I love my technology. Yet I also know this: if I do not dominate my screens, they dominate me. When that happens, my soul withers and my leadership fails. But simple choices can make all the difference.
The prime commodity of the web economy is attention, monetized via advertising and sales. Means to entice attention differ, from news sites to online games, TV shows to social media. But whatever is offered on your screen at any moment, its chief obsession is to seize more of that all-important prize: your attention.
Many of the smartest, best-paid minds in the world labor daily to this end. Their quest is to colonize ever larger slices of the 16 to 18 hours you have to divvy up each day. If they can garner even a moment each day that was previously reserved for other things, it’s a win.
This creates a law as inescapable as gravity. If we do not determine which spaces we will and won’t yield to our technology, the decision will be made for us. Technology’s place in our life will largely be forged by programmers, marketers and tech executives … as well as friends, colleagues, bosses and other fellow users near and far.
We must not miss this: default is that others choose. If you do not decide technology’s boundaries, people other than you will determine when a text message will interrupt your meal; when you should toggle from an important project to a weather alert; which global anxieties should cause your gut to ache; whether you should talk with anyone in the checkout line; the last thoughts you consider as you fall asleep and the first you ponder as you wake.
All of this, over time, shapes us as surely as water carves a landscape.
All of this, over time, shapes us as surely as water carves a landscape. Here are three of the most significant ways:
1. Spent time. Our lives are the sum of our moments. And we never get back a minute spent on online infotainment – whether a cat video, political update or Twitter feed. Sometimes the trade is worth it, providing knowledge or connections that enable us to live more fully. But often, we end only with disquieted thoughts in exchange for the one commodity we can never replenish: time.
2. Dyed soul. As Marcus Aurelius observed, our souls are dyed by our thoughts. Whatever we repeatedly set our attention toward will steadily color the person we’re becoming. Certainly, pornography does this. But so do 24-7 news, sports talk, financial updates and Facebook. What we value and pursue … to whom we compare ourselves … how we feel about our lives and others’ … our very sense of identity – all are profoundly shaped by the things that regularly fill our minds.
3. Altered brains. It is not only content that shapes us, but also the way we consume it. Neuroscience today reveals that, far more than scientists once imagined, the human brain is constantly changing, even into old age. See, for example, the book The Brain’s Way of Healing (Penguin Books, Updated, Jan. 2016.) Every thought subtly alters our neural pathways, and repeated brain activities can reshape our brains profoundly. Over time, constant flows of high-stimulation technology make our minds less capable of sustained focus, calm presence and deep reflection.
Of course, these factors affect who we are becoming in every aspect of life. Internally, we find ourselves more frequently distracted and anxious. In relationships, we grow less attentive and present, even to those we most love. As leaders we are less able to discern what matters most, and less capable of offering real vision or deep wisdom beyond the clichés of our culture.
If we do not determine which spaces we will and won’t yield to our technology, the decision will be made for us.
We have but one alternative. We must rule our technology if it is not to rule us. To do that, we must actively determine where and how it will be allowed to command our attention. This involves three steps.
1. We must start with time apart from the blur of daily life – at least a morning or evening, if not a full day or longer. The merry-go-round must slow if we are to see clearly. In solitude, with Scripture, prayer, reflection, and a journal, we can put to paper what matters most. What were we created for? What does God desire for us? What do we most want our lives and character to become?
2. We must set rules for our technology and write them down. Here are some of mine:
No screens in the morning until after devotional time. This lets me direct my waking thoughts to reflection, gratitude and prayer…not the whims of an inbox or news feed.
No screens at any shared meal. This helps make the meal table a sacred space for focused relationship. If I must check or send a message, I go to another room.
No emails for the first hour of the workday. This secures at least one hour a day for creative and strategic work, rather than merely responsive activity. (See more on this in the excellent book Deep Work (Grand Central Publishing, 2016).
No incoming messages or feeds for the half hour before bed. Why let such precious things – the day’s last thoughts, bedtime conversations and my sleep – be colored by others’ anxieties?
3. Once we’ve written the rules, we must apply them – consistently. From time to time, we’ll want to repeat step one and two as well.
It is, of course, easier to create rules than keep them. But the intentionality of a process like this can make all the difference. Slowly, our chosen priorities – not the dictates of our screens – direct more of our time and thoughts. As promised by Scripture (i.e. Rom 12:2; Phil. 4:6-8; 2 Cor. 10:5) and described by contemporary neuroscience, the pathways of our brain begin to change. It becomes easier to choose what we want to choose. Anxiety ebbs and our capacity for attention grows. We become more present to people and to our work. We can see with great clarity and offer vision worth following.
Ultimately, this is what the world needs most from us as leaders. The most rare and precious gift we have to give is simply that of a presence that feels much like the presence of Jesus – attentive and fully present, pondering the needs of others more than our own, able to offer wisdom from beyond the echo chamber of pop culture, calm and full of grace amidst a distracted world.
We will never become such people if our technology has its way with our time, thought life and brain structure. But if we choose, we can seize the upper hand. In small, daily choices, we can participate with God in the renewal of our minds, steadily becoming more like Jesus from the inside out.
Jedd Medefind serves as president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. He formerly led the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. To further explore leadership and the inner life, visit www.cafo.org/innerlife.