Productivity, because the real gurus were the medieval monks

Even early devout Christians loved to look for ways to make the most of their days. Just like we are today obsessed with bizarre routines of tech entrepreneurs, the fourth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo wondered about the strategies for productivity adopted by the apostles. Neither The work of the monks, Augustine wondered how Paul divided his day. If the apostle had written down his habits, the monks would have had a valuable guide to follow, wrote Augustine. Other monks, however, have left us some guidelines: La Benedictine rulefrom the 6th century, established a strict routine for monks, which included advice on when and what to eat, how long to work, and how to maintain one’s habits while travelling.

The relationship with innovations

Naturally, even the best of routines can be thwarted by new technologies. In the 4th century, a strange innovation began to make the monks suspicious: the codex. A forerunner of the book, the codex offered a more elegant way of organizing long texts than parchment scrolls, which until then had been the most popular way of storing texts. Thanks to easy-to-count pages and its pillow-like shape, some monks feared that the codices would distract the monks’ attention from the contents of the pages.

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Others, however, saw the potential for improving learning in the new technology. “When modern critics of distractions suggest we should read more books, they have monks to thank for their efforts that have made this technology a more effective ally in the struggle for concentration.“, writes Kreiner. New technologies offer ways to go deeper into our work, but only if we use them right.

Despite common beliefs, maybe monks aren’t all that technophobic after all. Today, for example, the nuns they use TikTok to show the world their cloisters. Kreiner imagines that even the first devout Christians would have grappled with social media. After all, it was St. Jerome who invented the ancestor of subtweets, Twitter posts that talk about other users without directly quoting them: “He was so critical that when he said something that other monks were afraid of, he was talking about them”, says Krieiner.

Instead of turning to modern productivity gurus, perhaps we could draw some wisdom from a study of the lives of history’s first workaholics. Just like us, monks doubted themselves and looked to the lives of others for inspiration. They traded barbs and obsessed over the most effective routines for their jobs. But even the most devout monks knew that the attainment of absolute determination could only take a moment. After all, they were mere human beings.

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This article originally appeared on Wired UK.


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