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Why Monk Mode Is The Secret To Insane Productivity

If you have a gigantic project and a ton of people wanting your time, how do you satisfy both? By slipping into monk mode.

The most productive people structure solitude into their working lives: Marie Curie experimenting deep into Parisian nights, Friedrich Nietzsche tramping around Alpine lakes, Henry Thoreau camping and contemplating in a Massachusetts forest.

That was back in the day. But can you make that same headspace in our hyper-busy, hypertextual world?

Business writer Greg McKeown couldn't. He was fortunate to have a monster of a project on his hands—his first solo book—but he was kept awake at night with authorly anxiety. And quite ironically, the book was about the pursuit of less.

"Being stressed out for a year while I wrote it simply was not an option," he says on LinkedIn.

But he had a hunch. If there was more time and space to really concentrate, then his levels of stress would go down—and the quality of work would go up. The proposal: monk mode.

Enter: Monk Mode

When you go into monk mode, you make an open declaration to yourself and everybody else that you're going to be doing your deep work. You come out of the closet about going into your cave.

"(Monk mode) means shutting out the world for a time," McKeown says. "It is a relatively extreme approach to take, but (my wife and I) decided I would write from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day. I did that for five days a week for about 9 months. I worked from a small office—tiny really—but in it I found space. And in that space I found creative freedom."

That concerted spaciousness is found in the research on creativity: the "a-ha!" moment tends to come after long, dedicated hours. It's a process known to mathematicians, designers, writers, and painters: you need to stare down the complexity of the problem or the emptiness of the canvas for a long while for the solutions to emerge. If we're going to be able to create things, we need to be able to focus—at length.

But as McKeown says, that long-form concentration can only come from structure, from setting boundaries for the interactions you have with people. So how do you set a boundary in 2013? With an autoresponder, of course:

Dear Friends,

I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize.


p.s. If this is a continuing conversation, please ignore and expect my response in the near future.

The results? Surprisingly, McKoewn didn't get a single negative reaction to the bounceback. And the work went smoothy: since he had a "routine that acknowledged the difficulty of the task," he had the resources of time necessary to do the deep work of writing a book. By going into monk mode, he showed that his schedule was a tool—one that, when used gracefully, let him slay a monster of a task—one that used to keep him awake at night.

Hat tip: LinkedIn

[Image: Flickr user Mark Fischer]

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  • bigcitygirl

    I admire Mr. McKeown's ability to have been able to focus complete attention to writing his book. It takes a great amount of strong willpower to dedicate the time necessary to get a single important project done. I've often thought about wanting to do the same thing and perhaps I need to apply the "monk mode" in order to get the kind of results I need. I am still easily distracted by so many things competing for my attention, some really inconsequential that I should really just look away. But I can't. But I will give the "monk mode" some more thought. Oh look, another shiny object!