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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 51

Good Habits

Words by Francis Martin.
The pros and cons of #monkmode.

In 1948, the English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor left high-spirited postwar Paris for a Benedictine monastery in Normandy, hoping that a dose of austerity would help him complete his book.1 It did not start well. On the first night, he sat in his cell, drinking what was left of the brandy he’d brought with him, feeling miserable. “I suffered what Pascal declared to be the cause of all human evils,” he wrote, referring to Blaise Pascal’s assertion that our inability to sit still in a room is the cause of humanity’s ills. But after a few days, Fermor found that “in this silent place,” his need for conversation and distraction was fading, and he was left with “nineteen hours a day of absolute and god-like freedom” that he could fill with work.

If Fermor was posting on social media today, he might describe himself as having gone “monk mode”—an online productivity trend in which participants commit to a lifestyle characterized by early mornings; regular exercise; no socializing, alcohol or drugs; and a single-minded focus on work.

The hashtag #monkmode has over 70 million views on TikTok and one of its chief evangelists, 24-year-old Iman Gadzhi, has more than 3.5 million subscribers on YouTube. In his videos, Gadzhi exhorts his predominantly male, teenage audience to practice monk mode as he does, and assures them that success like his will follow. (In another video, Gadzhi shows off his $3 million watch collection.)

But the materialism that often seems to inspire monk mode is a far cry from the ideals of those choosing to follow a true monastic life. Liz Dodd, for example, has recently taken her vows with the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, a Roman Catholic religious order founded in the UK and active now in the US. Whereas Gadzhi and his acolytes are seeking productivity that begets material wealth, Dodd’s pathway is different: She was enjoying a busy, successful career as a journalist in the UK but now lives without personal property, and unlike for those practicing monk mode, the “distractions come first.” 

In Dodd’s case, this means prioritizing the needs of those who seek shelter with her community: asylum seekers, pregnant teenagers and people fleeing from domestic abuse. “If we put ourselves and our self-improvement first, all of that would be a distraction. But when you flip that and say ‘the distractions are real life, and the control is the illusion,’ that’s a more exciting and freer way to live,” she says.

But to dismiss monk mode as simply a crude, capitalist adulteration of the ideals of religious life is too simplistic. Dodd herself sees some commonality between monk mode and her first year as a novice, when she lived a semi-enclosed life within the community. “You give up pretty much all outside engagement for the first year,” she explains. “I guess you go into ‘monk mode.’ You don’t really socialize, and the focus is inward: You’re just focused on prayer, discernment and spiritual reading.”

In its promise to help you increase productivity by cultivating a mindset free from the need for immediate gratification, monk mode does imply a degree of self-discovery, but it is not conceived of as a permanent way of life. Gadzhi claims that, when he’s not in monk mode, he parties harder than anyone he knows, and to Dodd, this “speaks to the sadness of it.”2 “It’s the sense that monk mode is something so dismal that you endure it, like a diet, for a short amount of time to make yourself better or more productive or more worthy. And then when you’ve ticked that box, you can go out and have fun.”

“Monk mode is something so dismal
that you endure it, like a diet, for a
short amount of time.”

Dodd’s vows include a commitment to poverty and chastity, but they only apply for three years, after which she can either renew them for life, commit for a further three years or decide to leave. Since her first year as a novice, Dodd has not been cut off from the world, but that formative year of discipline has equipped her to live in a way that honors her calling. “I’ve had enough silence and solitude and time away from my smartphone to learn my own value without distractions or the outside world,” she says. “Now, knowing my own value, I can go to the pub and watch the rugby and enjoy it!”

Mason Kuhr is a social media influencer and the founder of what he describes as a “holistic supplement brand.” In a TikTok video on his experience of monk mode, he promises to explain “why monk mode is a massive waste of your time.”

Kuhr explains his thinking on a call from Florida, saying that monk mode was a means to an end, and while it was helpful when building his business, he couldn’t do it all the time: “We’re alive for a period, and if we make our sole pursuit about some achievement or object of desire, we’re missing the point.”

He also warns against a tendency among some to use monk mode as a way to avoid social interaction, echoing Dodd’s suggestion that the avowed abstinence that is often a part of monk mode “comes out of a sense of fear”—a far cry from her own vow of celibacy which leaves her “free, in a sense, to be in a loving relationship with everybody.”

Several of Kuhr’s points match up with Dodd’s, though the differences in their personalities and lifestyles make it easy to miss the common ground. When talking about how some young men use monk mode as a “Band-Aid,” and an excuse not to engage with women, Kuhr boasts that he had already been enjoying “the rotation of women these guys were seeking from Andrew Tate–style stuff,” and monk mode helped him to avoid such “distractions.”

Tate—a kickboxer and social media personality currently under investigation for human trafficking in Romania—is a specter that looms over much of the young male–audience internet, and monk mode sits adjacent to what he preaches about the importance of wealth, gender roles and male dominance. It’s noticeable that there are very few women talking about the trend and I ask Kuhr why. Monk mode, he says, is about “discipline and routine, which is a masculine energy pursuit,” and so the only women who might be tempted would be “more masculine women.”

Kuhr presents himself as hypermasculine: His TikTok on monk mode is, for no obvious reason, filmed shirtless, and another post shows him on a firing range, unloading a handgun next to a sign that reads: “You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy.” It’s a far cry from Dodd’s life, where she couldn’t own a gun even if she wanted to—and not just because she lives in a country that prohibits owning firearms. Everything she uses is owned communally, even if some objects, like her phone, are treated as personal possessions.3

The community aspect of monastic life is perhaps the most glaring difference between monk mode as practiced by the would-be entrepreneurs and those who have dedicated their lives to God. Jonathan Herbert is a member of the Hilfield Franciscan community in Dorset, England, and the author of a book on social isolation. He starts our conversation by highlighting a distinction between friars and monks: The latter live enclosed lives almost exclusively dedicated to prayer, and while the former take comparable vows and share a commitment to prayer, their work is outward-facing and engaged with the world. 

Herbert is neither a friar nor a monk, but he and his wife live and work in the friary alongside the brothers who have taken vows and the volunteers and visitors who come to share in the community’s life. The days are rhythmed by prayer and shared meals, only a few of which are eaten in companionable silence. There are about 25 in the community at present, Herbert says, “ranging from three weeks old to 83, and people generally have a Christian faith or are very sympathetic to it.”

Over the years, a number of authors have spent time at Hilfield, making use of the tranquil surroundings and healthy routine to get work finished. The monk mode trend has hit on a truth: that regardless of the piety of one’s project, such a way of life has unarguable benefits for productivity, even (perhaps especially) if just as a phase. As Fermor reflected on his time among the monks: “For my hosts, the abbey was a springboard into eternity; for me a retiring place to write a book and spring more effectively back into the maelstrom. Strange that the same habitat should prove favorable to ambitions so glaringly opposed.”


( 1 ) Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck also sought out the tranquility of the Abbey of St. Wandrille. The Nobel Prize–winner rented the monastery after the Benedictine community was temporarily expelled from France. Maeterlinck was blessed by the pope for preventing the monastery being sold and used as a chemical factory, but life there was somewhat less monk-like than in Fermor's time. Maeterlinck's lover, opera singer Georgette Leblanc, dressed up like an abbess and performed on a stage in the refectory with her brother, the novelist Maurice Leblanc (creator of the Arsène Lupin series of novels); Maeterlinck traveled through the monastery on roller skates.

( 2 ) Like many social media personalities, Gadzhi uses his lavish (and occasionally ascetic) lifestyle to promote expensive courses that promise to reveal the secrets to various get-rich-quick schemes. In the past, these have included drop-shipping (being the middleman between buyers and sellers) and affiliate marketing; the current trend is for social media marketing agencies, where hard work is outsourced for a fraction of the cost to developing countries.

( 3 ) The steps to becoming a sister of St. Joseph of Peace include an “Inquiry and Get Acquainted" period of between three months and a year, “Candidacy," where the prospective sister lives in the community for a year, “Novitiate," a two-year period of prayer, where the sister is supported by the community, and “Temporary Profession," which lasts for three to six years, after which sisters make their perpetual profession of vows.

This story appears in a print issue of Kinfolk. You’re welcome to read this story for free or subscribe to enjoy unlimited access.


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