Learning to distinguish unplanned assignments from distractions is like a martial art. No interruption situation is ever the same, so we must learn techniques we can adapt for whatever a situation requires. And our “powers of discernment [are] trained by constant practice” (Hebrews 5:14). Rarely is it clear at first if an interruption is a distraction or an assignment. This ambiguity pushes us to pray, “What should I do, Lord?” It pushes us to embrace humility in seeking counsel from others. And it pushes us to test our hearts. Are we being governed by our love for God and neighbor or by our selfish desires?
The ever-growing body of literature on productivity overwhelmingly agrees with what we all know by experience: interruptions reduce our productivity. So naturally, most of the literature focuses on ways we can reduce our interruptions because they distract us from productive work.
And for good reason: many of our interruptions are distractions. But not all interruptions are distractions. Some interruptions are more important than our current productivity. The problem, however, is that we often struggle to recognize these important interruptions in the moment.
As Christians, the stakes rise when we consider that what may appear at first as a simple interruption is actually an unplanned assignment from our Lord. So, how can we discern the difference?
First, I should define what I mean by interruption, distraction, and unplanned assignment.
- Interruption: An unplanned occurrence that urges you to shift your attention away from one of your responsibilities to something else.
- Distraction: An unplanned occurrence that tempts you to shift your attention away from something of greater importance to something of lesser importance.
- Unplanned assignment: An unplanned occurrence that calls you to shift your attention away from something you think is a good use of time as a servant of Christ to something Christ may consider a better use of the time.
Of course, God has not given us a formula we can apply to all situations. In fact, an interruption that’s an unplanned assignment on one day might be a distraction on another day. In other words, this is an issue of discernment. And discernment is learned by constant practice (Hebrews 5:14) as we are transformed in Christ by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).
But the Bible does provide principles we can use in honing our discernment. Two stories provide needed help.
In Acts 6, a potentially explosive situation was developing in the new, rapidly growing church. “A complaint by the Hellenists [Jewish Christians from Greek-speaking nations] arose against the Hebrews [Jewish Christians native to Palestine] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1).
We’re not told why these vulnerable women were being neglected. But it’s clear the problem wasn’t being addressed, and frustration was spreading. The complaints carried strains of ethnic tension. As the past few years have reminded us all, such issues can quickly sour relationships, break trust, and sow suspicion. So, the situation was growing serious, and an appeal was made to the apostles to get involved.
This situation came as a potential interruption to the apostles’ work. Was it a distraction or an unplanned assignment?
After the apostles prayed and discussed this issue together, here’s what they discerned:
It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:2–4)
The apostles discerned this was a distraction.
This example illustrates how much we need discernment.