Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lessons in time management from a 6th century monk.

 Welcome Author Ann Regentin as she shares with us time management from a different perspective.

During the early 6th century CE, as the story goes, a group of men came to visit a monk called Benedict. Born the son of a Roman nobleman, Benedict gave up his education and his father’s way of life to find what Gregory the Great would call “learned wisdom”, separating himself bit by bit from the world until he ended up living in a cave.  His reputation as a holy man attracted admirers, and some of them got together and asked him to be their abbot.

It was a disaster. Benedict’s ideas of how a monk should live were so strict that his followers tried to poison him. This inspired Benedict to reconsider his position, and write a short book called The Rule of Benedict. In the prologue, he assured his readers that there was “nothing harsh or burdensome” within.

A modern reader might disagree. For one thing, Benedict took the bit from the Psalms about praising God seven times a day literally. He was a proponent of corporal punishment. His list of steps toward humility would give all but the most pious serious pause, and his ideas about obedience are sometimes scary.  Benedict was a devout Catholic. Those of other faiths or of no faith at all might find significant chunks of the book difficult to stomach.

Even still, the Benedictine Order has been credited with saving Western civilization from the Dark Ages. There are now Protestant Benedictines as well as Catholic ones, and many other monastic orders use The Rule as their guide. Benedictine oblates, everyday people who choose to live as close to The Rule as possible, number in the tens of thousands. This little book has serious staying power.

There are several reasons for this. The Rule emphasizes community and stability. It offers a challenging path to spiritual life. It poses difficult, sometimes controversial questions about rank, authority, ownership and stewardship. It recommends having someone read to you at the dinner table, a personal favorite of mine, but it also tackled the issues of time management and work-life balance 1500 years before they became buzz-words.

Benedict was not a spontaneous person. The monks had to stop for community prayer seven times a day, including in the middle of the night. He insisted that they support themselves by the work of their hands, so of course there were periods devoted to that.  There were periods set aside for rest and study as well, and modern houses have periods for recreation, all punctuated by that regular summons to the chapel. It was an orderly, structured life

Structure is my Achilles heel.  I have an irregular schedule, so irregular that it can hardly be called a schedule at all, and although I know I’d benefit from creating one and sticking to it, the habit of sleeping until about two hours before I have to be somewhere is dying hard. Since when I have to be somewhere varies significantly, this is a problem.

To make matters worse, I’m a binge writer. Once I’m on a roll, it’s hard to stop. In fact, I’m afraid to stop, afraid that if I step away from the keyboard, any ideas I get afterward will be lost forever. I’m also task-oriented rather than time-oriented. Stopping after a certain amount of time makes less sense to me than finishing up, even if that means neglecting other, necessary tasks, or simply going to bed late.

Modern lifestyle gurus have expounded on work-life balance at length, but Benedict was short and to-the-point.  He doesn’t suggest making a schedule, he makes ones for you, explaining where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there, and what you’re supposed to do when you arrive.

Then he shows you when, why and how to adjust it. A monk who is traveling, for example, is expected to adhere to his community’s schedule as closely as possible, but the key words are “as possible”. Changes are made for mid-summer heat, harvest, and other occasions when too-rigid adherence to a timetable might cause more problems than it would solve. The elderly, the sick and children have exemptions according to their capabilities.

Then he adds comfort. Each monk was to have their own bed with bedding and two sets of clothes appropriate to the local climate, and they were also given knives, writing tools, handkerchiefs, and needles. There were to be no special favors for priests or nobility. Tools they needed to do their work were to be available to them, as were books for study periods. There were to be two cooked dishes at dinner plus whatever vegetables might be in season, and portions of wine and bread every day.

 This created an environment in which a monk’s entire focus could be on the task at hand, not on worrying about what would happen next or even physical discomfort. Rest, after all, was coming soon, and the monks knew it.

Benedict seems to have understood that multi-tasking doesn’t work very well. Talking on the phone while driving, for example, increases the risk of accidents, and a study done by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that dealing with phone calls and e-mails while working did more damage to IQ than smoking pot. It also damages effectiveness. Apparently, the brain takes as much as twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions and re-focus on the task at hand—and of course by then there will probably be another interruption. Multi-tasking hurts memory and has an adverse affect on learning. Perhaps its most insidious effect is that over time, we can become accustomed to a constant barrage of stimulation until we require it, no matter how much harm it does. 

The Rule goes a long way toward removing distractions, even those as basic as hunger or a poor night’s sleep, and that blend of consistency, flexibility and comfort is a large part of why it succeeds. Above all, Benedict wanted to do away with grumbling, which rots both individuals and communities from the inside. He wanted his monks and nuns to have no reason to complain that their life was unfairly harsh or burdensome. Whatever they did, whether reading, work, rest or prayer, they were to do with a whole heart.

A lot of productivity and organization advice revolves around trying to get more work out of less time. We have busy, demanding lives. Hectic schedules and multi-tasking are considered normal, and the notion of a focused, regulated day seems like a quaint relic of a simpler age.

But life in 6th century Italy was anything but simple. Although the little anecdote about a guy living in a cave makes his life look peaceful, Benedict established his first successful monastery during the collapse of the Roman Empire. As petty kingdoms rose to take its place, infrastructure broke down, public safety disappeared, libraries were destroyed, education lapsed, and everyone was invading or fending off invasion.

What people lacked in information overload, they made up for in fear. Superstition was rampant. Torture and battery were acceptable discipline. Child mortality was high and life expectancy low. War was a normal part of life, famine an ever-present danger, and contagious disease could be more deadly than both combined. The Plague of Justinian struck shortly before Benedict died, and by the time it ran its course, the death toll may have reached as high as 100 million, cutting the population of Europe nearly in half.

The Rule was born of a period of upheaval and hardship, and it must have seemed just as unrealistic then as it does now.  Indeed, some sought reforms that would free them from manual labor and give them greater wealth and power. Others protested the reforms, sometimes creating orders of their own that adhered more closely to The Rule. Still, through all of this chaos and debate, The Rule of Benedict was an enduring guide, one that individuals and communities would look to for centuries.

Although we often think of monks as separated from the world, doing little aside from prayer, many who lived by The Rule were creative, productive people. Among other things, they invented the mechanical clock, copied thousands of books by hand, wrote histories, designed buildings, developed techniques for stained glass, and operated the most efficient blast furnace of its time.

Benedict probably wouldn’t like me very much. I’m not Catholic, nor especially obedient, and his brand of humility scares me. Still, when it comes to time management, I can’t shake the feeling that he was right.  Regularity and moderation are friends to both creativity and productivity. Staying up late just to get that idea down does the next day no favors. Who knows what ideas I might have had if I weren’t so tired and rushed?

Still, creating a schedule and sticking to it is a challenge for me, not the least of which because in attempting to impose regularity on my irregular life, I find I have a tendency toward creating something harsh and burdensome. I associate consistency and focus with rigidity and asceticism, and relaxation and physical comfort with decadence.

So did Benedict at first, which is why they tried to poison him, and it’s a good reminder of why efforts at time management must include flexibility and comfort. Even 6th century monks couldn’t live without them.


If anyone is interested in reading The Rule, the Order of St. Benedict makes it available online here (Problems with the link please use this link.


Jenny Twist said...

Very interesting and extremely well-written.
Jenny Twist

Mila Ramos said...

Love the fact you used a 6th century monk. I will definitely never look at things the same way when thinking of time management. :)

Ann Regentin said...

Thanks, both of you! I visited a convent many years ago, and was astonished at how smoothly it ran. When I finally encountered The Rule, I understood why.

Now if only my house ran like that! :)