On Decisions: Monastic Life, Focus, and Obama

The Monastery  |  The Scene   |   Jason Tseng  |   September 20, 2012, 4:00 pm

Obama’s first day in office, Source

Jason Kottke had a short informative post about Michael Lewis’ profile on President Obama, titled Obama’s Way, in the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair.  (Lewis shadowed the President for 6 months, observing how he lives and works.)  Kottke had two interesting excerpts.  One was from the Lewis’ piece:

At play, the president wears red-white-and-blue Under Armor high-tops, but at work it’s strictly blue or gray suits. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make,” he tells Lewis. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

This reminds me very much of the monastic lifestyle and some of the principles behind them.  The monastics have a deliberately set routine.  They eat simple food offered to them at set times, and they wear three sets of clothing. There are many reasons to do this: 1) to live lightly on the earth and 2) as a sharp, visual signifier to their religious commitments.  But, one of the big reasons for living a simple, spartan lifestyle (pun intended) is to reduce life’s problem-space, so that they can address the few remaining ones that are more pressing.

It’s interesting how this principle plays out, and it’s one that we all intuitively recognize.  President Obama in some ways is forced by circumstances and position, where his decisions have big consequences. I’m reminded of the various accounts of people who choose this strategy: Steve Jobs with his turtle-neck and jean, Mark Zuckerberg with his t-shirt and hoodie.  They and the monastics have similar approach to attending to critical decisions; it’s just that the focus is on an exterior versus interior problem-space.

It’s a testament to the persistent pull of life’s various distraction/attractions manifesting in micro-choices that split our attention that this is something we all intuit, yet we seem progressively more distracted.

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