I Can't Concentrate

Can you?

Even as I write this, I’m regularly checking my email, my to do list, planning what to wear this week, completing other tasks and occasionally contributing to conversations as staff walk through the office. And I expect you’re probably half reading this article while checking Facebook and browsing flight details for an upcoming vacation.

Some people call it multi-tasking. I call it distracting.

The development in modern technology and growing popularity of social media has changed the way we work. We multi-task more. And I don’t think multi-tasking is all that it’s cracked up to be. Studies suggest that using the Internet actually adjusts the way we use our brains. In an article for Wired Mag, Nicholas Carr discusses a scientific test where:
“They discovered that the heavy multi-taskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly less control over their working memory, and were generally much less able to concentrate on a task.”

We become accustomed to skimming and flitting from one thing to the next, giving things our half attention, and not focusing. When you’re used to tweeting at the same time as watching TV, updating your status, Skyping your best friend in Guatemala, tidying the living room and cooking dinner all at once, it’s got to have an impact.

Being still is counter-cultural.

Admittedly, I’m not a great multi-tasker. The more things I try to do, the harder it is to concentrate. As my concentration ability lowers, it affects relationship. If I have a lot buzzing through my mind, I don’t listen as much, and the more I attempt to get done, the less spare time I have for other people.

My lack of concentration affects the most important relationship in my life, too: my relationship with God. If I am in the habit of looking at and thinking about 20 million things at once including looking out for social media alerts, it’s much harder to quiet my busy mind and listen to what God has to say. According to Nicholas Carr, “to turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch or socially isolated.” Is it too strong to suggest that this stuff is addictive?

I’ve heard so many examples of people finding it hard to keep focus in prayer, to listen to Sunday’s sermon with full attention, or to take real time-out to be with the Father. Could this be because we are used to spreading our focus too thin? “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) doesn’t just mean physical stillness; it means a peaceful mind too. Being still is counter-cultural. 

I’m certainly not suggesting that we all ditch social media and live out the rest of our days as troglodytes (literally cave dwellers). 

But perhaps the struggle to focus and stay on task isn’t a new thing. When Jesus went to pray in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples couldn’t stay awake when he asked them to. In which case, concentrating is part of self-discipline, which people have been trying to learn for centuries. (However, it is a commonly held belief that our attention spans are getting shorter.)

Could self-discipline be a key to concentrating better? If I have my laptop open and my phone beside me when I decide to have quiet time with Jesus, it’s almost impossible for me not to check my email first, and then end up spending half an hour looking at websites that I don’t actually care about. Then, when I finally get down to journaling, something else that I need to check pops into my head. My cell phone is right on hand to help me out, and while I’m there I might as well just make a few calls. Before I know it, the quiet time is over and I’m on to something else.

Clearly, not everyone is the same. I’ve been kindly told that I’m stuck in the past because I don’t journal on my laptop. But I find it a lot easier to clear my mind and listen to what my Father is saying with just paper and pen.

There’s value in simplicity. 

The way I see it, there are a few helpful responses. Firstly, don’t overreact. I’m certainly not suggesting that we all ditch social media, throw the iPad in the trash, put a bulldozer to our smartphones and live out the rest of our days as troglodytes (literally cave dwellers). In fact, I think all that stuff is brilliant. It can be great resource for the church. There is a lot of discussion about the impact of social media in the church - if you’re interested, take a look at this article in Christianity Today. I suspect that most of you are pro-social media anyway. We’ve got to understand the culture we’re in but not respond out of fear.

Secondly, we can actually learn to concentrate more. There’s value in simplicity. Doing one thing at a time helps - so if you get distracted when you're praying, why not get rid of all the other things that distract you. Other than technology overload, lack of sleep, too much stress and too little exercise can cause poor concentration. So getting those in balance will help a lot.

Single-tasking, when you’re used to super-multi-tasking, takes effort. I’m trying to figure this one out. This year's theme at Cath The Fire Toronto is 'Expanding Your Kingdom by Pursuing Your Presence', and I've realised that requires being intentional; purposefully engaging myself with God and His purpose. I need more self control, and the good news is that self control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit! Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

I have a feeling that learning to concentrate and cutting down on multi-tasking might do us, and our relationships with God, a lot better.

Do you struggle to concentrate? How has social media and technology development affected your relationship with God, for better or worse?

This archived article was written by Alice Clarke for release in Feb, 2012. Circumstances and situations may have changed regarding the author, locations and ministries. This content may therefore be outdated or misinformed.