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How to Change Your Momentum in a Week or Two

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During the late 2000s, around when I started this blog, there was a trend among young male entrepreneurs called “Monk Mode.”

Everyone had a different idea of what that term meant, but generally it referred to taking a definite period of time – a week to three months or more – to focus with unusual intensity on certain important and fruitful pursuits, while abstaining from certain distracting or self-defeating activities.

Somewhat like a monk, you would voluntarily adopt a standard of heightened discipline, following a few non-negotiable rules, in order to bring certain important things to the fore of your life. A person might do this in order to launch a website, finish a manuscript, or return to the level of fitness they enjoyed in college.  

The last time I heard this phrase was around 2009, and at the time it seemed indistinguishable from “working hard until I finish this current project,” which is what I was always trying to do anyway.

The Ancient Art of Exponential Progress

Recently I heard the term Monk Mode again, and it had a ring to it that it didn’t before. In intervening years I’d been on five silent retreats, semi-monastic environments in which you sequester yourself from social and electronic diversions, and live by certain rules of conduct called precepts, in order to create the best possible conditions for advancing your meditation practice in a relatively short time.

It really works. In seven or ten days you can permanently level up your contemplative skills, perhaps as much as you would in several years of more casual daily practice, because of this short and intense emphasis on one thing.

This kind of regimen has to be short though. As potent as a silent retreat is, a week or more away from the world is hard to arrange, and keeping up that standard for months or years isn’t practical. Too many things have to be sacrificed for too long.

The principle behind the retreat format is very powerful though: double down on certain important activities, abstain from behaviors that undermine these efforts, and limit this intensified regimen to a short enough period that you can actually complete it, rather than quit in a huff or drift away from it gradually.  

In a good mode

Monk Mode, as I conceive of it, is a way of leveraging this principle to a less intense degree. You still focus on a certain kind of self-development work for a short period (perhaps writing, meditating, practicing piano, or lifting barbells), you still commit to a list of no-no’s during that time (perhaps no alcohol, no social media, or no sugar), but aside from that you live life normally.

Essentially you’re committing to a new lifestyle standard in certain respects, but for a short enough time that you can sustain the effort to the end.

You might enter Monk Mode for a number of reasons:

  • To finish a particular project
  • To get past a plateau, or out of a rut
  • To go deeper into an activity than you have before
  • To get back into something you’ve been neglecting
  • To end a period of complacency

For example, say you want to get back to your pre-pandemic level of fitness. The conventional way to go about this is the resolution approach. You slam your fist on the table, perhaps literally, and declare, “Enough is enough! Starting today I’m going to work out again and stop eating crap!” Essentially, you’re making a lifelong commitment to live with greater discipline and sacrifice, with nothing behind it but the emotional surge you are feeling in this moment. You already know how this tends to go.

What if, instead, you could enter a 14-day Monk Mode, in which you visit the gym three times a week, abstain from foods with added sugar, and stretch dutifully every morning and evening. This commitment is finite and doable, and will undoubtedly put you on a much better trajectory by the end of it. Then you figure out a sensible next step, from the new and more confident place your stint in Monk Mode has brought you to.

If fourteen days is too much, make it seven. If abstaining from all added sugar is too much, just do it for the breakfast meal. Dial the standard and duration to settings you know you can complete.

Four Essential Ingredients

Theoretically, you can do anything with your Monk Mode period. Maybe you want to deep clean the house, complete an online cooking course you bought last year, or read a big chunk of Joan Didion’s work. Maybe you want to improve your bench press after a lengthy plateau, get away from TikTok and Reddit, or write a song for the first time in a decade.

(There are definitely parallels here to the Depth Year, if you’re familiar with the concept, only with a closer and more achievable horizon.)

Whatever the goal, I believe a good Monk Mode plan should always involve:

  • A commitment to do certain amounts of certain kinds of work
  • A commitment to abstain from certain distractions or vices
  • Definite rules for both of these things
  • A definite start and stop date

Whatever your particular commitments are, they should feel challenging but absolutely doable for the duration you’ve chosen. Ambitious but not audacious.

They also need to be precise. Not “Start working out again,” but rather, “Do the Stronglifts program three times a week for two weeks.”

That’s my way of thinking about it, anyway. If you read online accounts of Monk Mode, they’re all different. Many of them recommend long durations (one to three months) and involve isolating yourself socially somewhat, à la Thoreau. I can see how that might help you enter a nose-to-grindstone mentality, but it would also make this a lot less accessible for most people. (As I said, Monk Mode fans have historically been mostly young, entrepreneur-scene dudes.)

It does make sense to select solitary activities, however. Monk Mode is a commitment to facing your own hesitation and complacency, often in the form of taking up physical tools in a dedicated workspace – just you and the barbell, the canvas, or the works of George Orwell.

My 10-day Monk Mode Experiment

I’m going to do a short Monk Mode as my next Raptitude experiment.

My main goals are to reinvigorate my meditation practice as I prepare for a proper silent retreat in September, and to remind my body what it’s like to lift barbells and leave alcohol and refined carbs out of my diet.

As opposed to my usual health-focused campaigns, I’m not doing this with any sort of “from this day forward” type resolution, just a very doable 10-day stint of higher standards in these areas.

Each day, for the ten days, I’m going to:

  • Meditate 50 minutes in the morning and have at least one other sitting of at least 10 minutes
  • Avoid all grains, added sugar, cheese, and potatoes
  • Abstain from alcohol and other substances

I’m also going to:

  • Fast completely on two of the days
  • Do strength training six of eight the non-fasting days and run on the other two

Those are the parameters of my Monk Mode this time. I expect this regimen to bring me, after ten days, to a place where I feel physically and mentally pretty good. It should also break the momentum of certain late summer laissez-faire consumption habits.

This experiment also happens to be a good opportunity to confront another long-held aversion, which is posting myself in video format. Instead of only doing the usual written updates on the experiment log, I’ll also post video updates on Raptitude’s new Instagram profile. You can follow me there if you want to track my progress or are otherwise curious.  

If you’d like to do your own Monk Mode project, feel free to share your plans in the comments here or on the experiment log page.

When you design your own regimen, just remember to make it modest and short enough that you know you’ll complete it. You can go for the gold next time – this time just make a finish line you can reach.

***

Photos by Liz Sanchez-Vegas and Quinten de Graaf

{ 30 Comments }

Anoop Abraham August 11, 2022 at 2:35 am

Wonderful and inspiring post! Thanks David!

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Anne August 11, 2022 at 3:07 am

Timely, as in desperation I’ve been considering taking 3 months or so to try and improve a health condition with a diet that is quite restrictive to start with and has to be approached very methodically. It’s near-impossible to do it and have a social life that includes food, which mine often does, but if the diet worked, my quality of life would be improved. After several failed attempts, I’ve been concluding that I need to go for it and for that time not eat out or at friends’ houses – though they’d still be able to come to me. “Monk mode” is exactly it, and naming it as that helps hugely. I was feeling bad about asking friends to fall in with what I want to do – but it’s a limited time and might bring big improvements. Very helpful – thankyou. I also love the concept of the shorter period. I had hoped to spend this month having a big declutter, but so far haven’t achieved very much. I think I may focus on it for the next two weeks, together with one or two health tweaks – maybe drinking more water as I’d be spending decluttering time in my hot attic, and rewarding myself with healthy rather than sugary treats.
Very inspiring!

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David Cain August 11, 2022 at 10:21 am

Social influences are by far the hardest part about dietary restriction for me. It’s morning of Day One and I’ve already been offered the most beautiful homemade cheesecake I’ve ever seen.

Best of luck with your two-week experiment. Let us know how it goes.

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Bonnie Truax August 11, 2022 at 3:15 am

Thank you David, I always enjoy your writing. “Monk Mode” does have a nice ring to it, so much better than just a time to focus. It just seems more important. :)

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Anne Mc August 11, 2022 at 6:51 am

Such a great post! I’m also in a late summer malaise, indulging more than usual (I don’t feel so great on waking up in the mornings), being lazy around workouts, and remiss in my writing (and meditating!) — so, thanks for this Monk Mode idea.

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David Cain August 11, 2022 at 10:33 am

One of my hopes is that even a short period away from certain indulgences will remind me how much better I feel on the days I happen to abstain. If you’re used to feeling a little less than great, it’s easy to forget how much better you can feel with better inputs.

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Julia August 11, 2022 at 8:13 am

David! Me encantan tus ideas! Usare MONK MODE para hacer un progreso sólido en el piano! También se lo asignaré a mis estudiantes de música.

Btw I’m learning Spanish right now in prep for a trip to Panama. I think my piano would get a rocket from MONK MODE.

¡gracias! ¡Eres la mejor!

Julia

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David Cain August 11, 2022 at 12:27 pm

For sure. Imagine even a single week in which you double your piano (or Spanish) practice time.

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Mary-Ann Owens August 11, 2022 at 9:10 am

Thanks, David, I loved the idea of a short period to strengthen an area one wants to work on. It is a good reminder of how I aim to live. I have been on two 10-day vipassana meditation workshops. We eat so well, vegetarian and less food. I usually lose 5 pounds on it and feel like a million dollars in so many ways by the end. Mary-Ann

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David Cain August 11, 2022 at 10:36 am

My relationship to food really changes on a retreat. I eat modestly and slowly and there’s very little tendency to overindulge. The conditions of a retreat really support any effort to abstain.

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Ashley Kung August 11, 2022 at 11:10 am

Wow. This idea REALLY appeals to me. The difficult part is deciding what one or two things I would focus on. I can immediately think of a dozen or more things, and I feel the analysis paralysis setting in. I know from past experience I just have to pick something and go with it. I could easily go “monk mode” for a week just on the process of analyzing and choosing which things to go monk mode on LOL.

I’ll just pick something and try it. Thank you.

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David Cain August 11, 2022 at 12:22 pm

Why not just give yourself ten minutes to brainstorm all the possible focal activities you might do, then ten more to choose the two or three you’ll do first. The thing about focusing on anything is that it entails deliberately NOT focusing on everything else, so I guess that’s part of the practice.

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Sharon Hanna August 11, 2022 at 11:45 am

On my way to the gym shortly. First time in years….I used to teach fitness!! Did yoga for a while but that place went bust, then there was Covid. Not going to give up wine though, haha. I don’t like sweet things so that is never a problem – could have chocolate or cookies or ?? in my cupboard and it would sit there. But wine, hmmmmm. It is my youngest child’s 39th birthday today and he doesn’t want to celebrate it – was going to wallow and feel a tiny bit sorry for myself but so glad I read your Raptitude.

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David Cain August 11, 2022 at 12:25 pm

Welcome back to the gym! I’ve been going consistently but I just rejoined my old barbell gym and I’m so glad to be back.

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Ashley Kung August 11, 2022 at 12:41 pm

Lol, a short time limit to decide would probably do it. I don’t know why I don’t think of these things myself. If I tell myself I have a whole week to decide something, I’ll take the whole week and go way overboard on researching cool things I could focus on instead of just the few things at hand that are readily available and that I already know I should focus on. Thanks!

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Ashley Kung August 11, 2022 at 12:42 pm

Oops, this was meant to be a direct reply to you, David.

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Anna August 11, 2022 at 1:12 pm

After i read your comment you made to a subscriber after your last piece of writing….
‘It is always amusing to me that to most of you I am this distant Other Person coming at you through the ether mostly in the form of words. Meanwhile I’m sitting here in my pajama pants typing into a laptop’….
i realised that all we ever see is this flat picture of you so i looked on youtube to see what you looked like in movement (only in a curious way… not stalker wierdo way :-D )
I found only one video and i was so HAPPY to see you talking … you really are a human being! You look like your picture. You spoke eloquently and with humility, it was very interesting. I thought to myself that you should do more videos and now you say you are doing more videos! :-)
I’ve just done a very quick video on my daughters account so you and the other subscribers can see a subscriber not just through comments and a flat little picture. :-)
It was a bit difficult because i usually only speak french…. I married a french farmer 20 years ago and live in the middle of the countryside surrounded by cows and sunflowers.
https://youtu.be/p03jRdu5Dd0
It’s called ‘Hello David and his subscribers’ if you can’t find it clicking the adress above.
Thanks again!!!
Anna

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Mel August 12, 2022 at 3:23 am

I can totally relate to you, Anna. :-D I’m currently doing (and loving) Camp Calm and David offers some guided audio there. The first time I heard one, I was like “wow, David has a voice…”. And it works quite well for guided meditations. I don’t have an Instagram account, but I’m certainly being curious about those videos.
Which is so interesting, because we know so much about how David’s mind works and how he sees the world and most can relate to his experiences so well but it still takes some more sensory input than reading his words to make him “more human”.

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Anna August 12, 2022 at 6:52 am

Hello Mel, I was so happy to see your comment because i thought perhaps i shouldnt have hijacked the comments page like that :-) I am so in my own rosy bubble… just post things without thinking sometimes. I am glad you understand !

Im thinking of doing camp calm one year just too busy this year.
Have a good day!
Anna

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David Cain August 12, 2022 at 9:26 am

Hey thanks Anna. I have some kind of psychological block around video. It’s really hard for me to do, but we’ll see what I come up with. I’ll start small for sure.

Your video really made my day! It’s great to see a real face behind the words.

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Anna August 12, 2022 at 4:30 pm

I know how you feel because i felt really uncomfortable doing my video… i couldnt even remember how to speak english and its my mother tongue. In your video however you didnt stumble on your words, you looked like you new exactly what you were talking about. Any discomfort you feel will go after practice probably or maybe not… some actors actually throw up before they perform on stage every time but as long as it doesnt affect their performance it is actually normal… it doesnt mean they are not meant to act. If however people can feel you are not enjoying the experience it may shine through a bit. I wonder how you can get your head to enjoy it or want to do it? Anyways im just thinking out loud. Im glad watching my video made your day. :-)

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David Cain August 15, 2022 at 3:36 pm

Thanks Anna. It is getting a lot easier with each video. I feel like I’ll be over this trepidation soon just by doing it anyway.

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Heather August 11, 2022 at 1:44 pm

Good luck, David. You’ve done things like this before successfully and I have confidence you can do it again here. For me, this would be too much, too many moving parts. Just putting down sugar or just lifting weights or just meditating would be enough of a challenge for me. Decades ago I began a successful weight loss process by focusing only on not opening the fridge between meals. Just that. It took a lot of awareness and energy and self discipline but it got me moving in a productive direction. You’ve exercised your “focus muscles” enough that you can optimistically take on this challenge. Rooting for you and looking forward to reading your reflections.

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David Cain August 12, 2022 at 9:29 am

There are quite a few moving parts, for sure. They’re all things I’ve done before though, which is why I’m confident I can do them all at once. That’s the beauty of monk mode though. You can dial up whatever standard and duration you think you can complete.

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Jordan August 13, 2022 at 7:29 pm

David, I can’t believe how perfect the timing of this is.

I just barely avoided a cold scare from my wife as we’re two weeks away from finishing our move to a new house, and also in the middle/nearing tail end of heavy planting season on the farm for fall crops (read: last chance for plants in the ground).

So lots of work ahead. I’ve been cutting back on drinking to one drink a day, and it’s great. But not as great as not drinking at all. And I think that one glass per evening *just* makes it that much more difficult to get out of bed ten minutes early to make room for meditation in the morning before I have to rush out the door to meet the employees at the farm.

Until every last item is moved into the new house and every last planting on my list is in the ground in the next two weeks:

• No drinking (one cheat beer at the market over lunch)
• No added sugar (one cheat ice cream cone per market day — post-market)
• Meditate and 5-10 minutes of stretching every morning (did three days in a row last week and felt awesome those three days, then mysteriously stopped…)

Thanks for this post! Impeccable timing.

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David Cain August 15, 2022 at 3:35 pm

Good luck with your two weeks. I notice a big difference between one drink a day and zero. As much as I love whiskey I know my body prefers it when I have no alcohol most days.

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Michelle August 15, 2022 at 10:02 am

Just got to this post today, and it’s very well-timed, because my phone broke over the weekend and I’ve been feeling myself twitch every few minutes as I reflexively reach for it. This seems like a good invitation to take this period of enforced better habits and turn it into something intentional!

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Cynthia August 21, 2022 at 4:43 pm

It’s perfect timing for a little monk mode around here. I’ve been trying to get back into a regular habit of mobility exercises and have improved my rate of doing them from zero times per week to maybe 1-2 times per week. I’m going to:

— do Mobility One every day until Labor Day, adding one exercise onto the typical routine that I do every day
— make sure that I walk at least 2 miles each day

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P.J September 7, 2022 at 10:10 pm

Amazing!! You are absolutely right. September/October to me are much more meaningful in terms of schism from the conventional months. I could care less about January or December since I don’t see life as a linear ruler but more as a global timeline with various episodic events. But in any case Monk mode appeals to me an I feel that it is exactly what I need now. Focus has always been a challenge and it’s a huge effort for me to concentrate BUT I know that if I do I become super efficient and can connect the “dots”. Many times I wanted to either go to a
Monastery of even do the pilgrimage in northern Spain. I feel like I owe it to myself and maybe the world so I can contribute and help others on the way….Peace….

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vexfoco September 22, 2022 at 4:10 am

I like it, Amazing!!

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