Practice Defeating Your Distractions

Distraction is not defeated in a few fell blows, but by many small, habitual ones. Therefore, I will not promise to provide you in a thousand words a magical sword that can slay the Dread Dragon Distraction in three or four simple hacks. I have discovered no such sword and do not believe one exists.

What makes me any authority on distraction in the first place? Not my expertise in focus, but my expertise in being distracted. If my observations and self-assessments are accurate, I’m on the “above average” side of the distractible spectrum. I know this struggle from the inside and fight it daily.

Expecting to fight it daily is a necessary mindset if the fight is to be won. Distraction is not a simple foe; it must be fought on numerous fronts. Victory is achieved not by one glorious coup d’état of resolve, but by the slow insurgency of developing distraction-reducing habits.

The Speed of God

However, this likely requires an expectation recalibration on our part. We children of the high-tech/information age, and grandchildren of the manufacturing and industrial ages, find it increasingly hard to appreciate the speed of God. We have learned to value efficiencies in quickness, quantity, and cost. Produce something desirable fast, scalable, and cheap, and the outcome will be success. We’ve also learned to value disposability and devalue durability.

“Distraction is not defeated in a few fell blows, but by many small, habitual ones.”

But when God builds things, he often takes a long time (at least from our perspective) to do it. And what he builds, he builds to endure. Consider how he designed us. We require roughly nine months from conception to the point where we can survive outside the womb. Then we require roughly two additional decades before we acquire sufficient developmental maturity, knowledge, and skills to live independently from our parents.

And how are our developmental maturity, knowledge, and skills acquired during those two decades? Through rigorous repetition. Muscle and information memory are developed and sustained through the arduous process of daily, habitual practice.

The Slow, Everyday Miracle

Now, we know that God at times employs miraculous power to bring about instantaneous change in people’s lives. Deliverances and gifts of healings are very real aspects of the kingdom of God in this age. The Bible even commands us to earnestly desire them and seek them (1 Corinthians 12:31). I believe if we desired them and sought them more, they would occur more often.

However, the whole witness of Scripture and redemptive history tells us that even when they are more frequent, miraculous, instantaneous transformations are always exceptional (rare) in this age, not normative. Most of our healings will be experienced through the relatively slow processes with which God wonderfully and wisely equips our bodies. And most of our deliverances will be experienced through the relatively slow (at times frustratingly so) processes with which God wonderfully and wisely equips our minds and souls — replacing habitual responses of belief in deceptive promises and condemning accusations with habitual responses of faith in the true promises and gracious acceptance of God.

“Expecting to fight distraction daily is a necessary mindset if the fight is to be won.”

We talk a lot about the habits of grace at Desiring God, because routines build and shape human character, skill, affection, and creativity. Scripture teaches and history reinforces that habitual routines of Bible meditation, prayer, and church fellowship are God’s primary gracious means of our transformation. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither are we. We are built slowly, incrementally, painstakingly, brick by brick, day by day, over time — at God’s speed.

What Distractions Tell You

Now, God does want us to be delivered from the fragmenting effect of fruitless distraction (Luke 10:40). He wants us focused on what’s most important (Luke 10:41–42). But it’s very unlikely that we will receive a quick fix, because there is more going on in distraction than we often realize. In fact, we have a lot to learn from all that is happening in us when we’re tempted to be distracted.

First, distractions frequently tell us what we love and trust and fear. We gravitate toward desires we crave and away from fears we wish to avoid. Listen to what your familiar (habitual) distractions are saying. In what are you seeking joy? In what are you seeking shelter? What are you trying to escape?

Distractions also tell us where we formed poor habits earlier in life that we’ve not adequately addressed yet. Some bad habits are due to growing up in broken family systems, and some are indulgent habits we formed in youth or adolescence for which we must now be mature enough to take responsiblity.

Distractions can also tell us biological realities we must deal with: ADHD, OCD, chronic depression, bipolar disorder, and other maladies. Medication supervised by a skilled physician can be of significant help, but we also need to actively cultivate new habits to mitigate the effects of a disordered biology.

What are your distractions telling you? Record them as you notice them for two or three weeks. You will not fight them successfully until you know what’s fueling them. Distractions fueled by different disordered loves or fears or biology or plain old bad habits require different habitual battle strategies.

Trained by Constant Practice

Healthy habits are strategies. If resolves are our objectives (desired outcomes), habits are our strategies. Or to use a different metaphor, the engine of our resolve must run on the tracks of our habits. Resolve can only travel as far as the tracks of habits have been laid.

“Distractions frequently tell us what we love and trust and fear.”

Hebrews 5:14 says that very thing: “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” That verse helps set our expectations. Spiritual maturity is the goal; constant practice is the means.

When I played soccer in high school, all the players enjoyed the games. Few of us enjoyed the monotonous skill-building exercises. No one I knew enjoyed the grueling conditioning exercises. But our ability to win games was largely determined by how hard we pushed ourselves in practice.

Constant practice is the only way any skill is grown and maintained in anything, including the skill of distinguishing between fruitful focus and unfruitful distraction.

But How?

Yes, but what do we do to constantly practice resisting distraction? I told you up front that I had no distraction hacks to offer. And neither does the Bible. Have you ever noticed it rarely gives us clear, practical how-to’s? Why is that?

One reason, I believe, is that our behaviors are driven by divergent and complex factors, and so formulas are typically of marginal help. What helps me may not help you much.

But another reason is that the difficult process of wrestling through ambiguities and internal resistance and confusion is part of the training itself. We learn necessary things about our affections, weaknesses, and bodies. The difficult process ends up yielding benefits of increased faith, wisdom, and perseverance that extend far beyond just the issue of distraction.

“Prayerfully aim to defeat distraction through the slow, steady insurgency of building new habits.”

If we ask God, he will give us what we need in this fight (1 Corinthians 10:13; Philippians 4:19). But we must keep in mind: all aspects of the fight of faith is a fight (1 Timothy 6:12). We need to build endurance (Hebrews 10:36). We need to learn to discipline and control our bodies (1 Corinthians 9:27).

God isn’t merely concerned with the most efficient way to free us from distraction. He’s concerned with what will produce the greatest and most enduring spiritual fruit in our life. So, prayerfully aim to defeat distraction through the slow, steady insurgency of building new habits, one at a time.