Monday, April 3, 2017

Finding focus in a world of distractions

Several years ago, I purchased some juggling balls along with an instruction booklet. Maybe I thought if I actually learned how to juggle, I could transfer the skill to help me focus on all that requires my attention.

We live in a world of distractions. Despite our best efforts to stay on course, an onslaught of diversions can halt our progress. Sometimes these diversions are beyond our control, such as emergencies or family needs; sometimes it’s the nature of our work and we must multitask as we carry out our responsibilities and tasks.

As much as I try to designate specific time for writing, my sentences are often paused in mid-thought so that I can respond to a request or tend to another matter. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Some days feel like a game of tug of war.

My natural tendency to chase butterflies, or rather lose focus easily, does not help. To compensate requires some strategies to keep my attention where needed. The Lenten Season provides some helpful resources, as does the Easter Season. 

Four years ago, I completed an online spiritual retreat, “An Ignatian Prayer Adventure,” based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The eight-week retreat asked participants “to commit to a regular period of prayer each day.”

Given that once the phone starts ringing before I even enter the office, my days lean toward the unpredictable. To avoid any interruptions, I made it a point to wake up an hour earlier during this time and set some other parameters in place to ensure my concentration. This experience invigorated me. By the time I left home, I felt accomplished, and this motivated me further to stay on course.

Part of the spiritual exercise called for taking note of the attachments in our lives. St. Ignatius referred to the things that keep us from God as “disordered attachments.” The constant distractions in our days can fall in this category.

Technology and social media feed our short attention spans. I know I am not the only one guilty of planning to spend only 10 minutes checking Facebook or Twitter. Then half an hour or even an hour later, we look up and suddenly realize how much time has passed.

Recognizing what attachments or addictions keep us from God and from other priorities in our life is a step toward making changes. From time to time, for example, I completely disconnect from social media. Sometimes for just a day or a weekend, sometimes for longer periods. As for the notification alerts, I keep those off at all times to avoid the distraction. Netflix is another temptation I have to limit. If I’m not careful, it’s too easy to binge-watch yet another series I find interesting. Shifting our focus from unhealthy distractions gives us more time to assist someone who needs our help or to concentrate on a project that requires our attention.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the 1992 Nobel Prize winner from Guatemala, spoke in March at a women’s conference, “Mujeres Formadoras de Paz” in Reynosa. I am thankful Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, attended the conference and recorded some of her talk.

Menchú’s talk has a number of points I plan to revisit. Two points resonate: First, she stressed the need for organization and clear goals and objectives. “Good intentions alone do not change things,” she said. Second, she advised women to distance themselves from vice, which keeps us from moving in the direction of our goals.

In this world of distractions, we can take steps to find focus. We can start by being intentional. This does require us to pause from the busyness of our day and find some quiet to concentrate. Turning to prayer has become my priority in this process. We can then proceed to making choices about what matters most as we set our goals for our faith life, families, vocations and health. Periodically we also need to pause, consider our progress, evaluate what changes may be needed.

The Daily Examen offered by St. Ignatius is another helpful practice. It includes five steps: 1. Become aware of God’s presence. 2. Review the day with gratitude. 3. Pay attention to your emotions. 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. 5. Look toward tomorrow. More resources are available online at
As for the juggling balls, I never devoted enough time to learn how to juggle. I am thankful, though, that I did learn how to focus when needed.

(Originally published in April 2017 edition of The Valley Catholic newspaper) 

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