Deep Reading, Deep Work, and Cultivating an Unbusy Life

A number of articles have popped up recently that have caused me to consider how I spend my time. I like being efficient and productive. I like producing quality work. I like to look back on my day and feel like I spent it doing something meaningful. This doesn’t always happen.

Often, I find myself pulled into articles online that I don’t really care about. Often, I find myself spending more time than I should on email, responding to text messages, looking at social media, and who knows what else. Sometimes I look back on my day and wonder – what did I actually do all day?

It’s not that my aim is to be productive all day every day. It’s actually quite important to me that I live an unhurried life. What I want is to be mindful and purposeful about how I am spending my time. Working purposefully. Resting purposefully. Knowing that when I sit down to do something or not do something it’s because I chose that, not because it just happened without me thinking about it.

Three articles have helped me consider some of the ways I want to be more mindful of my time.

Time for Deep Reading 

The Death of Reading is Threatening the Soul came across my twitter feed the other week. The author, Philip Yancy, laments how he used to spend a great deal of time in “deep reading,” but over the past years he has drifted away from this practice.

“The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around…A 2016 Nielsen report calculates that the average American devotes more than 10 hours per day to consuming media—including radio, TV, and all electronic devices. That constitutes 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the statistics of 10 hours a day devoted to consuming media, but I was. I am sure if I tracked my own habits, I would not be happy with what I found. Especially since my summer has more space than usual to fill as I please, I sometimes find myself browsing through online articles or social media feeds that I don’t have much interest in and that do not add to my day.

Truthfully, I would rather spend time reading a book than mindlessly browsing the Internet. But I realize that I feel a bit guilty reading when I think I should be doing something “more productive” or “more important.” So, because I feel guilty reading, I start browsing the Internet while I decide what I want to do with my time. And I end up spending way more time online than I ever meant.

In the article, Yancy references various high-performing individuals who carve out time each day for deep reading. Then he says, “neuroscience proves what each of these busy people have found: it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.”

This summer I have done better with giving myself permission to read when I feel like I should be doing something else. Reading, especially deep reading as discussed in Yancy’s article, is meaningful. I have started adding it to my to do list, and something about seeing it there helps me feel better about spending my time in that way.

Time for Deep Work  

The day I listened to an NPR podcast entitled The Hidden Brain. The episode this week discussed The Value of ‘Deep Work’ in an Age of Distraction. The episode interviewed Cal Newport, a computer scientist who has studied the concept of deep work and the price we pay for living in a world of constant distraction.

For most of us, instead of sitting down for long uninterrupted periods of work, we constantly check our email, respond to text messages as they come, and look at social media notifications every time they pop up. Newport believes we underestimate the extent to which this “constant interruption” disrupts our work, leads to decreased productivity, and reduces the meaning and satisfaction we experience when we dedicate ourselves to a difficult task.

Newport asks questions such as: What would happen if we blocked off time each day to engage in deep work? What if we put times of deep work in our calendars the same way we would an appointment that couldn’t be broken? What if we moved our bodies and work stations to places away from it all and insisted we not be interrupted?

From personal experience, I know that I accomplish more from sitting down for an uninterrupted one hour period of time than I do from half-heartedly working on something throughout the day. I know that I enjoy the freedom of not receiving notifications on my phone, but often don’t turn my phone of because I know people often expect quick responses to texts and emails. But, just because people expect this is it necessary to give this? That is one of the things they discuss in the podcast. I highly recommend listening to the whole thing.

Time for Listening, Prayer, and Ministering to Others  

A final article came across my path. The Unbusy Pastor was written by Eugene Peterson back in 1986, but the words may apply even more today. Although the article is written specifically to pastors, so much of the material can be applied to anyone.

Peterson talks about the toll that busyness plays on prayer, preaching, and listening to others. Here are a few quotes, as he says it much better than I could.

On prayer:

“I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted, or dispersed. In order to pray, I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; more attention to God than to my clamoring ego. Usually, for that to happen there must be a deliberate withdrawal from the noise of the day, a disciplined detachment from the insatiable self.”

On preaching (which I think his words can apply to ministry of any kind):

“I want to speak the word of God that is Scripture in the language and rhythms of the people I live with. I want to know the Scriptures thoroughly, personally, intimately; and then be able to say them again to the people around me….I need a drenching in Scripture; I require an immersion in biblical studies. I need reflective hours over the pages of Scripture as well as personal struggles with the meaning of Scripture.”

On listening:

“Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s for only five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time. Only in that ambience of leisure do persons know they are listened to with absolute seriousness, treated with dignity and importance. Speaking to people does not have the same personal intensity as listening to people. The question I put to myself is not “How many people have you spoken to about Christ this week?” but “How many people have you listened to in Christ this week?”

Similarly to the podcast on deep work, Peterson recommends adding time for these things into your schedule. When someone asks you to do something that would take time away from these things, he recommends saying, “My appointment calendar will not permit it.” I like that strategy. No one has to know what exactly is in your calendar.

I have more thoughts on how this intersects with living with pain, fatigue, and illness. I won’t get into that now. For now, I’m just contemplating all of this. What about you – what do you think?

2 Comments

  1. Esther, thank you for this post. I have been contemplating the same thoughts for a little while & you have encouraged me to not allow my deep reading times to be swallowed up. I founded & administer an online support group for people with complex/chronic disease & I spend so much of my day on social media as a result. This work is my calling & I love it but I need to be renewed too & deep reading & quiet time without my phone, just with God, will allow me to be more equipped to serve others. Thank you xx

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