The tyranny of the distracting.

My friend Richard and I were talking about our lives. We were talking about being better stewards of our time and our attention. You know the conversation. You’ve had it too.

He said, “It’s not so much the tyranny of the urgent. It’s the tyranny of the distracting.”

The Tyranny of the Urgent is an old booklet by Charles Hummel. The premise is simple. Urgent is not the same as important. But we allows ourselves to be so driven by the urgent because it is so, well, urgent, that we don’t get to the important. For Hummel, this isn’t just about time management. It’s an opportunity to learn from the way Jesus lived his life. How is it, Hummel wonders, that Jesus can get to the night before he died and say “I have finished the work You gave me to do” (John 17:4)?

In this short document, Hummel identifies three simple strategies. Like Jesus, talk to God daily for his agenda. Like the disciples, pay attention to Jesus’ words. And regularly review (daily, weekly, monthly) what God’s asking and how we’re doing.

What was so compelling about Richard’s statement was that there is much in my life that isn’t urgent. I have space. Our kids are out of the house. My job has much that is important, but big spaces free of the urgent. However, I’m pretty sure that I’m no more focused on the important than I was when our lives were more full of urgency.


Because I allow distractions to dominate my field of vision. I could, of course, spend time talking with God, just like Jesus did. I could spend time reflecting on Jesus’ words, just like the disciples. I could spend time reviewing what I’ve learned.

I will. After I see who retweeted this post.

7 thoughts on “The tyranny of the distracting.

  1. Joanna Paterson

    Well I think your last line captures it perfectly… your work, at least part of your work, is exploring ways to pass on quiet truths, and listening spaces, and words of hope… within a rampaging torrent of distractions. It’s kind of inevitable you’ll get distracted along the way… and if you didn’t ever get distracted, or understand what that was like… you wouldn’t be able to connect with those in the torrent.

    I guess this challenge has been similar but different all along the way…


    1. Jon Swanson

      in the last hour or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about this post and point, Joanna. I realize that twitter isn’t the problem any more than whatever it’s 17th century predecessor was for the chaplain of whatever it was. The challenge is a choice between entertainment and engagement. I can allow the flow of updates to ‘entertain’ me, to use it to distract me from having to think about what needs must be thought about. On the other hand, and I saw this clearly this morning, I could stick a cup of coffee in one of the outstretched hands in that torrent. And the flood of distraction becomes a backdrop for the conversation with a friend.

      And you are right. It’s easy for people who have never been in the situation to offer 3 easy steps. Which are never easy. Nor are there only 3.


  2. Rich Dixon

    It’s good that you point this out. It’s good to acknowledge that you can do better. That’s what leaders do.

    But you also know that you’ve been doing this for many of us for a long time in 300-word chunks, right? You hold up the sign imperfectly but faithfully.


  3. Mimi Meredith

    I love the challenge to be a better steward of my attention.

    I believe I will be better equipped to banish some of the worries that distract me when I frame it in terms of whether the worries receiving my attention are equipping me to be a better servant. And I think the simple strategies of mindfully connecting with God, with Jesus and evaluating our progress are going to be a huge help to me.

    Thank you for planting these seeds today, Jon. I was prompted to move away from my monitor (which is a big deviation for me in my “productive” time of the morning) and pick up my Disciplines daily devotion book and my Bible. I had to read today’s passages twice, because I realized the first time I wasn’t really paying attention.


  4. Pingback: Imperfectly, Faithfully | Confident Writing

Comments are closed