I conducted an experiment last Tuesday (7th June). I refused to go online till late in the afternoon. It felt good. Was reluctant to go online when I finally did. The reason for the experiment? Something I read in Harvard Business Review recently.
(I) always do the most important task of the day first thing in the morning, when I am most rested and least distracted. Ninety percent of people check their e-mail as soon as they get to work. That turns their agenda over to someone else. They do it because it’s easy — you can feel more effective in a shorter time by answering e-mails. It also feels good to be wanted, and e-mails affirm that people want you. (Tony Schwartz, “Being More Productive,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011, 85).
The line that struck me was “turn your agenda over to someone else.” I want my life to run on God’s agenda. But yes, when I check my e-mails, my attention is fragmented, and I am no longer focused, on God or on anything else. In the same article, which Schwartz co-wrote with David Allen, he points out that many of us are addicted to e-mail and information. As a result, we find it hard to focus on a primary task. The following rings true:
Say you are working on a primary task and you get an e-mail. You hear that little Pavlovian beep, and you cannot resist it. So you turn to the e-mail and lose track of the initial task, and it takes you time to reconnect to it afterward. Researchers have found that over time and with practice, people get better at task shifting, but they never get remotely as good as they’d be if they did one thing at a time. (Schwartz, 86.)
Schwartz would probably say the same thing about social media like Facebook. It too is addictive and its constant updates lead you down numerous rabbit holes simultaneously. Yet Jesus wants us to focus on the one thing.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NIV)
Modern electronic media makes Marthas of all of us. Being distracted, worried and upset about many things is our daily experience. Jesus calls us to the clarity of listening and obeying. That is one thing we need. It is virtually impossible in the internet age unless we intentionally do something about it.
Of course there have been saints through the centuries that have championed the need to start the day with “quiet time,” a time dedicated to seeking the Lord through Scripture and prayer, a time to receive one’s orders for the day. Jesus Himself seems to have done this and it helped Him to be clear as to what He should do in the midst of many demands (Mark 1:35-39). I am not a morning person. I always felt that those who championed quiet times in the mornings were morning people to begin with. Besides, the Church Fathers and the Reformers were up early in the morning because that was the time that people got up anyway. Probably went to bed at 8 pm the night before and were up at 4 am to feed the chickens. Easy for them to do morning quiet times.
So, no I don’t think I will be up at 5 am to do quiet time. If I were to do that, my quiet times will probably be too quiet. But there is much to be said for Schwartz’s suggestion that I don’t look at emails first thing in the morning. And since I have some freedom to manage my time, I can choose to begin my work time with reflection and listening. By the way, most mornings, I start the day with breakfast with my beloved Bernice and we start breakfast with a reading from Scripture and prayer. Then we hit the yogurt. This has been important and will continue. But I can try to ensure that I begin my work day by choosing the “one thing” before I open the flood gates to the many, many things.