Explainer
Change
8 min read

There’s much more to ‘monk mode’ than productivity hacks

In the heart of London Lianne Howard-Dace spent a year trying to live a simpler, slower life with others.

Lianne Howard-Dace is a writer and trainer, with a background in church and community fundraising.

A group of young people wearing white habits stand and laugh with each other.
Community of St Anselm members and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
CoSA.

Six years ago, I stood in white, full of nervous excitement, in front of a priest to make a vow. But it was a prayer robe, not a dress, and the priest happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. I was not getting married but joining a religious community. 

The Community of St Anselm (CoSA) was founded by Archbishop Justin Welby in 2015, and I was amongst the third cohort of young Christians, aged 20-35, committing to spending a year together. Some of my fellow community members came from across the globe, entirely stepping away from their everyday lives. They spent the year living in Lambeth Palace, devoting their time to prayer, study and service. Others, like me, remained in our homes and jobs, whilst also trying to reorientate our lives around those three worthy pastimes.

By committing to a pattern of living, giving up on the idea that I was in control and limiting my choices I found much liberation. 

In my experience, much of life - and the Christian faith in particular - is counter-intuitive. It would be a logical hypothesis to suppose that restricting your life in this way – agreeing to reorientate towards living by a set of rules and to fall into a structured way of being – would be stifling. And yet, like thousands before me, I found the complete opposite to be true.   

Our culture upholds choice; we are told that the ability to choose is the ultimate expression of freedom. And whilst this may be true with big choices – where to live, who to live with, what work to do - our brains don’t cope as well with a lot of day-to-day options as we might be led to believe. In a 2000 experiment, psychologists observed that a supermarket display with 24 different types of jam generated a lot of interest but not many sales. In contrast, a display with just six different types of jam meant people were nearly ten times more likely to go on to make a purchase. If, like me, you’re prone to spending inordinate amounts of time deciding what to have for dinner, I’m sure you can relate. 

Monks and nuns have understood this human tendency to get overwhelmed and expend energy on small decisions - suffering from what we now call decision fatigue - for many centuries. Whilst we may find the idea of a rigid schedule and a limited menu and wardrobe austere, not having to make those decisions every day can free up mental energy for other things. It’s the same reason why some tech entrepreneurs espouse the idea of wearing the same black turtleneck or grey t-shirt every day. 

Whilst my own experience of religious life was not as extreme as those who make a life-long vow, I did find that in committing to a pattern of living, giving up on the idea that I was in control and limiting my choices I found much liberation. The chatter in my mind quietened a little. I became more comfortable in my own skin. I felt more and more like my truest self. 

Attempting Cal Newport’s monk mode productivity hack by turning off our digital devices for the morning - or listening to a podcast from former Hindu monk, Jay Shetty - is as close to encountering monasticism as many of us get. CoSA draws on wisdom from several saints who themselves founded religious communities: St Benedict, St Francis and St Ignatius of Loyola. Whilst trying to emulate their way of life wasn’t always easy, I seized the opportunity to go deeper and threw myself into the intensity of the year.  

As a teenager I was always late to morning tutorial, despite being able to see my secondary school from my house. During my time in the community, I struggled to shake this habit and would usually be rushing to Lambeth Palace each Monday evening, arriving after those who had travelled from as far as Oxford, Poole and Canterbury, despite only working 10 minutes down the road. 

Those evenings were spent eating, talking and praying together and quickly became the highlight of each week for me. A time to put aside the day-to-day stresses and just try to be present with the other members of the community. We finished each gathering by praying compline, or night prayer, in the crypt at Lambeth Palace. In Celtic Christianity there is a concept of ‘thin spaces’, places where the boundary between heaven and earth seems a little more permeable. The cool, silver-lit crypt at Lambeth is one of those places for me; it seems to crackle with sacred potential. 

We also took three retreats in an Abbey during the year, near a stretch of wild Cornish coastline. Precious time away from the bustle of the city. Away from the demands of life admin and meetings and untameable inboxes. The strapline - for want of a better word – of the Community of St Anselm is “A year in God’s time”, and I think that actually sums it up pretty well. We spent a year trying to live a simpler, slower life. A life marked by prayerfulness and the sufficiency of God, rather than the bigger, better, hustle culture pressures of modern living.  

We went into these new relationships acknowledging that we wouldn’t agree on everything, but actively deciding to love each other anyway. 

Only the most disciplined of us can maintain healthy habits, like daily prayer and reflection, on our own. It’s easier to go to the gym with a buddy. The upcoming book club meeting nudges us to keep reading. I think that’s what drew me to join CoSA; I knew I needed mutual accountability and support to sustain the spiritual disciplines I craved in my life. 

In the community’s Rule of Life – the guidelines we each agreed to follow during the year – there is a line “We choose on another” and this has had a profound effect on me. The idea that we chose to put our shared life in the community ahead of everything else for that year has shaped me deeply. I have forged some amazing friendships through the community, but before we had even met each other, or learned to like each other, we chose to love each other in all our diversity and difference.  

I do find that church is one of the places I am most likely to encounter people who are different to me – particularly intergenerationally – but even in finding a place of worship, there can be a tendency to seek out one that ticks as many of one’s personal preferences as possible. In the weeks leading up to joining the community I had been unsure what to expect. Having not grown up in a Christian family, would I feel left behind? Coming from a less-wordy type of church, would I get lost in the orders of service? Would everyone think I was too socially liberal? Would I find them too conversative? 

The act of choosing one another put all of that aside. In stepping out of our everyday lives, we also stepped out of our respective echo chambers. We went into these new relationships acknowledging that we wouldn’t agree on everything, but actively deciding to love each other anyway. It was hard at times, but I came to see that whilst people had come to different conclusions on issues to me, they had done so no less thoughtfully. I came to see that we had much more in common than the things which society would say should separate us. 

In smaller ways too, I believe it is possible to choose to love others around us. We can choose to recognise the humanity of the person who is rude to us on the bus.  

I usually hate household chores, but some of my fondest memories from the year are chatting in the Lambeth Palace kitchen whilst putting away cutlery or singing together whilst washing up on retreat. By sharing the load, we learned ways to find joy in the smallest of things. And, by getting stuck into the mundane tasks of living and being together, we learned to see the humanity in each other. 

It’s no coincidence that those in long-term religious life call each other sister and brother; it’s certainly the best analogy for community life I can think of. As a child I was excited for the arrival of my siblings before I had even met them; I knew that it was my role as big sister to love them unconditionally. I’m not sure, if we weren’t related, whether my path would have crossed with my sister and brother as adults. Yet, they are some of the most important people in my life.  

In smaller ways too, I believe it is possible to choose to love others around us. We can choose to recognise the humanity of the person who is rude to us on the bus. We can choose not to assume the worst about someone’s post on social media. We can choose to share a kind word with a colleague, even if we don’t think they’ll ever return the favour.  I’m not saying that it’s easy, or that I always manage it myself, but it can be done.  

In community, on the days you have doubts about the things you are saying in morning or evening prayer, you know that your fellow members are lifting you up with their words, they are lending you a little of their belief. Learning to be held by others in that way is just one of the many gifts I took from my year in God’s time. I also learned that I do not need to be or do anything in particular to be loved by God or by others. That working out faith and belief with other people can reveal things you never would’ve found alone. 

In September, the Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed the ninth cohort of CoSA in a commitment service at Lambeth Palace. Young people from as far away as Sri Lanka, Australia and Zimbabwe made the decision to spend the next year living differently, making time for God and each other in new ways. And I, along with 23 others from around the world, Zoomed into the service and made a new commitment too. 

This year, for the first time, there is an opportunity for alumni of CoSA to become members of a dispersed community, the Chapter. Like third order Franciscans or Benedictine oblates, we will attempt to stay linked to the life of our community, alongside our everyday routines. I’m looking forward to being more intentional about re-engaging with the daily rhythms and lessons I learned in my year in community. We will have a less intensive programme of events to help us feel connected and will follow a simplified Rule of Life that focuses on learning from Jesus, seeking reconciliation and unity in the Church, serving with compassion and, of course, choosing one another. I’m excited to see what the year holds.  

Column
Change
Character
Psychology
1 min read

Look out for the outliers

Seeing the good qualities in others lifts them, benefits us, and makes the world better.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

A office worker wearing headphones looks out of a hectic and loud office space around which people are moving
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

I was talking to someone the other day. She is a website developer and she’s just changed jobs. She is not a loud person, but anyone who meets her knows she is a person of quality, of depth and presence. She emanates a humble confidence. In her old job, she worked in a quiet, fairly sedate, office where she was given the space and the time to bring all her creativity to bear on whatever brief she was given. She was known and appreciated. 

But her new job – the job she started last week – is a bit different. Her new colleagues are loud and outspoken. Silence is unknown in their office. They like to work to a soundtrack. The drum and bass keep thumping, and the banter never stops flowing. She’s finding it hard to fit in with her new team. And things weren’t made any easier when, after a few days, her new boss took her aside for a pep talk.  

What was the problem? She was ‘too quiet’.  

It hurt to hear that. It broke my heart to think that anyone could be so blind. How shortsighted do you have to be, to view the grace and peace someone carries as a problem to be solved? In a world of distressing noise and clamour, she is precisely the kind of person every office needs to temper the insanity.  

I’m not worried about her. She’s bright and innovative. She’ll work it out. Either her new boss will see sense, or she’ll leave. And if she does, the queue of employers looking for someone just like her stretches round the block. She’ll be okay. 

But it got me thinking about the kind of psychology I study. In my research, she would be called an outlier.  One of those people in a team or a family who don’t quite fit in. Not because they are weird or awkward, but because they possess some positive quality the rest of the gang don’t have. They are the creative exuberant in a team who prefer doing things by the book. The hilarious joker in a pack who like to take things seriously. The conscientious worker trying to get on with the job in an office that would rather play now and work later. The kind one in a family of cutthroat competitors.

At the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated.

The thing is we all have a unique contribution to make to the world, a one-off fingerprint of strengths and abilities never to be repeated in anyone else. In research these have been called Signature Strengths, the unique combination of positive qualities that make you you. And the weird thing is that we don’t have to try that hard to be them. If you are naturally kind, or wise, or grateful, or disciplined you won’t be able to stop yourself being that way. They come effortlessly to us. And if someone tries to stop us being the loving thoughtful faithful person we know ourselves to be, it is like losing a limb. If we find ourselves in a context where the most beautiful things about us are unwelcome – like my friend the website developer – it is like being rejected, right to the core.  

But here’s the cool thing. If we can live by our Signature Strengths – if we can wake up each morning and ask the question, how can I use my unique positive qualities in a new way today? – it leads to remarkable improvements in wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown that those who live like this, thinking about how they can bring what is best in them to the opportunities and obstacles of each day, report increased happiness in living. Not only that, but they also show reduced anxiety, stress and depression. It turns out being good is good for us. Who knew. 

That’s not the whole story though. To really be our best, we need other people to spot these strengths in us. If they don’t, we feel confined, unable to be ourselves in some way. When I ask people what it is like not to be able to bring their best qualities to the people around them, they come up with some pretty dark images. It is lonely, isolating, a desert, a fog, a prison, like being trapped in a cage. And when researchers ask people why they consider leaving their current job, their answers often reflect something like this. Work-life balance and salary are no doubt important, but often, at the top of the list of reasons for wanting to leave work are the words: I am not appreciated. Something good we wanted to give has not been received. We feel unseen. 

So that’s why I say: look out for the outliers. Who is it in your family, your workplace, your neighbourhood, who goes underappreciated? Who do you know who has something good to give, but needs some help to give it? Because if we can learn to see those invisible beautiful qualities in the people around us, we not only give them the joy of being known, we also invite more light and flavour into the world. Life becomes a little less grey. 

I just hope my friend’s new boss can learn this while he still has the chance. It is tough for her to feel so misunderstood, but it’s worse for him. She can move on, but he has to remain in an office deprived of the humble compassion she would have brought to it. It’s a question worth asking. What gift of beauty and goodness are we excluding from the world because we failed to see past the packaging?