The Focus of a Monk

Steve Told Us

By Leo Babauta

As I write this, I’m on a long plane ride — I’ve written many posts on planes and trains, and I find it actually much easier to write this way despite the shakiness of my laptop on these rides.

It’s easy to write on planes and trains because there’s not as much to do. I don’t get the Internet option on planes because it really limits my options. That’s a good thing for focus.

On planes, I can do one of a few things: read, watch a movie, sleep, or write. Those are all good options, but they’re limited. I tend to think about it for a minute, and then choose one to focus on for a while.

At home and at work, however, our options are unlimited. And our brains seem to want to do it all, when we have unlimited options. We tend to jump from one thing to another, endlessly, until the sweet release of sleep takes us from all of our choices.

Monks have long been people with limited options, intentionally. They’re like people who ride on planes (without buying Internet) — they can read, write, pray, eat, clean, meditate (or commune with God, depending on their religion). All day, every day. And usually, they have spots in the day for each of these.

This makes pristine focus easy.

What if we could develop the pristine focus of a monk? It’s not that they have superpowers — though this kind of training will ultimately develop your capacity to focus — but they have the structure and the limited options that lead to focus.

Let’s talk about how to put those ideas into action.

The Pristine Focus of One Thing

Imagine that you sit for a minute, and let your heart (or your schedule) choose one thing to focus on. Just one, for a limited period of time (let’s say 10 minutes, or 30).

Now you cut off all other options. Ruthlessly. It’s just you and this one thing.

You’ll be tempted to move away from the one thing, but you’ve committed yourself. So you turn towards it. And you focus.

You feel like turning away, but you’re committed. You breathe. Maybe you get up and stretch. Then you come back to focus.

This is training in pristine focus. And you get better at it with practice.

Everything you do starts to become easier, calmer. You make a bigger impact with each day, while being less busy. This one simple practice, resulting in everything you’ve been wanting.

Structure to Support Focus

That kind of pristine focus doesn’t come for free — you have to commit yourself to it.

And having structure to your day can really help you focus on one thing. If it’s time to meditate, that’s what you’re focusing on, exclusively. If it’s time to write, that’s what you’re devoted to.

So think about the things you want to focus on exclusively when you do them. Some ideas:

  • An important project
  • Exercise
  • Answering email
  • Finances
  • A creative project
  • Journaling
  • Meditation or yoga

And so on. You might have others — playing music, crafting, reading. What would you like to have pristine focus for in your day?

Then block them off on your calendar. Don’t block off the whole day — maybe between 2/3rds and 3/4ths of your available time — because you need time for unexpected things, and taking care of yourself. You need space between things.

Then trust the structure you come up with. Let the structure support your practice of pristine focus on one thing at a time. Let this be your practice of devotion.