This is the time of year when we take stock of where we’re at as we look at the past year, assess our progress, and plan for the new year to see where we can improve. We scrutinize our budgets, especially at the Christmas spending season, to analyze what went wrong, and to prevent similar mistakes in the new year.
While we hope to be careful managing our money, we also need to be especially careful about managing our attention. We have only a limited number of attention units. That is why, in an increasing number of places, there are laws that prohibit talking on a cell phone while driving. A person can only truly pay attention to one thing at a time.
We can switch our attention easily between any number of small, menial tasks, but for the big picture jobs, a certain degree of concentration is required. That is why writers go on solitary retreats to focus on their work. Too many distractions make any job more difficult, and cause our tasks to take longer than they should. The brain gets worn down from shifting gears all the time.
This is especially problematic in our society where we are bombarded with demands for our attention. Radio, television, phones, internet, and mp3 players all clamour to be heard as we make our way through the media minefields of the average North American day. The elements of these forms of media have one thing in common: they are all disjointed sequences of mostly unrelated information. One song after another, one television show or commercial after another, one website after another. Who takes the time to think any more?
In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman compares our society to the Brave New World prophesied by Aldous Huxley. In Huxley’s vision, life is one great round of feel-good entertainment and drugs. There is no time to be sad or bored. There is no time to notice that there is no time to think. As Postman points out, “What afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.” Let this be is a warning to us.
Where are the most profitable places to invest our attention units? The apostle Paul gives us some timeless guidelines: “Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things” (Philippians 4:8, NIV). The Lord’s admonition to Joshua is even more specific: “Study this Book of the Law continually. Meditate on it day and night so you may be sure to obey all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8, New Living Translation). This can seem overwhelmingly difficult.
In Psalm 90:12, the psalmist prays, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” As our days are numbered, so are our hours and minutes. But this is no reason to panic. Our times are in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15). God help us to use them wisely.
“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” – Psalms 90:2
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