By Eric Barker
Before we commence with the festivities, I just wanted to let you know my first book is now a Wall Street Journal bestseller! To check it out, click here.
Everybody would like to get more of the right things done. But how does Stoicism fit into all of this?
The word “productivity” seems new and sleek and shiny. And Stoicism is old. Really old. Like older-than-grandpa-old.
I have news for you: Facebook and email may be recent but people have always wasted time. And smart people have been thinking about how to stop doing it for almost as long.
Most productivity advice is focused on work. Following it makes you feel like you’re turning into a machine. Nobody wants to be a Transformer. (On second thought, being a Transformer would be pretty cool, but you get my point.)
A more philosophical approach to getting stuff done is nice because sometimes the things you wanna do aren’t work. You wanna see friends, have fun, and all the stuff that gets shoved off the calendar by work.
And as we’ll see, the Stoics’ ideas are actually backed by a lot of modern science and expert advice.
Alrighty then, time to tighten your toga — we’re rolling old school…
1) Protect Your Time Like Your Money
The old saying is “time is money.” But we sure don’t act like that.
If people came up to you all day asking for $20 you’d tell them to get lost. But people do come up to you all day (or email, or text, or call) asking for your time. And you just hand it on over.
And the great Stoic philosopher Seneca does a face palm every time you offer up an hour of your day without thinking it through:
No person hands out their money to passers-by, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.
And research has shown that to our brains, time and money are seen differently. You’re naturally conservative with money — not so with time.
They say time equals money, but they’re wrong. When researchers Gal Zauberman and John Lynch asked people to think about how much time and how much money they’d have in the future, the results didn’t add up. We’re consistently conservative about predicting how much extra cash we’ll have in our wallets, but when it comes to time, we always think there will be more tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year.
Plain and simple, you need to treat your time more like money. Be more miserly with hours than dollars. Why? You can get more money in this life. You can’t get more time.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
Alright, so you’re protecting your time and you have more of it. Great. But what’s to stop you from wasting all those hoarded hours procrastinating?
2) Manage Emotions To Better Manage Time
Stoicism isn’t just some old philosophy. Its central ideas went on to inspire some of the most powerful psychological tools of the modern era, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
And what was one of those big ideas? Beliefs underlie feelings.
If I point something at you and you believe it’s a gun, you’re scared. If you believe it’s a toy gun, you’re not. You’re not psychic or omniscient. It’s your beliefs that create your feelings, not reality.
Here’s big-deal Stoic philosopher Epictetus:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.
I know: Interesting insight, blogger-guy, but what the heck does that have to do with productivity?
Research shows your mood drastically affects how much you accomplish. You procrastinate the most when you’re in a bad mood and think you can improve it with something fun.
So procrastination is a mood-management technique, albeit (like eating or taking drugs) a shortsighted one. But we’re most prone to it when we think it will actually help… Well, far and away the most procrastination occurred among the bad-mood students who believed their mood could be changed and who had access to fun distractions. This group spent nearly 14 of their 15 minutes of prep time goofing off!
Don’t manage your mood by procrastinating. Ask yourself what beliefs underlie your feelings and question those.
Are you afraid of the task? Why? Does it have a knife pointed at you? No. You’re afraid you’ll do a lousy job. Well, you’re gonna do an even worse job if you don’t get started.
Change your beliefs and you change your feelings. Change your feelings and you’ll get more done.
(To learn the 6 rituals ancient wisdom says will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, you have more time and you’re not wasting it because now you’re managing your mood. But what should you do first when there’s a lot of stuff to accomplish?
3) Important Beats Urgent
You usually know what’s important. But often you do something else. Something that’s right in front of you or something screaming your name.
You do what’s easy or urgent, not what really moves the needle.
Well, Stoic legend Marcus Aurelius just ain’t having it:
It is essential to for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed… Since the vast majority of our words and actions are unnecessary, corralling them will create an abundance of leisure and tranquility. As a result, we shouldn’t forget at each moment to ask, is this one of the unnecessary things?
Doing something well does not make it important. I think this is one of the most common problems with a lot of time-management or productivity advice; they focus on how to do things quickly. The vast majority of things that people do quickly should not be done at all.
(To learn the 4 rituals Stoicism says will make you mentally strong, click here.)
Okay, you have enough advice to really get cranking. But how do you make sure you don’t get stressed out or discouraged and quit?
4) Focus On Effort, Not Outcome
Another big idea from the Stoics: understanding what you have control over is critical.
They thought you didn’t have control over anything but your choices. And if you can’t control something, you shouldn’t worry about it.
Here’s that Epictetus guy again:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
What’s that have to do with productivity? Plenty. Because you worry about all kinds of stuff that you can’t do anything about. And that’s wasted time and energy.
You cannot control any outcome. Things outside your control can always influence the final result. You can control how much effort you expend and what process you use. So focus on that.
Bestelling author and guy-who-knows-more-about-Stoicism-than-I-do, Ryan Holiday, explains:
What the Stoics are saying is so much of what worries us are things that we have no control over. If I’m doing something tomorrow and I’m worried about it raining and ruining it, no amount of me stressing about it is going to change whether it rains or not. The Stoics are saying, “Not only are you going to be happier if you can make the distinction between what you can change and can’t change but if you focus your energy exclusively on what you can change, you’re going to be a lot more productive and effective as well.”
And neuroscience research shows that by focusing on what you have control over, you decrease stress.
Steve Maier at the University of Boulder, in Colorado, says that the degree of control that organisms can exert over something that creates stress determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning… Over and over, scientists see that the perception of control over a stressor alters the stressor’s impact.
And don’t just trust the research. Astronauts, Special Forces soldiers and even Samurai agree: a feeling of calm control can reduce how much you stress about a task.
(To learn how to be productive without being miserable, click here.)
Alright, we learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and find out the best piece of advice where the Stoics disagree with the research…
Here’s what the ancient Stoics can teach you about productivity:
Protect your time like your money: You can get more money.
Manage emotions to better manage time: Feeling too cranky right now; I’ll explain this later.
Important beats urgent: Getting a lot of unnecessary things done is not productivity; it’s stupidity.
Focus on effort, not outcome: You can’t control whether it ends up as a “robbery” or an “attempted robbery”, just focus on executing the heist in a way that would make mom proud.
So where do the Stoics and the modern experts part ways?
Karl Pillemer of Cornell University interviewed 1200 people age 70 to 100+ for his book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, asking them:
“If you look back over the course of your life, what are the most important lessons you learned that you would like to share with younger people?”
What was the #1 answer? “Life is short.”
Seneca, in a beautifully worded passage, strongly disagrees:
It’s not that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is – we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.
No offense to Karl. He did a survey. So he didn’t necessarily get the right answer, he got the most common answer.
I’m with Seneca. Life doesn’t have to be short. We all have 24hrs in a day. Every single one of us.
You can use them to create something awesome, to visit that someone special who misses you desperately, to provide for your family, or to savor a great moment.
But don’t waste your hours. Don’t end up wondering, “What have I been doing with my time?”
Leave a trail of accomplishments or smiles behind you.
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