Don’t Fill Every Open Moment with Content

by Brett McCracken November 4, 2021

When I’m waiting in line to order my drink at a coffee shop, my automatic instinct is to grab for my phone. Not to do anything necessary, of course; just to scroll aimlessly for the minute or two before it’s my turn to order. Maybe I can catch a few tweets, headlines, or Instagram stories.

It’s the same impulse that leads me to grab my phone first thing in the morning, right before I go to sleep at night, and throughout the day as I’m in between tasks. Sometimes I find myself checking an app in the roughly 20 seconds it takes for me to walk from one side of my house to the other. In none of these cases do I have a clear reason or defined goal. It’s just a habit I’ve gradually been conditioned into, as have most of us in the smartphone age: a disturbing Pavlovian impulse to fill every open moment of life with some form of mediated “content.”

The more I’ve become aware of this often unconscious habit, the more it disturbs me. The main problem isn’t that what I find in those snippets of scrolling is largely foolish (though that’s certainly a problem). It’s that the elimination of every last shred of unmediated space in our lives makes us foolish. To become wise, we need emptiness in our days; time to think; space to synthesize; moments to be still; mental breaks. Yet the smartphone era is quickly obliterating these things, beckoning us to fill every spare second of life with something. Click this! Watch this next! Listen to this podcast! The algorithms are designed to commandeer our attention not just partially, but totally. And it’s making us fools.

The algorithms are designed to commandeer our attention not just partially, but totally. And it’s making us fools.

Here’s one small thing we can all do to become a bit more wise, then: carve out some space—any space—to be silent, still, and unmediated rather than letting every inch of your attention be colonized by content.

We’re Scared of Stillness

The internet’s algorithms are just tapping into a dynamic of our falleness that has plagued humanity for time immemorial: we hate stillness. We’re restless and fidgety, never fully at home in the present. There’s always something productive we should be doing, right?

Blaise Pascal, in Pensées, ponders why we fill our minds with the past and future but rarely take time to be still in the moment:

We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away.

Why is present-tense stillness so stressful? Maybe silence unsettles because the constant hum of noise distracts us from realities (e.g., death) we’d rather not confront. Whatever the reason, our aversion to stillness is not good for our spiritual growth and the development of wisdom.

I return to Psalm 46 often to ground me in God’s changeless sovereignty in unsteady times. Verse 10 contains one of my favorite phrases in Scripture: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Being still—the stoppage of constant striving, frenetic noise, and distraction—is fundamentally connected to knowing. Be still. And then what? Know God. Only in stillness can we begin to apprehend the bracing power and holiness of God. And this awestruck, stunned-into-silence awareness is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10).

Foolishness is rampant today in part because we’re rarely stationary enough to experience stillness. And stillness is a prerequisite for wisdom.

Staring at Walls

In his helpful book The Common Rule, Justin Earley suggests our spare moments should not be filled with aimless online wandering, but rather “reserved for staring at walls, which is infinitely more useful.”

Staring at walls is hard, but try it. Unmediated space and quiet stillness are hugely rewarding. But both require discipline. We have to be intentional about choosing silence and stillness in a noisy, fidgety age. There’s always another video to watch, article to read, podcast to listen to, book to read. Can these things be valuable for our wisdom? Of course! But not when we’re relentlessly going from one piece of content to the next, without giving our souls pauses to let inputs percolate and be absorbed as nutrition. Eating fast food constantly throughout the day would make you sick. So it is with consuming information.

Foolishness is rampant today in part because we’re rarely stationary enough to experience stillness. And stillness is a prerequisite for wisdom.

It’s not that our motives are always bad. The Protestant evangelical tendency to want to “redeem the time” by optimizing every minute is understandable. There are only so many hours in a day, but so much still to learn. We can thus justify content gluttony in the name of noble desires to be grown, equipped, resourced, and informed. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. A buffet of the healthiest organic food in the world would still make you sick if you went back to fill up your plate too many times. So it is with the unfathomably large “content buffet” that is the internet. It’s making us sick, as I observe in chapter one (“Information Gluttony”) of my new book, The Wisdom Pyramid.

Why I’m Not a Big Podcast ListenerThis is why I don’t really listen to podcasts. I have nothing against podcasts as a form—like anything, they can be great and they can be terrible. It’s just that, in between other forms of content I’ve prioritized (mostly books, movies, and music), I usually only have a few “in between” moments left in my day when I might squeeze in a podcast. Driving is one of them. But for me, driving is one of my only chances to think. I could listen to a podcast while I do the dishes or some other household chore—or I could use that precious time to process or pray through everything already swimming around in my mind. As I garden or go on walks outside, I could listen to a podcast that fills my head with stimulating content. Or I could simply feed my soul with the sensory stimulation of God’s creation—the air blowing, the birdsong, the Southern California smells of citrus, sea salt, and jasmine.

I’m not saying you should give up podcasts. I’m suggesting you should give up something to free up a bit more empty space in your life. Recognize that stillness is vital for your spiritual health in an over-stimulated age, even if it means missing out on some quality content.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at TGC.