Sometimes “productivity” feels like a country you’ve heard a lot about but never thought you’d get a chance to visit. Articles, Twitter threads and YouTube Vox Pops all claim to have answers – which never seem to hold up when subjected to real life. It’s amazing you’re still sitting at a desk instead of shrieking on a ledge.
Well, distractedness is nothing new. And we can get some answers from people who struggled valiantly with the issue a long time ago. On this blog we’ve gotten insights on resilience from Navy SEALs, bargaining from hostage negotiators, staying calm from bomb disposal experts and living the good life from the ancient Epicureans. So who is going to teach us about productivity?
Monks. If you’re used to getting most of your facts from memes, you might not know there were a lot of monks running around from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages, about 300-900 CE. They talked about getting focused a lot – not because they were good at it, but because it was huge problem for them.
Abba Poemen, a leader at the monastic community of Scetis, said, “the chief of all wickednesses is the wandering of the thoughts.” Monks would space out during prayer or even when officiating mass. (This might sound like a Monty Python skit waiting to happen but the Middle Ages weren’t as different from modern times as you think – I hear they dealt with a pretty bad plague, too.)
Believe it or not, monks were the productivity gurus of their era, always looking for a better way to focus and get things done. They saw themselves as athletes and warriors of the mind. And what did they find was the primary cause of mind wandering?
Um, okay, maybe that answer has not stood the test of time but I think you’ll agree on bad days it definitely feels accurate. Regardless of whether supernatural forces are behind you checking Instagram too much, the solutions the monks came up with can help us all be more focused and get things done.
Jamie Kreiner is a professor of history at the University of Georgia. Her book is “The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction.”
These people really believed in miracles and they might just have a few for us.
Let’s get to it…
It only takes about five minutes of being at your desk before your brain goes into screensaver mode. A lot of what you have to do may feel pointless — like the reverse of a religious revelation. If it wasn’t for deadline-induced adrenaline, you wouldn’t get anything done.
But for monks, there were human souls at stake. That definitely ups the urgency a bit. When you feel like you’re saving the world, a long to-do list isn’t as intimidating.
Maybe your work isn’t a battle to the death with the forces of evil but there’s still a lesson here: take a second to think about why what you’re doing is important or meaningful. Who is helped? Whose life will be better because of the work you’re doing? Wharton professor Adam Grant did a study where university call center employees saw the impact their efforts had on students. It caused their motivation to soar.
Monks thought they were battling demons. Metaphorically, you can do the same. Next time work feels stale and lifeless, remember that there are people depending on you. Simple tasks take on new life when you tell yourself: MUST. BATTLE. DEMONS!
Now the next step here does not involve you going to live hermit-style on a mountaintop. But we can learn a lot about focus and dealing with others from the monks…
Yes, some monks lived as hermits to fight distraction – but most didn’t. They realized that communal living had many benefits. They got support from others. They shared a sense of purpose. They could empathize with others’ problems and trade new techniques for improvement.
You can do this too. (Cells in a monastery aren’t that different from cubicles in an office when you think about it.) Finding a supportive crew that shares your values and helps you get by can make a big difference. But most times in an office we feel like other people are just another distraction. And monks dealt with the same issue. How did they cope?
Even within a monastery, monks knew a balance was necessary. Occasionally they needed time alone and this was a good thing. So book yourself a conference room and get away from the craziness to really crank and get stuff done. Work by Stanford business professor Bob Sutton shows getting away from everyone can boost productivity and creativity.
But most important was getting some mental distance from the workplace gossip scene. The monk Amma Syncletica said “there are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
When monks spoke of “escaping the world” they didn’t necessarily mean being a hermit. To them “the world” was a euphemism for the entanglements of everyday life. Not getting caught up in gossip, bickering, and debates over the latest news. Even they knew this overloaded our attention and took time away from what was important.
Mentally step away from office and social media drama. Take the positives from being around others but don’t let your brain get caught up by the negatives that will drain you.
Now some of the biggest demons we face are in our own heads. How do we get medieval on those problems?
Monks stuck to pretty rigid daily routines and fought to make sure nothing interfered with them. Pray. Study. Mass. Chores.
No, they didn’t always feel like obeying the routine but it brought consistency and sanity to what could easily go chaotic. (Doing stuff only when you feel like it works well if you get more pleasure out of cleaning up messes instead of avoiding them in the first place.)
Find a routine. And defend that structure against all encroachment. When you get your system down, motivation becomes easier because it’s like a “Manchurian Candidate” switch has been flipped and you seamlessly obey. Autopilot is great – if you’re the one who designed the autopilot system.
Now monks may have been warriors of the mind but they knew their bodies were important too. Angels may have been beings of pure consciousness but they were mortals and had to work with their bodies to achieve goals…
Yes, that’s a fancy way of saying they made sure to get some exercise.
It’s a bit disturbing how animated your digital devices can be while you barely move. I wouldn’t be surprised if office desks start shipping with catheters.
Many of the mental disturbances we deal with like distraction can be handled by calming the body. Abraham of Kashkar told his monks at Izla: “If the body is not quiet, the mind cannot be quiet.”
You can look at tons of different types of monks and philosophy schools and what you find is that they all felt the body affected the soul. Much like the mind, it needed conditioning or it would be weak. And so monks did physical labor to foster mental stability. Gotta be strong to fight those demons.
And today we have plenty of research showing that exercise makes your brain stronger and calms you. You don’t need to do anything extreme that’s going to cause Linda-Blair-level vomiting. Even taking long walks confers benefits.
But one of the biggest sources of distraction we deal with these days is from modern technology, something monks didn’t have to tangle with — or so you might think.
Turns out they have some lessons for us here as well…
Medieval monks didn’t struggle with internet distractions but they did spend a lot of time trying to control what ideas got into their heads. I doubt you come across a web page, scream “Pagan heretics!” and close the tab, but there’s still a lesson here. We can be choosier about what we read and what we give our attention to.
And monks had their own issues with device usage. Lemme tell ya, the “scroll vs codex debate” was a big one. How to consume information so it didn’t lead the mind astray was something they thought a lot about. They wanted to make their modes of study cognitively compatible with their goals.
Think about the format and mediums by which you take in information and customize it. Build new technological habits aligned with the results you want to achieve.
I don’t have social media or other distractions on my iPad. I turn off notifications. I use Firefox Focus so I cannot have more than one browser tab open at a time. And my iPad is where I do all my reading. My perfect digital codex. What will work best for you?
And, finally, we enter the belly of the beast: that ever-distracted, ever-wandering mind of yours. That’s where the demons live. How do we banish them to the shadow realm forever?
The voice in your head chatters like the two old guys in the balcony on The Muppets. A running commentary of your least productive thoughts and feelings.
Monks didn’t always practice meditation but numerous groups ended up arriving at some of the most fundamental tools of mindfulness. The primary one was what we now call “meta-cognition” — learning to notice and evaluate one’s thoughts. Basil of Caesarea told those who supervised young monks to ask them what they were thinking about—and to do that often.
The next step was “discernment.” Monks had to know if the thoughts in their mind came from themselves, from God, or from demons. And sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. This was the detective work of the mind. For us it’s less supernatural but still critical. Ask yourself, “Is this thought useful? Is it worth my time?”
Evagrius of Pontus said that identifying demonic thoughts could disarm them. Well, give that guy an honorary degree in neuroscience because we now know that recognizing and labeling your thoughts can help you dismiss them when they’re not helpful.
And some of their ancient methods actually worked better than ours. Mindfulness tells us not to judge our thoughts, to distance ourselves from them. But this can be really tricky. Monks, well, they knew that their bad thoughts came from demons, so it was a lot easier to banish them. “That’s not me; that’s the demon talking.” This helped them to not identify with the thoughts and to get some distance.
Might sound like they were crazy but, ironically, it’s a lot easier to not lose your mind when you don’t think it’s totally yours in the first place. Buddhist monks had “Mara”, which was a personification of the forces antagonistic to enlightenment. And they had a fun, puckish relationship with Mara. To this day, when tempting, distracting thoughts enter the mind of practicing Buddhists, it’s not uncommon for them to respond them by saying, “I see you, Mara.” You ain’t pulling one over on me. I’m maintaining focus.
Give your own metaphorical mental demon a name. Call it out when it tries to lead you astray. Might sound nuts but we’ve got a few hundred years of proof – and plenty of neuroscience – to show this can help.
Alright, acolyte, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up — and we’ll also learn what monks can teach us about dealing with the most horrible of demons: procrastination…
This is how to be more productive, courtesy of medieval monks:
Monks read a lot, always attempting to shape their minds for the better. They felt if they read the right kind of books, it became part of their heart. Who they were. They would say, “In corde et in ore.” The book becomes iron.
But from their reading, they knew that even the saints they looked up to struggled. It was natural. And so what did they do when they strayed from the mental path? They forgave themselves.
Sounds very religious but it’s also scientific. Once again, these folks stumbled on something that works. And that’s what studies have shown when it comes to procrastination: forgive yourself. When students forgive themselves for procrastination, they’re better able to study, to learn and to perform better on exams.
To be productive you don’t have to be some lab-designed superhuman grown in a vat. In fact, you don’t even have to be a monk. It’s less about living in a monastery and more about managing your mind. As one seventh century monk said, it was the “tropos” that made a monk, not the “topos.” In other words, it’s not where you live; it’s how you live.
These tips can help us all be more productive, monastery or no monastery. But stay vigilant…
There are demons out there.