St. Augustine’s Tips for Knowledge Workers

It is undoubtedly true that modern technologies can keep us from getting our work done. We drown in email, surf the Web endlessly, check in with our social networks, and constantly get interrupted and interrupt ourselves. Today’s digital workplace tools, the ones that are supposed to be making us so much more productive, seem to instead serve up endless diversions from the high road of effective and efficient knowledge work.

This is something new under the sun. Writer W.N Taylor observed a while back that “Temptation rarely comes in working hours. It is in their leisure time that men are made or marred.” He appears to have overlooked office romances, but he had a point. For many of us, the workplace used to contain fewer distractions than other environments.

But not any more. News, sports, video clips, games, chats with family and friends, gossip, shopping, and scores of other temptations are now as close as the nearest screen, and many of us spend most of the day in front of a screen. This is novel and uncharted territory.

Except that it’s not. Temptations have been around as long as people have, and sages have realized that they can actually be good for us. This is because the work of overcoming them and getting back on the high road forces us to confront our weaknesses and learn from them. This work forces us to acquire some self-mastery. It forces us, in short, to grow up.

St. Augustine, one of the great minds and souls of the early Christian church, realized this fact and articulated it with economy and grace. He wrote:

Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations.

I have a colleague who unplugs his wireless routers when he needs to get serious writing done. Another gets up absurdly early and plays white noise through his headphones so he can concentrate. I’m thinking about adopting techniques like these because if I’m not getting enough good work done, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

My friends and coworkers aren’t to blame, nor are the vendors of tempting technologies, nor, certainly, are the technologies themselves. To borrow a turn of phrase from Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make me unproductive without my consent.

The right strategy, surely, is to realize that the distractions and temptations of modern technology are just another set of temptations, and to react to them accordingly. This often means turning away from them or turning them off, at least for large chunks of time, so that real thinking can get done and we don’t spend all our time wading in the shallows.

Why do we find this so hard to do? Is it because today’s technologies are more seductive and addictive than what’s been available before? Because our bosses, customers, and colleagues are more demanding than ever? Because our IQs and coping skills are inferior to those of previous generations?

I don’t think so. I think we find technology hard to resist for the same old simple reason: temptations are hard to resist, and we prefer not to. And here again, Augustine got it exactly right. He distilled the eternal battle between virtue and vice into the most honest prayer I’ve ever heard: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

What do you think —  do we stand a prayer against the modern technologies of temptation? How, if at all, do you rise above them at work? What kinds of self-mastery have you achieved or observed? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.