Monk Mode Doesn't Work

I occasionally fantasize about hiding in a small cabin in the woods.

It would be nice to escape all the noise, all the chatter, for a while and just focus on getting some seriously deep work done.

Going monk mode.

That’s what the kids are calling this nowdays.

Remove all external inputs, block social media, delete your Netflix account, don’t talk to anyone, and just focus 100% on getting maximum shit done.

This is fun to fantasize about, sure. But there is a fundamental flaw.

What seems like distractions are actually key inputs.

Albert Einstein surely fantasized about all the great things he’d be able to accomplish once he could completely focus on physics.

But he did his greatest work while working as a patent clerk.

Researchers often feel that all the extra responsibilities they have in the modern academic system are annyoing distractions.

Teaching duties, mentoring student. Ugh.

But then when they then join the Institute for Advanced Study and are able to focus 100% on research, their outputs turns noticably bad.

Johan Sebastian Bach was arguably the greatest achiever of all time but his day job for much of his life was as a school teacher, in addition to distractions caused by the thousand small practical challenges of life in the eighteenth century.

Every single one of my favorite writers stopped publishing things worth reading once they started focusing 100% on writing.

Monk mode doesn’t work.

I have two theories why that is.

The first and most obvious is that inspiration rarely comes from places you’d expect to find it.

You’re more likely to have a breakthrough insight for your business when reading a spam email than when reading a business book.

Annoying distractions disturb your mental landscape in ways that allows your brain to form truly novel connections.

Crucially this also works even if there is no direct connection between the distraction and the insight.

A ripple in your mental landscape can case a huge wave in some faraway region with no surface level connection visible between the two.

I find it much easier to write in a busy café than an in a quiet empty room.

This doesn’t work because I observe the staff preparing the coffee in a certain way which then inspires me to introduce a new process at my agency or because I overhear some idea in a conversation at the nearby table.

Instead it’s truly random disturbances that get my creative juices flowing.

My second theory is related to the fact that trying too hard stifles results.

Bud Winters, one of America’s most successful track and field coaches, discovered that running times were better at 90% effort than when the athletes went all out.

Running and other athletic movements are performed most effectively when some muscles are contracting, and others are relaxing.

When athletes are giving 100%, all of their muscles are contracting, the accelerating muscles and the breaking muscles are at odds.

It seems plausible that the same applies to knowledge work.

“Mental muscles” like willpower, creativitiy, logical thinking, etc. just like regular muscles form opposing pairs to some extent.

And this is why going monk mode, where you exert 100% effort towards a specific goal and shut off all distractions is counterproductive.

For optimal results, embrace distrations and relax.

Written on January 2, 2024

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