Poet Mary Oliver writes, “The real prayers are not the words, but the attention that comes first.” Philosopher Walter Benjamin expresses a similar sentiment. “Attention,” he says, “is the natural prayer of the soul.” Either the poet or the philosopher may sound scandalous, but they raise valid points. How often are prayers spoken by rote? How many times has God seemed distant or absent? Could the issue be, not the words spoken to God—although those are important—but the attention given to Him?
Attention, though, tends to be a scarce resource today. It might as well be water in the Sahara: critical to life, yet difficult to find. Harriet Griffey, reporting on distraction in the digital age for The Guardian, says:
By adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behaviour, we exist in a constant state of alertness that scans the world but never really gives our full attention to anything. In the short term, we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in. (emphasis added)
Research confirms Griffey’s findings and confronts us with a paradox: we might not actually be “busy.” Rather, we feel busier and subsequently less able to pay attention for protracted periods of time. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2019 Time Use Survey reports Americans spend approximately 3.61 hours on work per day—in contrast to 5.19 hours on leisure and 9.62 hours on personal care per day. What’s going on? Why do we subjectively feel busier when we’re objectively not?
Some of the feeling “too busy to pay attention” phenomenon likely rests with our digital devices, as Griffey suggests. According to Pew Research, technology seems to be having “a mixed impact on American workers. Over a third of employed Americans (39%) say technology has generally made their work more demanding, while 29% say it has made their work less demanding.” In addition, three-in-ten Americans say the amount of information needed to make an informed decision produces stress.
Another culprit may be viewing busyness as a status symbol. The Journal of Consumer Research (JCH) tested the hypothesis with analysis and control groups. First, they analyzed celebrity tweets for “humblebrags.” Of those, 12 percent concerned being so busy that the celebrity “had no life” or needed a vacation. Second, they created a fictitious Facebook user who posted about working nonstop and leisure time. When JCH asked their control group how they perceived the Facebook user, the group associated posts about busyness with higher status and income than with posts about leisure. (Interestingly, this perspective isn’t always shared in other cultures; Italians, for instance associate leisure with higher status and income.)
And of course, some of us are busy. We may work multiple jobs to pay bills and provide for our daily needs. Or maybe we’re full-time employees and parents. Perhaps we care for an aging parent alongside our work and family responsibilities. Even so, it can be helpful to ask—really ask—if we’re as busy as we think we are. Then, we ought to consider how we can pay more attention, not only to God but also to the people we love and the leisure activities we enjoy. To do that, consider embracing the following five practices:
For the next week, keep a daily log of how you spend downtime. What do you do when you have minutes to spare? Don’t try to be “good” during these days; focus on your natural tendencies. If you discover some facts you don’t particularly like—doomscrolling, for example—don’t judge yourself for them. The goal of this examination is better understanding of yourself and your relationship with time. At the end of the week ask, “How could I use my ‘lost minutes’ to pay attention to God’s presence?” and “How could I use idle moments to grow into the person God has created me to be?”
Some of us likely want to pray more each day, or at least more often. But we make a mistake. Maybe the thought drifts away as we think of all the tasks for this day. Or maybe we decide we’ll pray for 30 minutes each morning. The former lacks active intent; we might have felt convicted or emotional about praying more, but we didn’t do anything in response. The latter fates us to failure before we even start. Trying to pray for any length of time when we haven’t been praying regularly is like deciding to run five miles when we haven’t run one. When it comes to prayer—areally, any spiritual discipline—we ought to follow the tortoise. Pray for five minutes, and, once that becomes a reliable habit, pray for five minutes more.
With this practice, read a psalm in a print Bible. Social media, email, and other online activities train us to skim, scan, and scroll for the “soundbite,” the preposterous, the action item, the useful. Over time, our brains begin to associate screens with scrolling and responding. This approach may work for some activities, though it’s questionable, but it’s ruinous for reading deeply. To read anything deeply requires deep focus, perhaps especially when reading the Bible. We go to the Bible to know God, to develop a strong relationship with Him. And relationships require time and devoted attention.
If spending unseemly amounts of time on screens fragments our attention, one way to recover it is to sit silently for five minutes. Silence can be uncomfortable, especially in a go-go-go world. But it is essential. It forces us to slow down, invites us to listen, and restores our spirits. In silence, we might finally hear our own thoughts and desires. And in silence, we might hear God whispering to draw closer to Him.
When we’re busy, objectively or subjectively, we can lose our sense of the rhythms God has set—in nature and in ourselves. Finding them again requires slowing down and paying attention. Going on observation walks every day or once a week can teach us to regard the world around us with newfound wonder.
Maybe we are busy, but are we too busy to pay attention to God? If that’s the case, maybe we need to reevaluate how we spend our days. Maybe we need to resist our screens’ magnetism and challenge our assumptions about busyness. And maybe, if we do those things, we will discover we have more capacity to pay attention to God and this beautiful world He has created than we think.