m a fan of is to work or study for an allocated amount of time (I usually aim for 50 minutes) without allowing yourself to be distracted by anything. No social media, no emails, na da.
Another is that when you’re waiting for your friend to show up for dinner or you’re in line at the supermarket and you immediately feel the temptation to start scrolling on your phone, don’t.
Newport points out that “much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.”
Writing this post, I’ve been reminded of the bible story where the prophet Elijah climbs a mountain to meet with God.
We read “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:11-12)
God speaks to Elijah in the silence.
Today, we live in a noisy culture. Instead of wind and earthquakes and fire, we’ve got social media and emails and YouTube videos. But if we want to connect with God, we’ve got to step away from the noise.
In our lives and in our minds, we’ve got to reach that place of distraction-free stillness where God can finally speak.