How “Monk Days” Can Lead You To Better Brain Space

To be more creative, Defy Ventures CEO Catherine Hoke doesn’t check email, talk on the phone, or make appointments two days per month.

How “Monk Days” Can Lead You To Better Brain Space
[Image: Flickr user Nilesh]

For all the talk about the benefits of unplugging, many of the solutions, while enticing, are either too extreme or not drastic enough. Who has the time or willpower to leave the Internet for 25 days? On the other end of the spectrum, something like Tabless Thursday is pretty accessible, but still allows for a whole lot of distraction.


Catherine Hoke, CEO of Defy Ventures and one of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People in Business, however, has landed on a method that most people can get behind: monk days. “I am a generally a chatterbox and have a very full calendar,” Hoke told Fast Company. “If I want to actually be able to create, innovate, and proof things, I need quiet time and space to be able to do that.”

Catherine Hoke

To get into that brain space, Hoke sets aside two non-weekend days a month for what she has dubbed “monk days,” during which she doesn’t check email, talk on the phone, or schedule appointments. She holes up and works. Often, to fully escape, she will find an isolated work environment, like a hotel room, or in the spirit of the day’s name, a convent. “It’s very quiet there and very free of distractions,” she said.

Each day is dedicated to focusing on different aspects of her job. (She intentionally sets aside weekdays to prioritize it as a part of work–not an extra-curricular activity.) Once a month she has a “personal leadership monk day,” reserved for thinking big picture about her role as a boss, and the overall vision of Defy, which works with former convicts to help them start (legal) businesses. The other day she uses as a “business monk day,” during which she works on bigger projects. “I’m tackling a specific issue, or I’m designing or innovating in a specific area,” Hoke said.

Hoke started practicing monk days about 10 years ago, she estimates, when her pastor suggested it. “He just said that if I didn’t bake in some time to be quiet and be with myself, I would run at a less sustainable pace,” she explained. At first she started with just one day a month, but as Defy grew from an idea to a company thinking about scaling its services, she added a day. She now fantasizes about taking an entire work week in the future.

Since adopting the practice, she has noticed a creativity boost. “When I give my brain the space, I see how rapidly it creates on new stuff when I’m not just trying to knock out tasks,” she said.

Still, like for any connected human being, it’s a struggle to unplug. If she doesn’t block off the entire day, meetings will creep up, and sometimes she hesitates to turn down a particularly enticing invitation. But, she says, committing to the quiet solitude of a monk day is always worth it. “It’s just a discipline choice,” she said, “trusting that the world will live on every day.”

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.