Medieval monks were in many ways the original power users of LinkedIn. Earnest and capable of self-promotion, they loved to read and share inspiring stories of other early Christians who showed remarkable dedication to their work. There was Sarah, who lived near the river, never once looking in her direction, such was her devotion to her faith. James prayed so hard during a snowstorm that he was covered in snow and the neighbors had to dig him up.
But none of these early devotees could be as distracted as Pachomius. A 4th-century monk withstood a parade of demons that turned into naked women, rattled the walls of his dwelling and tried to make him laugh with complex comedic numbers. Pachomius did not even glance in their direction. For early Christian writers, Pachomius and his ilk set a high standard of concentration that other monks aspired to match. These Super Concentrators were the epitome of #work goals, #hustle and #self-improvement in the first millennium.
Even if you’re not surrounded by demons, it turns out medieval monks can teach you a lot about how to distract yourself. Our modern preoccupations with self-motivation and productivity may seem like the product of a world plagued by distracting technology, but the monks suffered from distractions in much the same way over 1,500 years ago. They worried about the demands of work and social connections, bemoaned the distractions of new technology, and looked for inspiring routines that could help them live more productive lives. Forget the Silicon Valley gurus. Could it be that early Christian monks are the productivity heroes we’ve been looking for all along?
Jamie Kreiner thinks so. She is a medieval historian and author of a new book called A wandering mind: what medieval monks tell us about how to distract yourself, which explores how early Christian monks—men and women who lived between 300 and 900 years old—strengthened their concentration. She says the monks had a very good reason for their obsession with distraction: the stakes couldn’t be higher. “They, unlike everyone else, dedicated their entire lives — their entire lives — to trying to focus on God. And because they wanted to achieve purposefulness and it was so difficult for them, that’s why they ended up writing more about absent-mindedness than anyone else.”
One of the main ways the monks encouraged each other to stay focused on their prayers and study was through the story of extreme concentration. Sometimes they were inspiring, like the story of Simeon the Stylite, who lived on top of a pillar and was never distracted, even when his leg was badly infected. In other cases, the stories were created to keep the monks humble. Latin text from the first millennium called Apophtegmata Patrum contains the story of a monk who had an excellent reputation for concentration, but who heard of a grocer in a nearby town who had even better concentration skills. When he paid a visit to the grocer, the monk was stunned to learn that his shop was in a part of town where people sang obscene tunes non-stop. The monk asked how the grocer managed to concentrate in the midst of such vulgar music. “What music?” answered the grocer. He was so busy that he didn’t even notice someone singing.
Stories like these reminded the monks how hard it is to stay focused. They were not meant to be concentration machines. They too have failed from time to time. “Recognizing this beforehand is a kind of compassion,” says Kreiner. “The monks are really good at being compassionate towards each other and how difficult it was to really see things through.” Getting rid of distractions is really hard. We shouldn’t feel terrible about not always achieving our lofty goals.