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Dealing with Digital Distractions

A few nights ago, I was sitting with some of the teenagers in my youth ministry at our monthly Family Night Supper. During the course of conversation, I observed that every one of us, including myself, had our smart phones sitting on the table and occasionally, one of us would pick up our phone, check something, then set it back down on the table. Probably in the grand scheme of things, it was not that big of a deal because we were having good conversation. In reflecting back on that moment, however, I began to wonder how fully present we were at that table, and more importantly, how fully present I was in that conversation.
I love my smartphone. It has been a great asset in ministry as I’m able to contact people by phone or text, send emails, keep up with parishioners through Facebook and other forms of social media. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering how much it has been a distraction to both my work and personal life, as there have been a few times when I’ve been busted for not being fully present because I was distracted by my phone. It seems to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, as ministers, we should be accessible to our congregation, which is why we may fight the urge to just cut the phone off or put it in another room. After all, what if a crisis situation pops up that needs our pastoral care skills? On the other hand, we end up with basically the world being able to access us, which leads to the questions, “Are we always on?” And, “Are we ever off?” On top of that, I find myself using my phone as an escape from potential stressful situations, yet I find being on my phone stressful at the same time, and in the end, I feel horrible for time I’ve taken away from more important things.
Recently, I watched a TEDx talk by productivity expert Mike Williams about how our phones cause us to be distracted, overwhelmed, and anxiety producing, and this was by design by app makers in order to make us to spend time in apps. You can watch the talk yourself for more details, but he offers three suggestions on how to reduce distractions and time-wasting, along with reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed and anxiety when we pull out our smartphones.
First, change the wallpaper on your phone to something that inspires you or brings you joy. To the right is a picture of my home screen. Currently, it’s a photo looking across the World Showcase Lake at Epcot that I took on my family’s recent trip to Disney. Looking at this photo when I pull up my phone brings a sense of calmness to my life and reminds me of the great time I had on vacation.
Second, make the default or first screen on your phone a blank page, thus moving the first page of apps to the second screen. You can see what I have done here. By doing this, it forces me to be intentional about what I want to do on my phone when I pick it up instead of pulling up any app that grabs my attention and can waste my time. Most of the time now, instead of scrolling through the approximately 200 apps on my phone, I do a search for the one app I need to get to so that I avoid the temptation of wasting time with other apps.
Third, turn off all notifications, then turn on as many as you need and as few as you get by with. This is the main key to avoid being distracted. The only notifications I have sounds and vibrations turned on are for phone calls and text messages. Everything else requires me to check an app at my convenience. Also, I turned off the red badges on apps because I found them to be anxiety producing.
By doing these three steps, you can eliminate a lot of distractions, take back control of your phone, and most importantly, find time to be off so that you can rest, recharge, and work on your relationship with God.
These thoughts above are from Rev. Richard Wood, our partner in ministry for youth, children and social media ministry. He is an associate pastor in Sanford, North Carolina. You can follow up with him to continue this discussion or get some more tips at 919-888-2199 or

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