It’s 5 A.M. and I am wide awake.
Usually I’m awoken roughly by the clanking sounds of a construction site near my house. Today, it’s the cheerful (yet deafening) sound of birds that announce the new day.
Usually I would have read my e-mail and checked my news apps by now, as I would be doing again and again and again later during the day. Today, I look forward to another ‘offline’ day, with my writing flow only interrupted by the soothing rhythm of coffee and food breaks.
This week, I’m doing everything differently. I’m writing Benedict-style.
Benedict (480 – 547 AD) was a saint who established a number of monasteries in his days and who gained (and still maintains to have) many followers who live according to his vision on spiritual and secular life, which he has written down in his ‘Rule for monks’. The structural elements of this rule have inspired the daily structure in the guest house where I am staying this week to write the general introduction of my dissertation. My schedule for each day is as follows:
The daily structure advocated by Benedict is simple and strict, and this makes it utterly effective. Apparently, this daily routine is in agreement with the natural human biorhythm. The strict structure may make you feel a bit eerie in the beginning. Sometimes you can have the idea that only you can decide what the best moment is to start writing that paragraph you have been procrastinating around for days, and not the clock. The same thing goes for quitting your writing: what if you’re in a flow at that particular time? Why should you stop just because Benedict decided ages ago that it is time for coffee? Here’s three reasons why it’s a good idea to follow the structure anyway:
1. Learning the art of beginning
The structure encourages you to just start working. With a minimum of distractions (writing is the only thing on your agenda) and a doable time slot (you never write for more than two hours at a time), there is no excuse to not just pick up your pen – ha ha, I mean, log on to your computer of course – and start writing. Just do it. In essence, Benedict has eliminated the beast called procrastination that all PhDs fear:
2. Learning the art of stopping
Benedict was as serious about exercise as about relaxation and gets extra awesomeness points for making recreation a mandatory aspect of his daily rhythm. Taking a rest, both physically and mentally, is obviously important, otherwise you’ll eventually lose focus and you will be less productive. In Benedict’s time, the restorative breaks from work were meant as opportunities for prayer. However, you can also just take a walk, read a blog, or drink a good cup of coffee with colleagues and friends. Anything that takes your brain off work, relaxes your mind and puts the difficulties related to your research project in the right perspective will do.
3. Learning the right attitude between beginning and stopping
Between the start and stop sign is the zone where your actual work takes place. Benedict advocated doing everything with so-called relaxed dignity. To put it more New Agey, it is all about ‘now’, not ‘later’. So instead of getting stressed about all the stuff you still need to do later, you gently focus on the only thing that is truly relevant: what you can do right now (this is the relaxed-part). And whatever happens during your work hours, you should take it in stride and not get too upset about it (this is the dignity-part). Paying full attention to what you’re doing at the present moment can limit the pressure you may feel on finishing the job. It may even be surprisingly healing or productive to fully surrender yourself to that dreaded paper you need to finish.
My own experience with living according to Benedict’s rule has been nothing but amazing. It was no surprise to me to see that the super-strict structure was beneficial for my productivity. The magnitude of the difference with writing at home or at the office without that clear structure, however, has astonished me. Of course, it helps that I’m at a beautiful castle surrounded by nature, that all meals are prepared and all dishes are washed for me, and that there is no hallway buzzing with colleagues and students outside the library I’m working in. But Benedict has gotten me convinced that it is mostly the structure and the ideas behind it that are so extremely effective. And I would encourage anyone to try it out for themselves!
A final note for the cynics out there: I’ll have you know that I did not procrastinate during the ‘official schedule’ by writing this blog. I actually wrote (most of) it at 5 in the morning.
Annemiek van Os is a PhD candidate at the department of Organization Sciences. Her research focuses on how organizational members deal with identity threat caused by errors.
This blog was inspired by the following source: Wil Derkse (2003). The rule of Benedict for beginners: Spirituality for daily life (translation by Martin Kessler). Liturgical Press.