You can do anything in a monastery

The "personal productivity" game has been one I've been playing for half a decade now. Initially, what all productivity systems offer, like GTD, Personal Kanban, or the Seinfeldian Chain, is hope, and for those of us drowning in a pit of our own doubts, anxieties, and incompetence, that's all we really want. In order to keep us going back out into the horrid world every day, we need to know that a) the way we feel is not "correct" or inevitable, and b) there is an alternative, one that doesn't involve leaving our home and family to become a Tree Person, one that fits in with the life we'd like to lead.

Our lives are mostly made up of modular units of ingrained, repeated action and thought which we call "habits". Any kind of self-improvement necessarily involves stopping some habits and creating new ones, and so the success we have implementing any new system is directly tied to how well we can manipulate our habits. (I'm just setting up some axioms.)

Sometimes in our lives, there are periods where the highs and lows of our experience kind of level off, and we find ourselves just "doing our thing", riding a momentum of habit and structure and goals where nothing is really bad, nothing is really good, and there are no big surprises. These periods don't last long; maybe a day or two; maybe only an hour. But in those times we actually have the most power to change our lives.

It takes some practice to recognize these opportunities when they happen, but when they do, you should see that now is my chance to start seeing that bad habit as bad and before I do it; notice the bad impulse prior to the habit. Or conversely, see the gap where we can plug in this new great habit that we learned about, a weekly review, "family business" scrums with your spouse, push-ups, whatever.

In those lulls of life's madness, we don't strictly need our "habit architecture" to keep a roof over our heads. It's the perfect time to change things up with our status quo. The time to tear down a wall is when you're not leaning on it.

The problem is that these periods of opportunity are too short for new behavioral patterns to become ingrained and automatic. Before the path can be well-trod, new avalanches of change and panic and temptation and commitment are threatening to wipe away what is important to us, and we are quick to (subconsciously) return to those patterns which have served us (or seemed to serve us) in the past. We soon find ourselves back where we started, cursing ourselves for being too weak or too stupid to ever change, or else cursing the new fancy system for not being robust to life's slings and arrows, or both.

The paradox is that when we most need our new habits to shine and really work for us, is when they are least likely to work: the first time out of the gate. All of that shiny new hope that the system has built up in us is so easily tarnished by the system's inevitable failure to bear fruit. Because it's not a habit yet. It's just a thing we thought of. It's a purely intellectual artifact which has not yet been welded to reality by the sustained heat of mindfulness and repetition.

None of this seems hard during those lulls. We always get big ideas on vacation, or in the shower, or on retreat. The calm of "reality on pause" lets us see how free we actually are to change our habits, but everyday life is standing by to make us too afraid to try the moment we step outside.

That's why I tell myself "You can do anything in a monastery", meaning in an atmosphere of gentle regimentation, free from the unexpected, and with few sense pleasures to provide false goals, manipulating habits is easy. It's when you have to be making such changes "in flight" that the task takes on its true monumental difficulty.

But those "monastery moments" are always there waiting for us, if we learn to see them. We step back inside and are reminded about that Thing we want to do, that habit or skill or attitude that we've already figured out that we deserve. And with enough trips back there we can learn to fortify that same peaceful resolve that we feel during our downtime so that it can survive the fieriest blast of life's great Inconvenience Cannons. That's who we want to be, the person who can maintain their habits of fun and self-care, not when it's convenient, but when it's inconvenient. That's when it counts.

Anybody can be mindful in a monastery. Only a true Mensch can be mindful in a shitstorm. That's who I want to be.

People with bad handwriting are dumb (myself included)

For all the wrong reasons