In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport warns about the danger of what he calls “attention residue,” the lingering effects of switching back and forth between tasks.
We sit down to study for a sermon, then we check our email.
We sit down to study for a sermon, then we check social media.
We sit down to study for a sermon, then we are interrupted by a knock at the door.
We sit down to study for a sermon, then we get a text.
In our minds, quickly moving from our study of God’s word to another task doesn’t hurt us at all. In fact, for years I was convinced such behavior actually helped me because it staved off boredom and allowed me to keep my butt in the chair.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Understanding The Cost
Newport argues that the aftereffects of a one-minute interruption here, and a 30 second intrusion there, doesn’t last for whatever time it takes to complete said tasks and return to my study. Instead, the flurry of switching between one task to another leaves “attention residue” in my brain which keeps me from fully engaging in what he calls “deep work.”
“…the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so. Indeed, many justify this behavior as better than the old practice of leaving an inbox open on the screen at all times (a straw-man habit that few follow anymore)… That quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.”
The antidote for such subpar performance, is what Newport calls “Deep Work.” He continues:
“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work. If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally. Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.” (Kindle location 455)
“Peak levels of quality and quantity” – that’s the phrase I want you to chew on.
The Cost To Your Preaching
Whenever I begin coaching a Senior Pastor, the first thing we address after setting into motion a whole host of self-care and replenishment strategies, is that Senior Pastor’s sermon writing process.
I don’t look at videos of that Senior Pastor’s preaching (at least not immediately).
I don’t look at the actual sermons that Senior Pastor has written (we’ll analyze lots of those later on).
What we dig into is what actually produces the written sermon and the preaching moment.
I’ll never forget a recent conversation with a young Senior Pastor who is probably one of the most naturally gifted communicators I’ve seen in recent memory.
“You’re incredibly talented my friend,” I said, “but you’re winging it on talent. You know that, right? You’re unfocused in your sermon preparation, and the laziness in your mental habits shows on Sunday morning (at least to anyone who knows what they’re looking for). Change your processes and you will hit ‘peak levels of quality and quantity’ in your sermon writing a fraction of the time.”
What I’ve found is that my friend’s “normal state of business” when it comes to preaching is actually the norm for most Senior Pastors. “You’re winging it on talent alone” is something I’ve said to Senior Pastors no less than a dozen times in the last few months.
You Are Costing Yourself
Most Senior Pastors are only operating at a fraction of the level of excellence they could be operating at. I know this to be true because I’ve “winged it on talent” myself many, many, many times.
Think about this for a moment.
If you’re a Senior Pastor, YOU KNOW you are capable of producing 10 times the level of sermon quality than you’re currently outputting. Right? You know what I’m saying is true. Content, topic selection, attention to detail, delivery – you know that with minimal effort you could deliver extraordinary performance on a week in and week out basis.
So why don’t you?
Why do we settle for subpar performance week after week after week when we know what’s at stake?
According to Clifford Nass, a late communications professor at Stanford, it’s because we’ve never disciplined ourselves to focus for extended periods of time.
During a 2010 interview with NPR, Nass commented:
“So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”
Asked whether or not chronically distracted people recognized that multitasking behavior actually rewires their brain, Nass responded:
“The people we talk with continually said, ‘Look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused.’ And unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.” (Kindle location 1715)
Does this describe you?
Here are two Newport inspired questions I think we Senior Pastors need to wrestle with?
Can We Make Ourselves Write Sermons When We’re Bored And Don’t Feel Inspired?
Boredom, to me, is the major reason most of us switch back and forth between tasks. To occupy time (and stay in the seat) we flutter back and forth between low commitments tasks (like email and social media) and our study of God’s word.
Newport could have been writing to Senior Pastors when he wrote,
“There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.” (Kindle location 1273)
Are you willing to pick up the cross of boredom, week in and week out, and write sermons without inspiration?
Our “cross” as Senior Pastors is not the risk of martyrdom, but the cross of monotony.
Boredom is the price of changed lives. If we can embrace it, our preaching will be transformed.
The scary thing is we all know this.
Are We Willing To Quit Social Media (and other distractions) If The Temptations Are Too Strong For Us To Overcome?
This is a serious question.
“Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants,” is a quote from Deep Work that I continue to wrestle with. (Kindle location 127)
Are we willing to go to extreme measures to create the space necessary to allow God to speak to us? Painfully strict, idiosyncratic measures? The kinds of measures an accountant would take, day in and day out, week in and week out?
Do a cost/benefit analysis of whatever it is you go to for a quick “pick me up” whenever you’re writing a message.
My five biggest culprits, in order, are: Spotify, Facebook, Twitter, email, and text messages.
Are we willing to “crucify” whatever it is that pulls us away from God’s word? At least temporarily?
Here’s the preliminary attempts I’ve made to crucify these distractions:
- I only write with my iPhone in “Airplane mode” (in four hour stretches).
- I’ve turned off Text Messaging on my desktop/laptop.
- I’ve made a commitment to only check email three times a day.
- I’m seriously weighing whether social media is a worthwhile investment of my time versus the allure it holds for me as it pertains to staying focused on sermon writing. Is it worth abandoning all together? Can I use it once a week? Once a month?
Seriously, right now social media is on the table for discussion.
If I can’t crucify its ridiculous pull towards irrelevancy, I mean completely crucify its power for me, it’s gone.
At least I would hope that I would be willing to make that decision.
Until then, the jury is still out.