How to organise your work life like a monk

Monk mode is a productivity approach that can help improve attention and focus in a world full of distractions, at work and at home



Working primarily from home requires Shruti Balaji to be organised, create boundaries between personal and professional, and structure time for focused, undistracted work. “I need my rituals to allow me to separate home and work in the same physical space. Colleagues and family take it for granted that you’ll always be available because you work from home,” says the Bengaluru-based user experience researcher with a technology company. Blocking time in her calendar for concentrated work, lunch, and other tasks helps the 30-year-old stay focused. Her colleagues are aware of her unavailability during those times. “Without this, my day is swamped with calls and cadences and no work to show for it,” she says. Using noise-cancelling headphones, keeping calls short, and avoiding eating at her desk are some other ways in which she engages mindfully with activities, something she has done since 2021.

Being productive and focused in our environment of constant distractions is challenging, whether one works from home or an office. Switching attention also diminishes a person’s ability and strength to process the information they need to produce quality work. Take just digital distraction, for instance. A 2022 study published in the Harvard Business Review of 137 workers at Fortune 500 companies, observed that they switched between apps and websites 1,200 times a day, approximately four hours a week or 9% of the person’s work time. Irritation, burnout, poor productivity, and diminished attention are just some consequences of working in this fragmented way.

Balaji’s routine and structure helps her minimise some of this clutter and find focus, echoing a productivity technique—monk mode—that has been gaining popularity on social media platforms, with many sharing tips on how to be more productive. Derived from the disciplined lifestyle of monks, the “monk mode” is an approach centred on deep focus, discipline and some isolation, which helps target one’s goals amid distractions, and enhance productivity and work quality. It has wide interpretations with people practising it in different ways—some prefer setting a start and end time for projects, like focusing on a task by dedicating a few very focused hours a day to it; or using the time-management Pomodoro technique to work in focused bursts of 25-minutes followed by a five-minute break, and then repeat. For others, it could involve decluttering their physical space and creating an environment more conducive to focused work, by using noise cancelling headphones, curbing social media use, carving out time for deep work, or using quieter parts of the day to tackle one’s most challenging tasks.

“Our brain is never free from thoughts, and unproductive ones always distract us,” says educator Hima Arora, who has been practising mindfulness since she started working at a Noida-based school 12 years ago. “One needs to focus on the present and give your best to what you are doing currently.” She prefers to complete her most challenging tasks and planning her day during the quiet of the early morning. She also creates specific times for students’ parents to interact with her, as it can otherwise become a continual interruption. While she enjoys unwinding in the staff room with colleagues, if she needs to work, she puts on her headphones to listen to some Beethoven, which helps block ambient noise and deters interruptions from colleagues. Evenings are for personal and family time.

Charul Sharma, who works at an American bank in Bengaluru, started practising some of these habits as a child. “I unconsciously apply this everywhere and prefer focusing on one thing at a time,” she says. She now always plans out her days before and spends the first few work hours on email, leaving meetings and time with colleagues for the rest of the day. After every hour of work, she takes a quick break to walk or sit in her garden. Evenings are for personal time.

While you may have the resolve, you may lack the environment or support required for monk mode. Sharma admits that the three days a week in the office are challenging for focused work because of her five-hour commute, regular interruptions and ambient noise, since the only available quiet space are meeting rooms, which are booked. She reserves tasks that require deep concentration for when she works from home.

Eliminating distractions

Recognising the challenge of being productive in the office, some companies are finding ways to facilitate monk mode in the office. “To help employees perform optimally, organisations should take steps to make changes at a policy and design level to facilitate deep work,” says Anjali Raghuvanshi, chief people officer at human resources (HR) consultancy Randstad India. Their offices have private conference rooms and isolated spaces where people can work uninterrupted. Every alternate Friday is a meeting-free day to allow them to work with deep focus on specific activities.

Men’s lifestyle brand XYXX, on the other hand, have an open office plan, with cabins and meeting rooms available for focused work, and a large sunlit terrace doubling up as a quiet zone. “Our flexi-work hours and work-from-home policy enables people to break away and efficiently deliver on priority outcomes,” says Petal Gangurde, chief of brand and culture. The company also encourages 1- to 3-day team lock-aways, which could be them working from a conference room treating it like a control room, a co-working space, or even a coffee shop or a restaurant. That time spent is focused on the task or the project at hand. It can take the form of an intensive brainstorm session or a workshop where the solution is collectively derived.

Gangurde has also been a follower of monk mode, using it for most of her 15-year professional career. “I use it as a tool for total life organisation, especially after I became a mom. It is amazing to ruthlessly prioritise, block time for specific tasks and commit to eliminating distractions.” As a morning person, Gangurde gets a lot of writing done before she gets to the office. “The rest of the day is blocked off a day prior into one-hour blocks for focused brainstorming sessions on key areas that require problem solving. In my experience, teams that huddle and focus on one project at a time are as effective as a Swiss army knife,” she says. The last two hours of her day are for “firefighting”. Before this, she declines anyone who asks if she has 5-minutes because “that’s like a rabbit hole.” She believes monk mode has provided her with enhanced clarity, independence, and quality of life.

Workforce management platform Talent500 has provisions to create a productive work environment, including daily time blocks when everyone is encouraged to disconnect from digital communication and focus on critical tasks, no-Friday meetings, and encouraging employees to identify a problem area each quarter and convert it into a passion project. “By prioritising monk mode, we are creating an environment that benefits not only employee productivity but also their well-being and job satisfaction,” says Saurabh Kale, head of people and culture.

Beyond organisational support, it boils down to individual resolve. “It isn’t easy to train the mind to concentrate on a single task, especially if you have been multitasking for ages, and social media, socialising or entertainment have become a necessary way of life,” says Radhika Vivek, senior partner at executive search firm Transearch India. “Working in monk mode needs to be for shorter time durations with exclusive attention to a subject or an activity concentrated in hours, and extending in bursts of time to a week or a few months.” This itself, she believes, if practised earnestly, can significantly improve mental clarity and productivity and reduce stress levels.

For those who practise it, there have been benefits that extend beyond productivity and the task at hand. “I value my time outside of work and make it a point to enjoy it. The work rituals have also helped me build and sustain self-care rituals and carve out time with family or friends,” says Balaji. For Arora, the focus and mindfulness has helped her to connect more meaningfully with work, and form deeper connections with those around her as one learns to focus undivided attention on conversations and personal connections. As with any practice, there will be challenges and she recommends being kind to yourself. “One can never be perfect. Some days you may be low or unmotivated. Give yourself a break and come back to it again.”

Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.

 

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