The Formational Power of Digital Habits

A while ago, I wrote about the ‘Formation Gap in the Information Age.’ I’m troubled by the incredible formational power our technologies exert on us and how slow local churches have been to account for this in their discipleship. If we are not speaking to the digital habits of the people in the pews, we are missing a HUGE (and growing!) part of their lives.

Yes, there is a ‘pot and kettle’ problem here.

But there is ‘pot and kettle’ potential here. While that shouldn’t stop us from teaching on this subject, we should give some attention to our own habits and how we are being shaped. To that end, I want to talk about how we can address some of our own struggles and how we might pass these resources on to those we serve. My theory here is that many of us ‘over-spiritualize’ our bad habits and don’t realize that there are some simple, tangible steps we could be taking to help us right now.

At the very least, the thoughts and resources here might help you become more focused and efficient in your sermon prep this week!

In the Flow

Most of us probably know the famous line from Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” I return to that image often when I think about flow.

Flow is a concept popularized by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyin (what a name!) in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it, he ‘reveals’ truths that Christians have known for centuries. Namely, he explains that humans are happiest when they are immersed in challenging, intrinsically-rewarding, worthy efforts. We aren’t meant to be passively entertained—we were made to do good work. And when we engage in that good work, we enter a ‘flow state.’

Flow states occur when we give ourselves totally to a task. Time begins to blur and even challenging work feels effortless. We lose our self-consciousness and we become uniquely aware of our actions. This is what Eric Liddell was talking about.

Find Your Focus

When our work has become monotonous and taxing, chances are we are not setting ourselves up to dive deep like we are meant to do. Chances are, we’ve created an environment that kills ‘flow.’

Find your flow.

The main enemy of flow is distraction. Thankfully, we live in a world that nurtures careful thought and focused attention. Right?!

If much of your work day is spent on a computer, a great first step in shaping work habits that can get you focused and flowing is Focus. This simple, elegant software allows you—with one click—to shut yourself off from distractions on your computer. You set up the apps you don’t want available (email, Twitter, etc.) and websites you want blocked (it has the big distractions preloaded). One click and they are gone for 25 minutes, or however long you choose. You can even set schedules so there are chunks of your days pre-designated as distraction-free work time (or study time or prayer time or…)

I can’t recommend this enough when you are needing to write a sermon. When I compose a sermon, I find any excuse to click out of the word processor for a minute; in doing so, I kill any chance of getting into a groove. I’m shocked what even a half-hour of focused attention does for me.

You may not be prone to distractions. Maybe you have an iron will and you can ignore the bells and whistles of notifications. For the rest of us, though, Focus is a worthy investment.

Know Thy (Digital) Self

We like to think of ourselves as autonomous creatures, making intentional decisions about how we want to live. We might admit that sometimes we get it wrong, but even our worst choices are still under our conscious control, we think.

That’s not actually the case, though. So much of our behavior is dictated to us by the reinforced habits we’ve established over time. It takes a lot of intentionality and effort to override those ‘autopilot’ activities. (And yes, here I’m leaning heavily on the work of James K.A. Smith and Charles Duhigg.)

Perhaps the best evidence of this is sitting in your pocket right now.

Many of us compulsively reach for our phone throughout our day. Waiting in line at the grocery store. First thing when we wake up. Just sitting on the couch. Before we ever decided that we ‘want’ to check our email or social media or whatever, there it is, glowing in our hands.

You control it. It controls you.

Smartphones aren’t neutral territory when it comes to formation. Putting aside the universe of content it allows us to access that can either build us up or destroy us, just the medium has a drastic effect on us. Switching rapidly between apps, being dinged with notifications, inviting in every demand on your time and attention—all of this rewires our brains for shallow, channel-surfing thinking.

Nicholas Carr has written extensively on this. Recently, a New York Times article implored Apple to come to our rescue by redesigning its hardware and software to help us escape its addictive pull on us. This sounds like asking Krispy Kreme Donuts to promote a low-sugar diet plan in its shops.

No, if we want to curb our habits, it will have to start with us and it should start with self-assessment. Fortunately, there’s an app for that.

Mute It

There are several apps out there that can help you understand how much you use your phone and take steps to reign in your use. Actually, if you have an iPhone, you already have this data—under your ‘Battery’ settings, you can view your screen time in each app over the last 24 hours or 7 days.

Find Moment on the App Store

One app, Moment, uses that data to help you set up goals and monitor your use. You can set alarms that will go off after a certain amount of phone use in a given day. You can look at a breakdown of the apps you use most often, which can help you set goals. They even have a ‘Coach’, a guide that works like a personal trainer for your digital habits, helping you use your phone less and less.

Moment is a free app with some purchasable upgrades, including Moment Family, which allows you to manage screen time for everyone in your family and even set aside ‘screen-free time’ for everyone. Welcome your family back to the dinner table!

I have used Moment for about a year, and—when I have paid attention to it—it has helped curb some of my compulsions. However, I just switched over to Mute, which operates similarly to Moment, but with a little more intentionality in building habits. It utilizes an interface similar to fitness programs such as FitBit to help you work toward daily goals in several areas of phone use.

Mute allows you to set goals and track: 1) your overall use, 2) the number of times you unlock your phone, 3) how often you unlock your phone, and 4) your longest time between pick ups (a ‘detox’ streak). These categories target some of my worst habits, especially that little itch to check and see if there are any new ‘updates’—new emails or messages I might have missed.

Better yet, the app uses notifications to reinforce good habits. While all of the other apps on my phone operate on a deep understanding of rewarding the brain with bells or banners to lure me back into interaction, Mute uses that same science to nudge me out of those reinforcement loops.

Mute is completely free, as is its family app, Glued, which isn’t meant just to police children’s use, but help kids and parents change their habits through challenges and rewards.

I encourage every minister to test one of these out and see what effect it has on bringing your unconscious habits to the forefront of your mind.

Bringing it to the Pews

I hope these apps have something to offer you in your own life and work. I know that I need things like this to clear obstacles in my path toward living a life of faithfulness.

But I invite you to consider how these might bless your congregation as well. Talking about these apps from the pulpit isn’t just about helping your people ‘life-hack’ their way to their best selves. It may be your best entry point into talking about the nature of sin and the path of discipleship.

We all read Paul’s words in Romans 7 and immediately resonate: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.”

The first step to finding our way is turning on the light to see where we are.

But I would suggest there are three questions we can ask that will lend Paul’s words even greater credibility for the majority of people in your congregation. You simply ask:

  • What is a healthy amount of time for a person to spend on their phone in a day?
  • How much time do you think you spend on your phone every day?
  • How much time do you actually spend on your phone every day?

In my experience, while there’s variation on the numbers, the answers almost always follow a pattern. Their first answer will be the lowest number, say, 45 minutes. When asked how much time they think they use their phone, they will guess that they are probably a little over that. In other words, they will admit that their habits aren’t ideal, but they probably aren’t out of control. Then when you show them how to view their actual usage, the number jumps way up.

It’s a familiar pattern. Ask a heavy drinker about their consumption and they will probably report that, sure, they drink a little more than they should, but it’s nothing too out of control. But their bar tab will tell a different story.

When we can help those we serve truly see where they are, we can begin to have a more honest discussion about personal transformation. We can admit that we are in over our heads and that we can’t fix ourselves on our own. And our efforts to change can’t just be a matter of ‘self-improvement’, but instead we work to change our habits so that we might learn to ‘lose ourselves’ and invite Christ to guide our desires and shape our behaviors.

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By | 2018-02-20T08:32:37+00:00 February 6th, 2018|Culture, Leadership, Pastoral Ministry|Comments Off on The Formational Power of Digital Habits

About the Author:

For ten years, I taught high school English. More recently, I’ve served as a bi-vocational priest at Restoration Anglican Church in Richardson, Texas. Now, I am a part of the LeaderWorks team, hoping to help leaders do their work.