Monastic Productivity for Everyone

Can monastic communities teach us anything about our own productivity?

The monastic lifestyle is designed to allow monks to devote themselves to their spiritual development and to their work. The founders of monasteries well understood how quickly ordinary people loose focus. In response, they developed ways to help their followers shed their concerns for the mundane and to avoid distraction.

This article examines some of the techniques that monks use to maintain their productivity as monks, and shows how they you can apply them in a modern, non-monastic setting.

Practice Simplicity

The monastic life is a life of simplicity. Monks typically little more than the absolute bare necessities, often wearing simple attire, eating basic but healthy meals and living in uncluttered, simple accommodation.

Simple living can bring considerable benefits:

  • In reducing the amount of effort needed to live. For example, you don’t have to tidy, clean or maintain things you don’t own. You don’t need to spend time cooking fancy meals.
  • In reducing the amount of distraction in your environment.

Fortunately, there is a great deal of literature on translating these ideas into a modern, urban lifestyle. An exploration of these is outside the scope of this article, but the basic idea is to shed everything that isn’t strictly necessary to life.

Develop Personal Discipline

Monks are known for living a disciplined, highly regulated life. Their daily routines are the bedrock of both their spiritual development and their working day.

Your productivity can be enhanced by healthy routines. However, many of us baulk at the idea of discipline, and think of discipline as something unpleasant, and self-discipline as something unobtainable. We think of ourselves as lazy, lacking will power, and unable to achieve very much in the way of self-discipline.

We must remember, however, that monks are not super-human; they face the same kinds of struggles as the rest of us when it comes to self-control. My own epiphany came when I realised that self-discipline isn’t really about willpower. Rather, it is about developing good habits. Habits, once formed, require very little will-power. They become automatic, largely effortless responses to triggers in our environment. By structuring our habits and environment to get the results we want, it is possible to develop monk-like self-discipline and gain significant improvements in our own productivity.

Share the Burden

Communal living is a feature of monastic groups, with the benefit that jobs can be shared out between members of the community, thus releasing time for other activities.

You can adapt this principle to your own situation.

If you live with family or sharing accommodation with friends, you can share out chores, eat together to cut the number of meals cooked, and so on.
If you’re living alone, you can find creative ways to off-load some of the mundane day-to-day tasks. For example, you could pay someone to do tasks like washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking etc. You might even find that you can share tasks with friends and neighbours, e.g. shopping, making meals.

Seek Out Like Minded People

Monks benefit in several ways from spending time with people with similar convictions. Their passion for their lifestyle is reinforced, their minds stimulated, techniques are shared, tasks are shared out and so on.

We can gain similar benefits from seeking out people in our own field who are already productive, and learning from them. On-line communities are better than nothing, but local groups where you can meet face-to-face are even better. If no such group exists in your locality, then perhaps it is time to consider starting one.

Spend Time Alone

In addition to removing physical distractions, the monastery provides a refuge from relational distractions, too. This can be difficult to emulate, especially when you have a family, it isn’t impossible.

For example, some people take a personal retreat. Others choose a holiday where entertainment for the rest of the family is laid on, and take time out to read or attend seminars on topics of interest.

Personally, I try to get up earlier than everyone else in my household so I can enjoy a little distraction-free reading time, try to get away from the crowd at lunch time to catch up on more reading, and then listen to audio books as I walk home from work. Even these relatively short breaks from other people make a significant difference to my productivity in the long run.

Live for a Purpose

Many monks feel drawn to the monastic lifestyle because they feel called by a “higher purpose”. This sense of calling provides the impetus to let go of day-to-day matters and focus on something they consider more important.

There are many techniques available to help us find our personal mission or calling. And once we find and feed that burning “yes”, it will be a lot easier to say “no” to the distractions.


Image courtesy Dean Moriarty, via Pixabay.
This article was inspired by a question on my favourite Personal Productivity Q&A site.

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