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On Monks and Email

Medieval monks thought a lot about thinking. As University of Georgia history professor Jamie Kreiner elaborates in a recent Aeon article:

“Their job, more than anything else, was to focus on divine communication. For these monks, the meditating mind wasn’t supposed to be at ease. It was supposed to be energised. Their favourite words for describing concentration stemmed from the Latin tenere, to hold tight to something. The ideal was a mens intentus, a mind that was always and actively reaching out to its target.”

To accomplish this goal “meant taking the weaknesses of their bodies and brains seriously.”

They used complex visual mnemonic techniques to help structure complex information in their mind’s eye.

They deployed heavy labor and moderate diet to keep their physiology in an optimal state for mental work.

Even the monastic renunciation of worldly goods and relationships supported concentration: the fewer things going on your life, they reasoned, the fewer things to distract you while trying to think about God.

What struck me as I read this article is that in our modern world, we still maintain positions in which the ability to concentrate is crucial to success: high skilled knowledge work jobs, like computer programmers, lawyers, doctors, consultants, journalists and professors.

Except unlike our deep working medieval forebears, the modern knowledge work organization seems to care little about cultivating and supporting this fundamental activity.

We hook people up to email inboxes and Slack channels because it’s convenient. We justify Twitter addictions on the grounds that we need to be “part of the conversation,” and compulsively post to Instagram to bolster our “social media brand.”

But few organizations think seriously about thinking, which, after all, really is the fundamental value-producing activity in knowledge work, just as divine communication was the metaphorical money-maker for the pious medievals.

The monks were on to something. Concentration is hard work. It requires, for lack of a better word, more serious attention.

21 thoughts on “On Monks and Email”

  1. The latin stuff made me think of tenacious tentacles of thought. I sometimes joke that I don’t need to know “X” because I can just “Google” it. Yet critical thinking is…critical. It can’t be a coincidence that this article came just after I read the first few chapters last night of World Without Mind by Franklin Foer. I recommend it!

  2. The example of the kind of deep thinking required in the medical field strikes a chord in me . Most times, the doctors or lawyers or professionals needs no more information than the ability to concentrate on the case at hand and bring about a good judgement.

    I concur with that kind of meditation that always hold on to or striving to hit a target .

  3. I literally last night finished reading Deep Work I’m already planning a major career shift based on this Deep Work philosophy…and this idea and concept of concentration and focus hits an extremely important point, in this hyper-tech world with notifications out the wazoo, it’s imperative more than ever we do increase our ability to focus

  4. It’s interesting because I just switch from skype to slack recently in my daily business to save time and argue.

    You were telling “few organizations think seriously about thinking”. You should add also few universities think seriously about thinking. They teach lot of information to students, but usually not really the art of thinking and being critical.

  5. Many people justify their email addiction by convincing themselves they are getting more done. The question I want to know is what they are “not” getting done when they are using email.

    More and more, I am realizing that activity prioritization is more of a zero-sum game than is discussed. Any moment you’re checking email or playing candy crush, you are not thinking about the world. You are not planning your day. You are not getting deep work done. Plus, once you do finally put the email away, it takes cognitive energy.

  6. I continue to be inspired by the philosophy of focused attention and reduced distraction in order to maximize productivity. I have quite some distance to go but I’m grateful for the paradigm shift that Cal’s writings have led to in my thinking.

  7. I have a friend who is an intensely gifted programmer — but what he really wants to be is a monk. So I’ll be passing this along to him. As for my thoughts on this — absolutely — it’s why I still take notes longhand and don’t have any gaming or streaming technology. Don’t want to lose my real life. People wonder how I get so much done — and that’s it. Thanks for the article.

    • As a former catholic nun I can tell you that monks and nuns use phone and email A LOT! Technology creeped everywhere.

  8. Some places of work are so stuck in this modern concept of work, that you spend most of the day in emails and meetings without actually getting much done in-between. Many organizations are tied too closely to simple metrics they overlook the value of the individual numbers within those metrics.

  9. Concentration or intense thinking about a problem in almost any field often does bring about a solution even for my largely untrained mind, but oh, there are also frequent occasions when a brick wall encounter is the outcome. So, it seems that having a trained mind helps with sorting out stuff better left alone.

  10. This reminds me that quite a few people will say they have had a boring day but how can you have a boring day if you use your mind to think about things. Ever think about how many animals and insects are so similar to humans in many ways?

  11. I fail to see what devoting your life to mediating about God and using electronic communications have in common. The analogy is faulty, I think.

    • The monks thought they could better dedicate their life to God by having fewer interruptions – like wives and lots of material things. You’d be trying to understand God’s will and suddenly your wife would barge in complaining about the chickens shitting in her petunias.

      Email and instant messaging brings us the same problem today – you’re trying to do some deep work, trying to understand something, and suddenly the email dings, you get a phone call, a Skype message, and what the heck were you thinking about again?

  12. I can see how distracted people are and how attached to their handheld devices when I drive and when I ride the New York City subways. Very few people seem to be functioning with their five senses now. Driving requires great concentration. All the distractions are a way of not dealing with “deep work”.

  13. There is lot of kowledge on that blog post. At least I think so. We should thik more about what we do and how it effects on us and people around us than just go with the flow and use hours and hours on socialmedia or something not that productive or relaxing.

  14. This article on the struggles of 5th century monks has been one of the most amazing things I’ve read this year on the internet. And it might be a good lesson in humility for anyone who may still think he/she is somehow “above” the temptations of modern life.

  15. “But few organizations think seriously about thinking, which, after all, really is the fundamental value-producing activity in knowledge work”

    Very interesting idea. I’m not sure I think seriously about thinking either. Apart from ensuring that I am working in distraction free conditions and therefore allowing my thinking to have my full attention, how does one get qualitatively better at thinking?

    ….and then doing.

    Actually, I think most of my gains will come from mediocre thinking and a lot more doing!


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