the shape of leadership

Habits of the Tech-Wise Heart

Using technology for the good of your soul

Justin Earley on November 7, 2018

Leonardo da Vinci began painting tiny brushstrokes on a piece of poplar wood in 1503. It took 14 years and hundreds of thousands of brushstrokes for that piece of poplar wood to become the “Mona Lisa.” Experts are still X-raying this masterpiece to figure out how da Vinci painted brushstrokes smaller than the head of a pin.

Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham on a bet with his publisher that he couldn’t write a book with only 50 unique words. He not only won the bet, he wrote a children’s classic.

What do the “Mona Lisa,” Green Eggs and Ham, and our habits of technology have in common? It’s this: Some of the most profound and enduring things in life are the products of tiny acts of persistence and self-imposed limitations.

Our lives bear the marks of thousands of little habits. Recent research suggests that nearly 40 percent of our daily actions aren’t really choices. They are just habits. Little pin dots in your life you never notice — until they aggregate over time.

Habits are the things we do over and over without ever thinking about them. We never notice them, but because these habits are the tiny strokes that make up the painting of our lives, we are a product of our habits. They form who we are.

Nowhere is this more important than in our habits of technology.

Our unconscious interaction with technology now occupies enormous amounts of our time and ever-widening spheres of our lives. We pay very little attention to the very thing that is shaping vast portions of who we are. This is true across the leadership spectrum.

Ministers hope to change people but end up spending more time posting on Facebook than meeting with mentees. Newcomers to church are seeking changed lives but end up finding they are too busy for a small group (even though they manage to fit in about 10 hours of Netflix a week). We are terribly concerned about the impacts of an increasingly secular culture, but the smartphone is discipling more Americans than secularism ever will, because the smartphone inhabits the world of habit.

Here’s the point: If we want to be people who are becoming more like Jesus in our love for God and neighbor, we must pay close attention to the pattern of technology habits occurring in the background of our lives. Because our habits of technology are discipling us.

How Habits Converted a Missionary

I fell upon this wisdom (emphasis on the word “fell”) rather spectacularly after making a career transition to become a corporate lawyer.

I was a missionary in Northern Asia until a dramatic moment changed my calling. That day, within the same five minutes, I saw four illegal things happen on a street in a major urban city: a black-market theft, a drug deal, prostitution and a political protest. You can guess which one resulted in an immediate arrest.

It was the day I realized that institutions of law and economics shape moral outcomes, and I decided I wanted to be a missionary to that. I wanted to work to bring the gospel of Jesus to bear on the institutions of culture. So, the next week I began applying to law and business schools.

As I worked my way through law school, I did so with a deep sense of calling. I would have gotten an A+ in articulating what God was calling me to do, but I would have gotten an F in how I should go about it. This is true of many of us; our hearts are in one place, but our habits are in another. But it is never long before one follows the other.

Looking back on my time in law school and the beginning of my law career, I now see that my habits of work and technology were just the same as all the other top law school students. They weren’t forming me into someone who was on a mission. They were deforming me into someone who thought he had no limits.

The lack of limits around technology were especially important. Here are some examples of my habits at that time:

  • Check my work emails in bed, as soon as my eyes open. (I didn’t want to disappoint anyone in the office by making them wait. I needed their approval to feel good about myself. This habit was training me to look to work, instead of God, for love.)
  • Always keep my phone alerts on and in sight while I work. (I worried that to miss a news alert would mean I wasn’t engaged with the world. This habit was training me to think that the most urgent thing was the most important thing.)
  • Always accept a new opportunity or project. (My knee-jerk reaction was always to say “yes.” This habit was training me to think that my future depended entirely on my choices, not God’s direction, so I could never cut off options.)

Here’s the point: Like most Americans, I never thought about any of this as a “spiritual” part of life. I just swam in the waters of the cultural stream. I didn’t realize all these habits were shaping my soul until it was too late.

Early in my career, I collapsed. I suddenly began to have inexplicable panic attacks and terrible insomnia. I began relying on sleeping pills just to try to turn off my mind. I hit my low point one night when my wife handed me some dishes to put away, and I looked at her and said, “I don’t know where these go.” My mind was falling apart.

I knew in my head the gospel of peace, but my heart was somewhere entirely different. How unfortunately ironic that it was the missionary who became converted — to the lifestyle of a medicating lawyer.

The Heart Follows the Habits

I thought long and hard about what was happening to me. During this time, my wife and some dear friends stayed really close to help me figure this out. Together, we began to wonder whether my habits were forming my life more than the things I was saying to myself and others.

I have a high level of respect for words and worldviews, which is why I think it took me longer than most to realize you can say all the right things about what you believe, but true belief forms as a result of not only what you say but what you act out. Your daily rituals say as much or more about what your heart really believes than your mouth does. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8).

Our hearts aren’t just a product of our words. When our words and our habits drift apart, our heart is in the middle getting tugged one way or the other. Most times, as in my case, the heart follows the habits because habits are where the real worship is happening.

I never really considered that my habits were spiritual disciplines of the worship of something. I never heard a Sunday School lesson on daily schedules and habits of technology, so I thought they were neutral. As it turns out, these things were little odes of worship to the idol of myself — ways of worshipping my own idol of busyness because it made me feel important. In the end, as the Psalmist says, those who make and trust in idols will become like them (Psalm 115:8). I eventually became the chaos of my habits.

When I was at my low point, my wife and my friends worked with me on a daily and weekly pattern of new habits that pointed me in the direction of purpose instead of chaos. At the time, it was just one more thing to try — alongside counseling and medication.

In the end, it was the only thing that worked. The impact was extraordinary. I had no idea how much these little habits were forming my soul in such deep ways.

New Habits for Technology

All of these new habits were small, but like da Vinci with his “Mona Lisa,” I found that doing small things over and over began to create a masterpiece of renewal. Many of them limited the ways I was using technology. But like Dr. Seuss with Green Eggs and Ham, I discovered that great things can come from limitations.

Most importantly, adopting these habits made me slowly realize how much of my life I was living out as a slave to technology. I found that small disciplines in the end led to enormous freedom.

I am now convinced that every Christian in America needs to reconsider their habits of technology, and I’m writing a book on some ways to do that. Below are four of the habits that have helped me a lot. Two of them are daily habits, and two are weekly habits.

Daily Habit 1: Scripture Before Phone

Before my anxiety collapse, I started each day in a morning ritual of work emails from bed. When my eyes opened, the first thing I asked was, “What do I need to do today?” This is an incredibly formative habit. Most of us — because of the smartphone — now wake up thinking about what we need to do to justify our existence in the world, and that forms what we believe about ourselves.

But the gospel says we don’t need to earn love; God loves us no matter what we do. It’s hard to believe that when every day our hearts are looking for signs of love on a screen.

The problem of the smartphone is the problem of presence, which is a problem of the soul.

It might not be work emails for you. For a lot of people, it’s waking up to social media. We lay in bed for a couple of minutes every morning, browsing other people’s lives or checking on our “likes” or “retweets.” Or maybe it’s news: We wake up checking in on what’s wrong with the world and what’s worth being angry about.

Beginning the day with these rituals may have tiny impacts on our time, but they have massive impacts on our hearts.

After my anxiety collapse, I began a new habit: I promised myself I wouldn’t look at my phone until after I read Scripture. Unlike work emails, Scripture is telling me that Christ’s work — not my work — justifies me. Unlike the morning news, Scripture is telling me because of Jesus, things are going to be OK, and I can be at peace today. Unlike social media, Scripture is telling me that God loves me even when I don’t have it all together.

How to start: For most people, this is a small but radical shift. Even if you use your phone as your alarm clock, turn it off and spend the first 15 minutes of the morning without it. In that space, start simple. Just read a Psalm. If you have more time, spend an hour in study — but without your phone around.

Beginning the day in Scripture rather than on your phone is a small habit, and it takes a couple of weeks to establish the new routine, but there is no more important spiritual discipline for the brave new world of technology.

Weekly Habit 1: One Hour of Face-to-Face Conversation With a Friend

One of the most touted concerns of our current engagement with technology is what it is doing to our relationships. Sherry Turkle brought this debate to the forefront with her 2001 book Alone Together, and the concern has only intensified. Just this year, the University of Virginia released a report that began with, “You may suspect this instinctively, but we’ve got the hard research to back it up ... .”

Sure enough, their findings that the presence of phones at dinner tables with friends or on family trips diminished the happiness and meaningfulness of the experience. We are forgetting how to have real relationships.

We know from the biblical story that God designed us to enjoy real relationships with other people. Adam, after all, was lonely in the Garden of Eden (even though he was with God) until God gave him Eve. This is because God made Adam that way! God created us in His image — the image of a communal, triune God. He designed us for friendship.

The habit of insisting on one hour a week of meaningful, uninterrupted, face-to-face conversation is one way to recover the building blocks of friendship through habit. It is also one way to build a gospel practice into our regular weekly rhythm.

What is the gospel except that Jesus knows us fully but loves us anyway? What is a friend except someone who knows you fully and says, “I’m sticking around anyway”? True Christian friendships not only become the pillars of church community, but they also become one way we embody the truth of the gospel to each other, week after week.

How to start: This habit comes in many forms, from weekend evenings on the back porch to early mornings of coffee, but it is the idea of recovering conversation as a norm that is the desperately needed antidote to the modern epidemic of busied loneliness. My friend Steve and I have a standing coffee meeting every Thursday morning.

If there’s someone in your life you always wish to see more, ask that person to try this habit with you for a month. If you’re in a small group, try breaking down in pairs or in threes and meeting one morning every week for a month. Start with just asking one another some questions or sharing stories, and let conversation grow from there. 

Daily Habit 2: Turn off Your Phone for One Hour a Day

Presence is at the heart of the biblical story. God made us to live in His presence, and the problem of sin is that it separated us from the presence of God. Jesus saves us by absolving us of our sin so that we can once again enter the presence of God. This is the promise of heaven: God’s continual, uninterrupted presence. God made us for presence.

The problem of phones is not simply distraction, which is a problem of the mind. The problem of the smartphone is the problem of presence, which is a problem of the soul.

One of the ways our phones have convinced us that we can transcend our limits is that we now — by habit — try to talk to multiple people at once. We try to be multiple places at once. Of course, the result of trying to be so many places at once is that we end up nowhere at all.

Committing to turn off our phone for one hour a day is a great way to turn presence into a habit. This might be applicable to work, where you turn off your phone to focus on a problem and create the space to think of creative solutions. This could be with family, where you turn off the phone to recover the beauty of slow, uninterrupted presence with one another.

This has enormous application to our prayer and meditation lives. Reading the Bible on our phones, or reading the Bible with our phones sitting on the table, is very different than studying and praying with the phone off and away. There is a kind of presence that can only come by removing the threat of distraction, and this kind of presence is at the heart of spiritual disciplines.

How to start: Try turning off your phone the hour you end the workday. If that’s dinner time, leave your phone off and upstairs so you can be fully present at the table. If that’s the evening, leave your phone on the key table and spend an hour doing something else. Try this for at least two weeks straight. Whether it is for relationships or silence, turning off our phones as a habit clears the way for the presence God designed us to experience.

Weekly Habit 2: Curate Media to Four Hours a Week or Less

There may be no more important modern battle of spiritual formation to fight than to push back on how the constant stream of media is forming the regular American — the regular Christian included. Media is now the great cultural assimilator.

Nothing shapes us like stories. No Sunday School lesson will ever have the power of a well-told story to shape our vision of what the good life is. Stories tap into who we are because they tap into the fact that we live in a larger story, where good and evil really are fighting, and where the hero Jesus really will save the day.

Many of the stories we encounter are either specifically designed to provide a different vision of the good life, or to get us to watch more stories. The reason so many stories come at us now — from news to advertisements to television series — is that they make money.

Marketers and news stations know the best way to capture our attention is to start telling a story. Like dogs to a tennis ball, suddenly we’re unable to think about anything else but seeing where that story goes. There is enormous incentive just to keep us watching, but there are also enormous consequences for us.

Notice I’m not framing the habit here as “limiting” media intake to four hours a week. It is “curating” media intake. In fact, if I am honest, the four-hour part is arbitrary. The point is not that less is more, per se. The point is that we are now in the habit of watching anything from anywhere, anytime, without regard to how that kind of life shapes us into sedentary consumers.

But limits produce wonderful things. When you have to choose your media from a limited selection, you tend to pick carefully, and with purpose.

How to start: Pick an hour limit that is an appropriate challenge for you, and commit to trying it for a month. Pay attention to what you pick and why. Media can be restful, but it can be lazy. It might be community creating, or it might be isolating. It might be needless violence, or it might be opening your eyes to an area of brokenness in the world. But at least now, by choosing and curating, you are paying attention to what is forming you.

The habit of curating media is a way for Christians to resist — as Paul said in Romans 12:2 — conforming to the pattern of this world, so they can instead allow God to transform them by the renewing of their minds. Formation is at stake in the constant stream of media. And without curation, without getting our minds involved in what we carefully choose to watch, we will simply assimilate; we will conform.

Limits Will Set You Free

As the story goes, Dr. Seuss never collected on the bet. Of course, the book went on to sell more than 8 million copies, so he didn’t really need the money. Something extraordinary came out of an arbitrary limitation.

When I write or talk about habits as the engine of spiritual formation, people often ask whether these kinds of habits are overwhelming or constricting. I tell them, “Here is what’s overwhelming: doing nothing. Here is what is enslaving: not thinking about how you use technology.”

Conforming to the usual pattern of modern technological habits virtually guarantees the lingering sense of loneliness, the persistent fog of depression, the unexplainable anxiety, and the crushing sense that you have no time, that you are just busy. What is exhausting is living with unexamined habits. What is enslaving is living like you have no limits.

But Jesus’ burden is light. He is the good Master. Yes, it takes work to create new habits. But when those habits push you toward becoming more like Jesus, they become the limits that set you free.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 edition of Influence magazine.

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