An Experiment in Focus, Space, and Making Progress on Something Difficult

Sam Spurlin
5 min readJul 8, 2022

Today, Friday, July 8th, I’m commencing a four-week experiment centered on the need to make progress on an important project. In what I’m hoping isn’t a too egregious case of cultural appropriation, I’m calling it Monk Mode.

This article, and this experiment more broadly, are part of the project that I’m trying to optimize my environment and my mental state to make progress on. This thread is a good overview of the intention. Broadly, I absolutely must make progress on capturing, codifying, and articulating the swirling ideas that make up The Deliberate. My feint toward writing a book proposal at the end of last year’s sabbatical was my first true attempt at figuring out whether the things I’ve been writing and thinking about for the better part of 11 years could be coalesced into something coherent. The proposal itself was a failure in the sense that I didn’t finish it or shop it around, but it was a grand success in that it helped push me in a more productive direction in how I think about all of this stuff. I realized that I don’t want to contrast it against “self-help.” I realized that it’s about more than just self-experimentation. I realized that it’s about uniting an intense desire for personal growth without using dissatisfaction or guilt as the driving force. It’s both intensely philosophical and almost simplistically practical.

Since then I’ve been writing a bit, tinkering with the idea of Deliberate Patterns and a public Deliberate Pattern Library quite a bit, and feel like I might be ready to take another stab at pulling these tangled threads into something more than the Gordian Knot they seem to be right now. Perhaps the attempted book proposal in September of last year was the slice that slew the Gordian Knot and I’ve been organizing the fallout since then. Can I do something with these newly separated, discrete, and separated threads? That’s what this experiment is all about.

Frankly, it’s also about doing something to honor these ideas enough that they will finally leave me alone. I’ve felt like I have something profound to say about these ideas for the better part of a decade and not figuring out the words — or more accurately, not making the time and space so that I can figure out the words — is driving me crazy. I need these ideas to leave me alone. I need to give them a home so they can stop living in my head.

Sometimes Deliberate Patterns are about making small tweaks to your life. So small that they seem almost inconsequential and yet, in my experience, these small tweaks often open up new lines of inquiry and self-knowledge that I could not have predicted. This experiment, Monk Mode, is not that. This is more in the realm of what we would call “radical change at (relatively) non-radical scale.” In Cal Newport’s parlance from Deep Work, this experiment is a Grand Gesture. A Grand Gesture is a seismic shift in your normal routine that signifies and amplifies the importance, in your own mind, of the thing you’re setting out to do. Monk Mode is deliberately disruptive because I need my brain to treat this project with the proper gravity.

So, what about Monk Mode is going to be so disruptive? Here’s my current list of “rules” and routine modifications for this endeavor:

  • Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, all podcasts, and 99% of all my notifications are no longer accessible through my phone.
  • I need to complete at least one hour of a focused (no distractions) work session every day.
  • All workouts/triathlon training must happen without headphones.
  • I need to complete at least one 20 minute meditation session every day.
  • I need to listen to the same music during my focused work session (Tycho) every day.
  • I need to do a very brief written reflection (just a couple sentences) before I go to sleep about how the day went.
  • I need to put my Playstation, Switch, Oculus, and guitar in a closet.

Everything in the list above, and the new things I will undoubtedly add to it over the coming weeks, is about creating space and silence. Difficult and complex writing endeavors require both of these things (at least for me). The ideas I need to develop and eventually cohere into something sensible are not going to be served by a surface-level effort any longer. I’m already good at surface-level. Almost everything I’ve done for the past decade is a result of my ability to do good surface-level work. But it’s time to see if I can do something a little bit more complex and a little more rich than my normal fare. I need these ideas to simmer like a good chili — low and slow to let the flavors develop into something more than the sum of their parts.

This experiment is happening along side my normal and relatively intense (at least cognitively/intellectually intense) day job at The Ready. Hence the relatively low time commitment to focused work on this project. I hope I can muster more than an hour every day, but even just an hour of focused effort a day paired with the space and silence for the ideas to keep marinating in between sessions will represent a phase change in the quality of attention I’ve given this project in… probably ever.

And as far as the project itself goes? Well, I’m letting that emerge. I don’t know if this thing needs to become a book or a series of articles or a series of talks or some other creative output that I haven’t even conceptualized, yet. What matters is that I create something that feels like the canonical version of my best thinking on these topics. I want it to be something that is inspiring and useful to the people like me who find this way of thinking and living interesting and exciting and would love to connect to other people who think this way and want a bit of a framework to work with. Basically, I want to write what 11 year ago me was looking for and unable to find when he first started down this path of thinking about the intersection of attention, personal development, and philosophy. If I can make that version of myself happy then I think this version of myself can be happy, too.

Subscribe to The Deliberate to stay up to date on how this experiment, and all my future work around these topics, goes. Twitter is also another place to get a slightly more unfiltered look into what I’m thinking about and working on.