On Monks and Email by Cal Newport

On Monks and Email

April 29, 2019

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.


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