Our weak willpower and the Sabbath

I’ve just read a productivity book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s not a Christian book, but, as Christians, I’m all for “plundering the Egyptians” now and then i.e. using the benefits of unbelievers’ thinking to live for Christ. In the course of his argument, the writer inadvertently makes a strong argument for the benefit of keeping the Sabbath.

The basic idea of the book is something called “Deep Work”. This is the ability to focus without distraction on a mentally challenging task. “Deep work” has obvious parallels to the Bible’s idea of meditation (e.g. Psalm 1:2). The author shows both how valuable a skill “Deep Work” is, and how hard it is to do. If you’re anything like me, I suspect you can relate. You can maybe plan to think about a verse from the Bible, but before you know it, your mind is shooting off in different directions – “did I reply to that important email yesterday? What’s for tea? What’s that noise? Maybe I’ll just check the internet…”.

At one point, the writer asks: If “Deep Work” is so valuable, what’s stopping us doing more of it? Why can’t we just decide to do “Deep work”/meditate at 8am on Tuesday morning, or 8pm on Thursday night? He answers that question by pointing to some studies by a German psychologist, Roy Baumeister, who gave 205 adults beepers that activated at random times. When the beeper activated, the person was asked to pause and reflect on their desires in the last 30 minutes and then answer a set of questions. He collected 7,500 samples in one week. On the back of that and other research, Baumeister “established the following important (and at the time, unexpected) truth about willpower: You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it” (p.99-100).

Here’s the practical lesson Cal Newport draws from this, and that I want to steal and apply to Sabbath-keeping:

“Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires. This is why the subjects in the… Baumeister study had such a hard time fighting desires – over time these distractions drained their finite pool of willpower until they could no longer resist. The same will happen to you, regardless of your intentions – unless, that is, you’re smart about your habits.

This brings me to the motivating idea behind the strategies that follow: The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. If you suddenly decide, for example, in the middle of a distracted afternoon spent Web browsing, to switch your attention to a cognitively demanding task, you’ll draw heavily from your finite willpower to wrest your attention away from online shininess. Such attempts therefore frequently fail. On the other hand, if you deployed smart routines and rituals – perhaps a set time and quiet location used for your deep tasks each afternoon – you’d require much less willpower to start and keep going. In the long run, you’d therefore succeed with these deep efforts far more often”. (p.100)

He’s saying that to help us meditate we need “smart routines and rituals”; we need to be “smart about our habits”. Why? Because the power of a ritual is that it decides in advance and for us how we will act, rather than relying on a much harder, spur of the moment decision. This is, by no means, the whole story on Sabbath-keeping, but isn’t it a helpful incentive to establish Sabbath-keeping as a powerful routine in our lives? God himself has given us a ritual of setting aside the Lord’s Day to be with him and his people; he knows we have weak wills, and by getting this pattern set up, we’ll have more will-power left over to actually meditate and draw near to him. The power of the Sabbath ritual in our lives is in deciding ahead of time and on our behalf how we will act on the first day of the week. Rather than relying on how busy we are on Saturday, or how dozy we’re feeling on Sunday afternoons, or how appealing the TV-schedule is looking on Sunday evening, this (God-given) ritual answers the question of what we will and won’t do with our Sundays for us. We’ll, therefore, have more supplies of will-power left-over to seize the opportunities the day affords. In a shallow, distracted world, where we find it hard to concentrate, Cal Newport is showing us that Sabbath-keeping is a much more beneficial habit than we might think.