The Magic of Being in Monk Mode

A year ago I sat in bed late at night, wide awake. I was tired but unable to sleep. I sighed out loud, “I am never going to get this done in time!” I was hyperventilating. The good news? A publisher had just agreed to publish my first solo book. The bad news? Now I needed to write it. As Dorothy Parker is credited with having said, “I hate to write. I love having written.” I can relate.

Even without a book to write I had a full life. To add possible irony to the situation, the book was about the pursuit of less. So the idea of being stressed out for a year while I wrote it simply was not an option.

While not everyone has a year-long writing project, I don’t think I am alone in wishing for a bit more uninterrupted time to think, breathe and create. Do you ever get frustrated with being interrupted? Do you wish you had a place to retreat at work to do serious thinking? Do you find open-planned office spaces a bit suffocating at times because, ironically, they don’t provide you with the space you need? Do you believe the quality of your work would go up and your stress go down if you had more time and space to really concentrate?

I talked it over with my wife (the wisest person I know). Together we came up with a plan: I would go into monk mode. When Dan Roth, the Executive Editor at LinkedIn, heard of this he suggested I share a bit about the experience in a blog. His questions and my answers are below.

What exactly is monk mode?

It means shutting out the world for a time. It is a relatively extreme approach to take, but we decided I would write from 5AM to 1PM 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.

How did you let people know you were going into monk mode?

I set my autoresponder as follows:

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.

Your auto email responses must have generated some controversy among your peers, right?

To my great surprise there has been not a single negative reaction as a result of the bounce back. People adjusted just fine.

Does monk mode work?

On a personal level it meant I was done with the hardest work of the day by lunch time and it meant that by 4PM I was done for the day and able to be with my family. What could have been a family-compromising undertaking turned into a family-investment period.

On a professional level writing the book was neither stressful nor forced: it flowed. Exaggerating the point in order to make it, it was an almost effortless process. With a routine that acknowledged the difficulty of the task, what would have been painful became a relatively frictionless — even joyful — experience. Of course, great credit goes to my editor Talia Krohn for this and to my wife Anna for taking on the morning routine with the children!

Would you do it differently next time?

I have been in mourning since monk mode came to an end. So much so that after a few weeks I have been moving back to a version of it. I am writing this in my 5AM window.

Is it for everyone?

To be anything like this extreme seems totally unrealistic for most people today. But, really, that seems like an evidence of the problem.

Is what I did extreme? Yes. Do we live in an extreme era? Yes. The work world is infected with the disease of busyness. People often experience motion sickness rather than momentum. They become tricked by the trivial. So I would argue that an extreme routine is only reasonable in such an extreme environment.

As knowledge workers we need to advocate for space so we can find the signal in the sound. As managers we need to protect our people’s space to think, concentrate and get things done. There is a time to collaborate together; there is a time to be in monk mode. As Pablo Picasso is credited with saying, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”

Originally posted on LinkedIn

15 thoughts on “The Magic of Being in Monk Mode

  1. Silvia Koehler says:

    I love this Picasso’s quotation: “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” I agree 100% on that and I can also totally see that monk mode works beautifully!!! However, I just never seem to have the discipline to stay in monk mode over a longer period of time although I have tried so many times! I’m sure that one major role in all of this is really the partner. And yes, I agree, we do live in an extreme era, which probably requires extreme actions… Thanks for sharing! :-)

  2. Dennis Balajadia says:

    “What could have been a family-compromising undertaking turned into a family-investment period.”

    WOW! Talk about Work-Life balance. Being able to spending real quality time with your most precious ones (your family) and being able to do Awesome work, this is something to aspire for.

    I think I’m turning myself into a Monk.

  3. Nancy says:

    I remember when you went into Monk Mode and thought nothing of it. It seemed so logical and sensible, and still does. :0)

  4. Jade Koyle says:

    I’m a believer. The more ownership I have taken of how my time is spent placing my focus on the results I want to see, the better my life has been. And this doesn’t just relate to work. Prior to this mindset, I was in a never ending race meeting the demands of others, not accomplishing my ultimate goals.

  5. Annamarie says:

    I love that idea,like most people The first few hpurs of the day are the most productive to get things done, five am might just be overdone for me, I would rather start earlier in months to get it done. I have more time at hand at my age.
    Always awaiting your posts with anticipation.

  6. Reuben Swartz says:

    Great post (and really enjoyed the result of your “monk mode”, btw).

    I remember back in another era, I would leave the office and take my laptop to a coffee shop to get serious work done. This was before cell phones and wifi.

    In 2014, some of my most productive moments were on transatlantic flights.

    Looks like I need some monk mode time…

  7. Kathleen McCoy says:

    Less, indeed, is sometimes more. Time away and cultivating nurturing quiet to attain a restful spirit, heart and mind with creation I mind is wisdom. Rest, quiet and contemplation grow creativity as a natural byproduct of an uncluttered being. Why do we believe a lie that we must have more, and more. We only need so much, after that, we choke.

    Have less, be more. Be more present to all of life.

  8. Shawn Carolan says:

    Handle is exploring how to get this same level of focus on a task-by-task basis. I’d love to get your thoughts on other less extreme examples you’ve seen work, it’s so critical for people to get the most out of their inner selves.

  9. Barbara Bowen says:

    I enjoy your posts, Greg. For me, “monk mode” refreshes everything.
    In that focused place, I drink from an inner reservoir that’s essential. In a curious way, the experience of the outer world seems to get processed. The way I see it, we live in two worlds, not just one, and we need to breath, in both.

  10. klaude says:

    Hi Greg,
    I saw your presentation at the “Art of Sales” in Toronto a few weeks ago. Your presentation and book were the ones that captivated me the most. I have been a workaholic my whole life and haven’t really accomplished the true goals that I have set out for myself. As I turn 46 tomorrow, I have the MAIN goal of accomplishing more in the 2nd part of my life than I did in the first part. I want to observe your teaching and try to add them to my daily routines. As I came across this post of “Monk Mode”, it deeply spoke to me. I have been trying to convince my boss of the benefits of telecommuting. My goal is to work full time from home within the next 12 months. I find that the “monk” environment works best for me. The quietness and stillness of being at home by myself helps me get laser like focus and accomplish so much more than when I am at the office. I thank you for giving words to my thoughts and making me feel like I am on the right path to achieving all my goals. Less is truly best!