18.3 C
New York
Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Easily Distracted? You Need to Think Like a Medieval Monk

Medieval monks were, in many ways, the original LinkedIn power users. Earnest and with a knack for self-promotion, they loved to read and share inspiring stories of other early Christians who had shown remarkable commitment to their work. There was Sarah, who lived next to a river without ever once looking in its direction, such was her dedication to her faith. James prayed so intently during a snowstorm that he was buried in snow and had to be dug out by his neighbors.

But none of these early devotees could ward off distraction like Pachomius. The 4th-century monk weathered a parade of demons that transformed into naked women, rumbled the walls of his dwelling, and tried to make him laugh with elaborate comedy routines. Pachomius didn’t even glance in their direction. For early Christian writers, Pachomius and his ilk set a high bar for concentration that other monks aspired to match. These super-concentrators were the first millennium embodiment of #workgoals, #hustle, and #selfimprovement.

Even if you’re not beset by demons, it turns out there’s a lot that medieval monks can teach you about distraction. Our present-day worries about self-motivation and productivity might feel like the product of a world plagued by distracting technologies, but monks agonized about distraction in much the same way more than 1,500 years ago. They fretted about the demands of work and social ties, bemoaned the distractions presented by new technologies, and sought out inspiring routines that might help them live more productive lives. Forget Silicon Valley gurus. Could it be that early Christian monks are the productivity heroes we’ve been searching for all this time?

Jamie Kreiner thinks so. She’s a medieval historian and the author of a new book called The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction, which examines how early Christian monks—men and women living between the years 300 and 900—strengthened their concentration. Monks had a very good reason for their obsession with distractedness, she says: The stakes couldn’t be higher. “They, unlike everyone else, had devoted their entire lives—their entire selves—to trying to concentrate on God. And because they wanted to achieve single-mindedness and found it so hard, that’s why they ended up writing about distractedness more than everyone else.”

One of the main ways that monks encouraged each other to stay focused on their prayers and studies was by sharing tales of extreme concentration. Sometimes they were inspirational, like the story of Simeon the Stylite, who lived atop a pillar and never became distracted, even when his foot was grossly infected. At other times the stories were designed to keep monks humble. A first-millennium Latin text called Apophthegmata Patrum contains the story of a monk who had a great reputation for concentration, but who had heard of a grocer in a nearby town who had even better concentration skills. When he paid the grocer a visit, the monk was stunned to find out that his store was in a part of town where people sang lewd tunes nonstop. The monk asked how the grocer was able to concentrate among such vulgar music. “What music?” responded the grocer. He was so busy focusing that he hadn’t even noticed anyone singing. 

These kinds of stories reminded monks just how hard it was to stay focused. They weren’t expected to be concentration machines. They too would come up short every now and then. “Acknowledging that upfront is a kind of compassion,” says Kreiner. “Monks are really good at being compassionate to each other, and to how hard it was to really follow through on stuff.” Freeing ourselves from distraction is really difficult. We don’t have to feel awful about not always matching up to our lofty goals.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

But modern hustle culture isn’t always so forgiving, says Kreiner. In the world of online self-help influencers, it’s down to the individual to change their world. You too can be successful—but only if you want it enough. Or as Love Island star Molly-Mae Hague put it on the Diary of a CEO podcast: “You’re given one life and it’s down to you what you do with it.”

The thing about overhauling your life, though, is that the real world tends to get in the way. No matter how much you try to shut the outside world out, it has a way of creeping in and putting ruin to your plans—and that applies just as much today as it did a millennium ago. Frange the monk lived alone inside an old pharaonic tomb close to the modern-day Egyptian city of Luxor, but even the life of a hermit wasn’t devoid of distractions. Frange left behind shards of pottery that show he was in touch with over 70 correspondents. He fielded requests from people asking to have their livestock and children blessed. He asked to borrow books and invited people to visit. But sometimes he wrote of his wish to be left alone.

“Monks’ solutions were a lot more sensitive to the fact that we’re social beings who are constrained by our environment and resources,” says Kreiner. Like us, they had competing demands on their time and had to balance the dedication to their inner lives with the roles they played in their communities. Monks weren’t afraid to acknowledge both sides of their lives. Frange was—and I’m sure he would agree with this—#authentic. He knew that even the spiritual work of achieving single-mindedness would sometimes butt up against his other demands, but that the “real world” wasn’t something he could turn his back on. Flashy hermits who shunned all interactions were the social media showoffs of their days, but they weren’t the only ones who could live meaningful, focused lives.

Early Christian devotees also loved searching for ways to get the most out of their days. Just as we obsess over the bizarre routines of tech bros today, the 4th-century theologian Augustine of Hippo wished that he knew more about the productivity tips of the apostles. In The Work of Monks, Augustine wondered how Paul had divided up his day. If only Paul had written his routine down, then monks would have some useful guidance to follow, Augustine griped. Other monks wrote their own guides: The 6th-century Rule of Saint Benedict set out a strict routine monks should follow, including advice on when and what to eat, how long to work, and how to keep a routine while traveling.

“Monks would have really appreciated how writers of today love to obsess about the schedules of other writers,” says Kreiner. But like virtual workgroups where writers check in with each other to make sure everyone is staying on track, these routines could also serve a deeper purpose. “Usually you would do these routines with other monks. There was a sort of esprit de corps and mutual support that a routine would really foster.” If you’ve got a difficult deadline looming, why not share that burden with a friend or colleague who can hold you to account in a supportive way?

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Of course, even the best routine could be derailed by new technologies. In the 4th century, a strange innovation started to provoke suspicion and intrigue among monks: the codex. An early precursor to the book, codices offered a more elegant way to organize long texts compared with the scrolls that had been the most popular way of storing writing until then. With its easy-to-count pages and pillow-like form, some monks feared that the codex would distract monks from the content of its pages.

But others saw the potential of this new technology to supercharge their learning. They added their own comments in the margins of codices and highlighted important passages to help commit them to memory. “When modern critics of distractedness suggest that we should be reading more books, they owe something to monks’ efforts to make this technology a more effective partner in their own struggles to concentrate,” writes Kreiner. New technologies offer ways to go deeper into our work, but only if we use them in the right way.

Maybe monks aren’t the technophobes we might imagine them to be. Today, nuns on TikTok are using the platform to bring the world inside their cloisters. Kreiner imagines that even early Christian devotees would try their hand at social media. Saint Jerome basically invented subtweeting, after all. “He was so judgmental that when he’d say stuff, other monks would worry that he was talking about them,” Krieiner says. “He always had some kind of beef or argument to pick with somebody.”

Instead of turning to modern-day productivity gurus like Tim Ferriss, perhaps there’s some wisdom to be gained by exploring the lives of the original workaholics. Just like us, they struggled with self-doubt and looked for inspiration in the lives of others. They traded barbs and obsessed over the best working routines. But even the most dedicated monks knew that achieving absolute single-mindedness could only ever last for a fleeting moment. After all, they were only human.

Related Articles

Latest Articles