Are you satisfied with your performance at work?
(If you’re leaning towards “yes,” wouldn’t you love to do even better? There’s always room for improvement, right?)
There are probably a lot of things we would like to do better or more efficiently in the workplace. Improvement only comes by deliberate practice and investment in deep, focused work. None of us will wake up tomorrow and simply be more effective in our jobs without the appropriate sort of effort.
This is true of the work world as well as our spiritual walks. Just as developing oneself professionally takes the ability to do deep work, so does developing oneself spiritually. Effectively practicing spiritual disciplines – just like learning, developing, and honing a new skill on the job – requires intentional focus.
Deep Work, Deep Discipline
Take prayer, for example. From incoming text messages to children or a spouse asking questions, even fleeting thoughts and reminders of what the day holds – distractions and interruptions of many (and any) forms can be detrimental to times of prayer.
In his newest book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport discusses the value of deeply focused stretches of work as well as practical strategies for integrating such practices into one’s life.
For Newport, “deep work” relies on “a state of distraction-free concentration that push[es] your cognitive abilities to the limit.” Such efforts “create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Recognizing that each individual’s life circumstances, goals, and priorities are unique, he does not expect everyone to fit into a one-size-fits-all box. While the underlying values of deep work remain consistent, the means of outworking are various and adaptable.
Moreover, whether his readers’ goals are professional or personal, Newport’s strategies are transferable and customizable to myriad situations.
The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Spiritual Discipline
One strategy in particular, which Newport terms the “Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work,” is particularly relevant and accessible to those desiring to develop spiritual disciplines.
This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.
Habits are powerful. One of the keys to successfully integrating a new spiritual discipline into your life (or to better integrating one that is already present) is forming intentional, profitable habits.
Merely desiring to spend uninterrupted time each day fostering a particular discipline is not enough to consistently bear fruit. It is the pairing of that desire with a customized rhythm to suit your lifestyle needs (and living it out) that will bring forth desired growth.
Newport provides two practical suggestions for integrating the “Rhythmic Philosophy”:
Use a Visual Aid
This can be a simple reminder or something that motivates you. Some folks utilizing a rhythmic philosophy of deep work enjoy tallying days or marking them off on a calendar. Think of a child counting down the days until Christmas or a bride the days until her wedding. Those big X’s strung across a calendar create a powerful visual cue.
In terms of tracking progress in a discipline, this sort of marker visually displays how many consecutive days you were engaged in your spiritual discipline, thus motivating you not to break the chain with a visual cue.
Eliminate Scheduling Barriers
Make decisions ahead of time regarding when you will practice a given spiritual discipline.
Just like making tomorrow’s brown bag lunch before you go to bed or setting out the next day’s outfit, such predetermined choices eliminate the need for in-the-moment decisions, where the “battle” becomes more difficult.
Setting your alarm for 5:15 a.m., knowing that those forty-five minutes before your spouse rises will be spent in silence and solitude, will prove far more effective than trying to steal away “when the opportunity presents itself” (which, as we all know, it rarely does).
If improvement in the sphere of work requires dogmatic, protected stretches of deeply focused work, we ought not to consider progress in spiritual disciplines to be any exception. Neither the setting nor the telos of desired life improvement determine the necessity of focus. Rather, it is the nature of the human mind – its hindrance from distractions and the powerful impact of habits—that show the need for and value of deep work.
While spiritual disciplines certainly can (and should) be integrated into the whole of your day, some disciplines require undistracted solitude. Whether you want to grow in intercessory prayer, study of the Bible, silence and solitude, lectio divina, journaling, or practicing the Examen, it is the setting aside and guarding of time for intentional focus that will bring forth consistent fruit.