Structure Your Day Like a Monk to Master Your Focus

By a former monk of 10 years

With the onset of the 21st century, there’s been a characteristic shift in the economy. No, I’m not talking about the effects of coronavirus or the subprime crisis.

I’m talking about a shift in the knowledge economy. The change is drastic enough to flip the orientation of our careers in the next 20 years. In fact, it has been covertly changing our lives for the first 20 years of this century.

With the advancement of technology and rapid interconnectivity, most jobs would vanish. And new ones would be created.

The new ones so created would require people adept with using complex technologies in a fast-changing world. This means the world needs quick learners with an ability to focus and get things done.

But, the same technology that has driven this change, has harmed our ability to focus immensely — email, instant messaging, and social media to name a few.

To put it simply, the demand for people who can concentrate is high, but the supply is getting lower. Which is exactly why it’s a valuable skill.

Cal Newport argues in his book, Deep Work, that the ability to concentrate on hard things and get shit done is what gives us our edge back. It is the key to living a good life full of eternal growth.

This is a not-so-obvious, mind-blowing insight. If this does not push you to explore the limits of your concentration, then what will?

That being said, I’ve read the book at least five times. Even still, I’m far away from being good at deep work. For some reason, I fall back into my old habits after a couple of weeks.

It’s tough.

The start is always good. I block time on my calendar for deep work — writing, coding, or studying. I do my best to stick to it.

Then, you know, life happens.

Not able to develop the skill to concentrate deeply, I was frustrated. Until I stumbled upon a concept, that changed my outlook on productivity.

The Single Habit Which Started It All

I was desperate to change my work habits. I could see my future being sabotaged due to my inability to focus. And that’s when I thought of trying meditation.

I started with 5–10 mins, which trust me, was damn difficult. Yes, I made excuses and slipped off the path many times. But somehow I kept up with it, albeit irregularly.

After a few months of slacking, I decided to get serious about it. I joined a local community to learn proper meditation. I sought personalized advice, honed my techniques, and kept myself accountable through my teachers and friends.

I kept working at it until I could meditate for 2–3 hours a day, split into two sessions.

Even still, I wasn’t seeing the fruits of my labor. While meditation helped me avoid some obvious distractions like social media and binge-watching, my ability to focus improved by 1% at best.

As it turns out, I was chasing the wrong idea. I thought, “If only I could meditate for an hour, two times a day, everything would improve.”

The problem? It didn’t.

The Most Important Thing I Overlooked

To see where I was going wrong, I turned to the experts. I could no longer use introspection to identify my follies.

One of the interesting people I admire in this space is Dandapani. He’s a Hindu priest, entrepreneur, international speaker, and former monk of 10 years.

His thoughts on concentration opened up my mind:

You can’t eat a carrot in the morning and eat hamburgers and pizzas throughout the day to have a healthy diet. It just does not work that way. That’s how most people turn to meditation — if you can’t concentrate, you can’t meditate. …you need to learn to concentrate the entire day. It has to be a part of your daily routine. Most people can’t concentrate for 2 reasons — first, we’re never taught how to do it, and second, we don’t practice it.

This got me thinking. I was meditating 2 hours a day. But what about the other 22 hours? I finally realized what my problem was.

Even though I was meditating, my days were filled with calls, interruptions, messages, and multi-tasking (along with a couple of episodes of Friends here and there).

To learn more about a mindful, concentrated routine I looked at how Dandapani spent his time back in the monastery:

  • 5:30: Arrive at the temple

  • 6–7 am: Meditation

  • 7–7:30 am: Exercise

  • 8–12:30 pm: Monastery work including web development, managing finances, dealing with land issues, etc

  • 12:30–1 pm: Cleaning the monastery

  • 1–1:30 pm: Lunch

  • 1:30–3 pm: Nap

  • 3–6 pm: Return to work

  • 6–7 pm: Break

  • 7–9 pm: (optional) Watch TV

  • 9 pm: Sleep

Most people think monks meditate all the time. But his schedule clearly shows otherwise.

If you sum up the two blocks of time in which he works, it almost adds up to a full-time job (4.5 + 3 = 7.5 hours). That’s almost 40–50 hours a week.

If they don’t sit and meditate all day, what do they do?

They work on one thing at a time.

When they’re working, they’re working. When they’re eating, they’re eating. And when they’re watching TV, they’re watching TV.

They’re not distracted by external stimulus or multi-tasking.

So throw away all the excuses that you’ve been giving yourself. There’s no reason why you can’t achieve a monk-like focus.

Here’s the problem with most people. They may have stellar morning routines to kick start the day. But are they able to sustain the desired behaviors throughout?

To see lasting changes you have to change your lifestyle.

The Fix

The goal of the monks is to practice concentration throughout the day. Then when they sit to meditate, they can have a good session.

And so should be your goal. Just like an athlete takes care of his body outside of his training sessions, you have to train your concentration throughout the day.

To fix this, I categorized my life in binary terms — mediation and preparing for meditation. Just like a monk would. (Even if you don’t meditate, the same principles would apply).

For me this meant:

  • Doing one thing at a time

  • Taking at least three 5-minute mindfulness breaks to center myself

  • Avoiding unnecessary input like TV, movies, music, etc

  • Staying silent whenever possible

  • Embracing boredom and enjoying solitude

The purpose is to break the distraction habit and get into the habit of concentration. It is also similar to a dopamine fast — you deprive your brain of constant stimulation to make it easier for you to focus for long hours.

If You Do One Thing, Do This

It’s safe to say that if you have superhuman levels of concentration, you can do anything. You won’t need productivity ‘tips’ or ‘hacks’. You won’t need quick fixes because you’ve mastered the fundamentals. Seek permanent solutions, not transient tricks.

There’s only one thing I want you to do — don’t underestimate the importance of concentration. We’ve been neglecting it for far too long. It’s time to take the matter into our hands.

Start today — strip off the behaviors the distract you. Whether it’s social media, notifications, calls, Netflix, music, or something else. Pick them one at a time and fix it.

Soon you’ll be amazed to see how far you’ve come. And when you do, let me know how it changed your life :)

Are you serious about becoming the best version of yourself? Get your free 5-day email course to Master The Art Of Personal Transformation

Written on July 22, 2020