White Noise – four steps toward peace

Ok… so it’s been a little while since my last post. Thanks to those who have waited patiently. And thanks more to those that even noticed that I was absent from the blogosphere. One could say that I have been a little too busy for my own good, or as this post suggests, maybe even a little distracted from what I initially set out to do this year.

It seems ironic that I sit with the intention of writing an article on the subject of distraction and within the first hour I am interrupted six times, and every interruption via modern technology. Phone calls, SMS, emails, social media… relentless! Indeed it could be said that our culture’s convenient modes of communication have become the grand platform for distraction and indeed I count myself one of the worst offenders.

Of course the constant contact isn’t limited to personal communication devices. For some time now, advertising analysts estimate that we are exposed to approximately ten thousand advertisements every week. Through digital media, magazines, billboards, product placement (the list goes on) we are bombarded with constant messages demanding of us a choice. The implication is, whether realized or not, we literally make thousands of decisions every week.  It’s exhausting! It is any wonder we are distracted, fatigued, and disconnected.

step7b_white_noiseThis constant clamoring for prime real estate in our minds and lives is having a significant negative effect on individuals and therefore shaping the culture they form. Indeed decision fatigue and personal distraction has become the norm for those living in western civilization. Australian’s are avid tech lovers and BIG smart phone users, but the bad news is that the constant stimulation generated by smart-phones is possibly hurting our brains in ways we don’t really understand.

A study from the University of California in San Francisco has linked lower productivity and lower learning outcomes to lot’s of use of smart phones.

“People think that they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves” says Marc Berman, a University of Michigan Neuroscientist.

It’s a simple hypothesis – downtime lets our brain process and apply learning to our experiences, and when the brain is in constant stimulation it is unable to process the information, therefore we learn less! It seems the constant contact and knowledge accumulation offers little to no personal benefit. Smart phones are not making us any smarter, if anything the distraction they offer is stunting our growth. The constant phone fiddling, usually intended as personal recreation and refreshment, is leaving users more distracted and more fatigued than ever before.

Add to this the personal pressures from our working worlds, the emotional demands of relationships, and rarely are we free to sit with the luxury of one thought at a time. The implications for family, friends or those we love most are also significant. I recently noticed that my daughter started repeating my name three times every time she wanted to talk to me – ‘Dad, Dad, DAD!!!’ Such was her effort to get my attention away from the distractions in my mind and become present to her needs. I had forgotten what it meant to fully offer myself – thoughts and all – to those who matter most.

Whilst living in a constant state of distraction leaves us personally ineffective and relationally disadvantaged, it also seems to affect the quality of our decisions.

A recent article in the New York Times reported the decision-making patterns of a parole board. They discovered that approx 80% of cases heard in the morning resulted in parole being granted to the applicants, with only 30% of cases being granted parole through decisions made in the afternoon. It was noted that as the day progressed decision fatigue set in for individuals and an affirmative decision for applicants was less likely, for fear of making a ‘wrong’ decision. In short, the overload of numerous decisions inhibits our ability to focus well and make good decisions. The effects of this phenomenon are far-reaching for a culture that is already preoccupied beyond reason. Consider the implications for personal spending habits, work life balance, relationship priorities not to mention the pursuit of God.

Retailers and marketers are astutely aware of this, and in fact they bank on it. In a regular viewing day the evening prime-time slot is the most expensive airtime advertisers can purchase. Why? It yields the best return for their advertising dollar. More people are watching, people are more fatigued and therefore more vulnerable to be influenced toward foolish purchasing decisions. It would seem that late night store sales, particularly around peak seasonal times are not purely based on consumer convenience either. The consumer enters the retail temple tired, fatigued and distracted, faced with more choices at a time when they will inevitably struggle to choose well. The result, retailers make more money, consumers experience buyers remorse.So how do we counter this? Is it possible to flee from the inescapable state of distraction and fatigue perpetuated throughout our high-tech methods and insatiable appetite for information? How do we jump off the distraction carousel in order to redeem our fatigued lives? In my humble opinion it is possible, especially if we are committed to the pursuit of peace, by learning to become ‘intentionally present’. Scripture reminds us that it is good to pursue peace (Psalm 34:14) and as we are active in this pursuit we are more likely to notice the alternative and reject it.

To do this well takes a considerable effort and long-term commitment. But we need to start. Here’s a couple of things that I find help me to remain present and pursue peace…

1)    Switch off – I do something that marks my decision to be attentive to myself and others. A physical marker can be really helpful with this. For example, I touch an imaginary switch, turn off my phone, shut down the laptop (don’t just close it)… basically anything out of the ordinary that communicates ‘I am now switching off the white noise and becoming present to the moment.’

2)    Become mindful of my current environment – PAUSE… BREATHE… PRAY… I take time to notice the detail in my surroundings and really look at it. People, places, objects, everything. I feel my heart beat, I thank God for my life, I take it all in and enjoy it!

3)    Give people and circumstances my full attention – I look people in the eye and treat them as if they are the only thing that matters THEN and THERE… I look for the ‘light and life’ within those I’m with. When I notice something of this I try to tell them. Occasionally I am tempted to think about what it is I need to do next. But If my mind wanders, I resist this by admitting it to the person I’m with, apologising, and refocusing my attention to them. Interestingly, I’ve discovered that the future can wait, as can my face-book friends.

4)    Do this regularly – It takes commitment and discipline to turn this into a natural habit, but after a while the benefits follow. This should come as no surprise when we consider that people of faith have followed the ancient discipline of Sabbath keeping for centuries. This regular practice is not only an obedient response to God’s command, it is just plain good for us and an excellent way to develop the behaviour as a priority.

Our culture perpetuates busyness beyond reason, distraction as a default position, and constant fatigue as a result. I am choosing to live differently this year, call it a purging of the soul if you like. That said I could do with some help. This is why I find comfort in the words of Jesus,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives…” – John 14:27 (TNIV)

Are you fatigued? Distracted? Then you are possibly living out of that which ‘the world gives’. May you switch off. May you become present. May you know peace.

Over to you… how is ‘distraction’ an issue for you? How do you feel the effects of ‘fatigue’? How do you become ‘intentionally present’ and find ‘peace’ amongst white noise?


PS – for more great articles, resources and practical responses to distraction check out this quarters edition of YV.Q (it’s the one wit the blue cover).