The Greatest Enemy of a Leader

(and what to do about it)


Several months ago I listened to a fascinating podcast interview on the importance of focused work. The leader being interviewed said one of the greatest enemies of leaders today was distraction. I stopped to listen more intently—this was not the answer I was expecting him to say. He went on to share that our phones are the single greatest factor to distraction in the life of a leader.

Image Source: @NYTimes

Image Source: @NYTimes

As I’ve reflected on this countless times since I heard it, I’m convinced screens are not inherently bad; what is bad is our lack of thoughtful engagement with them. When we find ourselves regularly on our phones, we hardly stop to consider questions such as: 

  • Why am I doing this? What is my motivation?

  • Does what I am doing on, or with, my phone align with my most important goals and purposes?

  • Do I really need to be on my phone right now? 

I am not a Luddite, I assure you. I have an iPhone, an iPad and a laptop. Technology is important and helps us to be better leaders. I struggle to imagine what it would be like to be off my screens for a few days at a time. And yet, I’ve been working intentionally toward thoughtful engagement with my screens (especially my phone) over the past several months. I’m far from perfect (ask my family) but I am making strides in seeing my time freed up, my mental energy higher, my time more aligned with my ultimate goals, and my presence—whether it be with people or projects—be fuller and more meaningful. I’ve learned that choosing to be intentionally disconnected for a focused period of time has truly made me a better, more focused, more productive, and more present leader.

When it comes to being distracted by my screens, I’ve engaged with these 10 practices, and I’d love to share them with you. Summer can be a great time to try out some of these practices, as the rhythms are unique and the pace can oftentimes be one or two gears lower than during the school year.

10 spiritual practices that help me defeat the enemy of distraction:

  • No notifications: other than phone calls and text messages, I literally have no news, social media or other app notifications popping up on my screen. (I admit: it’s been glorious).

  • No social media on my phone: I have deleted all “infinity apps” — those apps where you can scroll and never get to the bottom. Specifically, I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone (and use them only on my laptop). And, a few years ago, I did what I thought was a radical thing: I deleted my Instagram account entirely. Then I found out it wasn’t radical—it was relieving. 

  • A 15 minute daily limit for social media: Social media is good and I enjoy regular interaction with Twitter and Facebook. Seeing that I only use my laptop for social media, I’d get frustrated when I would pop on for a just a moment to check Twitter and then find myself over an hour later watching cat videos or NBA highlights from 1984 on YouTube and think, “What the heck… how did I end up here and what am I doing?” So I installed a free program called StayFocusd (intentionally misspelled). I put in the settings to have a maximum of 15 minutes a day. When I use the 15 minutes up on social media, it locks me out until the next calendar day. At first, this was a bit adjustment (I found 15 minutes goes by much quicker than I imagined), but it was good for me as I got back on track and stopped wasting my time. 

  • Always keep my phone on vibrate: I never have my phone on ring mode; only vibrate. This little thing has helped me in a big way: I’m calmer. I know it’s small, but it’s one less sound I have to hear in an already noisy world. 

  • Occasional social media fasts: Even with limitations on my phone, I still fast entirely from social media (sometimes for a few days, sometimes for Lent, for example). It reminds me social media is good, but not as good as I am sometimes tempted to believe. 

  • Use airplane mode frequently (even when I am not on an airplane): When I am in a meeting and want to be fully present or I am trying to prepare a teaching or think creatively about a project, I use airplane mode and then put my phone across the room so I can’t simply reach for it easily. It’s only airplane mode for at least an hour off every day, sometimes more. 

  • Scripture before phone: I read this phrase in Justin Whitmel Earley’s book The Common Rule. This book has had a huge impact on me in how I structure my days and weeks. It’s help me be more present to God and others and has grounded me, especially in frenetic and intensely full seasons. By adhering to the “scripture before phone” rule, I find I reach for my Bible first thing in the morning rather than my phone. Email can wait. 

  • Leave my phone downstairs: as simple as it sounds, just leaving my phone downstairs has been tremendously helpful. Instead of reaching in my pocket or leaving it within a convenient arm’s reach on my nightstand, I have to put it physically out my vicinity so if I really need it I have to make some effort to get up and go get it. Simple, I know, but it works for me. 

  • Intentionally “forgetting” my phone: I find when I go for a walk or run an errand I am “forgetting” my phone at home more and more often. I realize I really don’t need it as often as I think I do. Even when I meet a leader for a meeting or for lunch, I leave in the console of my car. 

  • Downloading the Moment app: I stumbled across a free app called Moment about a year ago. Moment tracks the amount of times you pick up your phone, as well as the amount of minutes you spend on it. It’s really helped me realize I spend more time looking at that little glowing rectangular screen than I ever realized (and sometimes my numbers are somewhat embarrassing). Being aware of the amount of time I spend helps me be that much more cognizant of its presence in my life and I often play a game with myself: can I pick the phone a little bit less and can I spend less time on it than I did yesterday? 

In all of this thoughtful technological engagement, I recommend reading Andy Crouch’s book The Tech-Wise Family. It’s not a long book, but oh, it is thoughtful and important. Many of the ideas and practices I engage in with my screens were generated by reading this book. 

Again, this is not about legalism or sucking the enjoyment or functionality out of our phones. Not at all. We should use them -- and use them well. I just need to instill thoughtful practices to help make sure I am using engaging with my screens purposefully and not idly wasting time on things that truly don’t matter or don’t align with my values and practices as a leader in my daily life. 

Challenge:

You don’t have to try all or even most of what I do. But I challenge you: try one or two and see what happens. And, if you have intentional and thoughtful practices you engage in in order to be focused with your screens as a leader, leave a comment below, or drop me a line and let me know and we can share them in future emails we put out.