How To Overcome Procrastination Based On Ancient Philosophy

People have been procrastinating for thousands of years. Just like you, they put things off, they delayed, they made excuses, they hoped deadlines would never come due. This caused them anxiety, it pissed their colleagues and families off, it created problems and most of all it wasted time. Twenty centuries ago, the Roman era Stoic philosopher Seneca joked that the one thing fools all have in common is that they are always getting ready to live. But they never do it. 

Is that who you want to be?

Of course not. This post will help you take ownership of your life. It is rooted in ancient philosophy and designed to be applied in the modern world. This is a long post. It should be saved and revisited. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:

  1. What Is Procrastination?
  2. Why Do We Procrastinate?
  3. How Can I Stop Procrastinating?
  4. How To Beat The Resistance
  5. The First Rule Of Productivity
  6. The Principle of Progress
  7. The Purpose of Productivity
  8. What Are The Best Stoic Quotes On Procrastination?
  9. What Are The Best Books To Help You Stop Procrastinating??

What Is Procrastination?

Procrastination is the act of avoiding doing what you know you should be doing. It comes from the Latin procrastinare: “to postpone or delay,” and the Greek akrasia: “a lack of self-control or the state of acting against one’s better judgment.”

Procrastinating is an ancient problem. 

Seneca lamented, “No one has anything finished, because we have kept putting off into the future all our undertakings.” A few decades later, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reminded himself to “do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you.” 

The consequences of procrastinating are alarming. Procrastination can lead to:

The worst consequence of procrastination—at least, as far as the Stoics were concerned—is as Charles Dickens wrote, “Procrastination is the thief of time.” 

Why Do We Procrastinate?

We’re Perfectionists

“We don’t abandon our pursuits because we despair of ever perfecting them.” — Epictetus

We want things to go perfectly, so we tell ourselves that we’ll get started once the conditions are right, or once we have our bearings. When, really, it’d be better to focus on making do with how things actually are. Churchill’s line was “The maxim ‘Nothing avails but perfection’ may be spelt shorter: ‘Paralysis.’”

Marcus Aurelius similarly reminded himself: “Don’t await the perfection of Plato’s Republic.” He wasn’t expecting the world to be exactly the way he wanted it to be, but Marcus knew instinctively, as the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper would later write, that “he alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is.

Psychologists speak of cognitive distortions—exaggerated thinking patterns that have a destructive impact on the life of the patient. One of the most common is known as all-or-nothing thinking (also referred to as splitting). Examples of this include thoughts like:

  • I’m good at something or I’m horrible at it.
  • If it’s not a complete success, it is a total failure.

This sort of extreme thinking is associated with depression and frustration and of course, procrastination. How could it not be? Perfectionism rarely begets perfection—only disappointment.

Pragmatism has no such hang-ups. It’ll take what it can get. That’s what Epictetus is reminding us. We’re never going to be perfect—if there is even such a thing. We’re human, after all. Our pursuits should be aimed at progress, however little that it’s possible for us to make.

We’ll Do It Later

“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: It snatches away each day as it comes and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today…The whole future lies in uncertainty: Live immediately.” — Seneca

The lazy never do what they’re supposed to do, for a multitude of reasons. It’s too hard, it takes too long, they don’t feel like it. Those prone to procrastination merely put things off until the minute. They tell themselves, “Oh, I’m definitely going to do it, but not right this second.” “I’ve got time later in the week.”  

This is most of us. We care about getting the important stuff done. Often we care so much it eats at us in the form of anxiety. Except we don’t want to do it right now (which only adds to the anxiety, of course), so we rationalize our procrastination and concoct perfect scenarios in our head about our future selves definitely putting the ball over the goalline in time, even with some seconds to spare.

Whether it’s the college paper we’re putting, the stack of dishes in the sink, the pile of clothes that need to be folded, the emails we need to reply to, the proposal we want to start writing—it can sometimes feel like there is force out there in the universe which presses down on us as we go through life trying to do the right thing, the smart thing, the things we know we have to do. 

Several years ago, the legendary writer Steven Pressfield gave this force a name in his seminal book on creativity, The War of Art. He called it The Resistance. 

“We don’t tell ourselves, ‘I’m never going to write my symphony.’ Instead we say, ‘I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.’” We might even think putting it off is better because we’ll be better rested or more prepared. 

We Fear The Unknown

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen…Ask, ‘Why can’t I endure it.’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” — Marcus Aurelius

In a 2013 study, Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, concluded that “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.” We procrastinate because we’re thinking about all the things that might happen rather than just getting started on doing what we have to do.

Maybe you’re facing a difficult conversation. You’re putting it off because you’re afraid of what might come of it. Maybe you’re thinking about taking on a new project. You’re putting it off because it feels like it’s beyond your limits. Maybe you’ve long wanted to move across the country. You’re putting it off because you’re afraid of starting over in a new place all by yourself.

Those are legitimate fears. Especially in our heads. It is a timeless truth that many of the things we worry about never come to happen. As Seneca wrote some two thousand years ago:

“There are more things…likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality…Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all.” 

OK, it helps to know why we procrastinate. But most of us always have at least a vague sense of why we put things off. What we need is what the Stoics can provide: practical tactics for beating procrastination, for muting that voice in our heads that tells us we can always just do it later, for combating our perfectionist tendencies, for stepping confidently into intimidating projects and tasks.

How Can I Stop Procrastinating?

Here are 9 Tactics For Beating Procrastination:

Action By Action

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole… Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.36

Our imagination runs wild envisioning all the ways things can go wrong, or how long this project is going to take, or why we couldn’t possibly achieve that goal. The Stoics said this was sometimes a productive exercise—it can sometimes be useful in preparing us for the future and making us ready for potential adversity. But Marcus Aurelius well understood that it can more often become crippling fear that will paralyze us from any useful action. Which is why his advice was to keep in mind that a life is built action by action. All we can ever do is focus on completing the task at hand. Nobody writes a book, he would say, they write one sentence then another then another.

In the sports world, it’s a philosophy created by University of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who taught his players to ignore the big picture—important games, winning championships, the opponent’s enormous lead—and focus instead on doing the absolutely smallest things well—practicing with full effort, finishing a specific play, converting on a single possession. Saban tells his players:

“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”

In the overwhelming pressures of sport, as in life, process provides a way. A way to turn chaos and confusion and complexity into something clear and manageable and simple. The task at hand. The process. Whatever you want to call it, just remember that everything in life is built one small action at a time.

Tackle The Most Important Task First

“Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.” — Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was under a lot of tension. Make no mistake: The ancient world was not some quiet, peaceful place. It too was filled with crises and distractions, gossip, and ambitious goal-setting. All the temptations we face today have their analogs in the past—plus things were scarier, deadlier, and more precarious.

So we should listen to the command that Marcus Aurelius gave himself on one of those trying days, when he was struggling to stay focused. “Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—” he wrote, “on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”

It’s likely that Marcus would tackle his most difficult tasks first. From his stepfather Antoninus, Marcus learned how to work long hours and “stay in the saddle”. He writes in Meditations that he even admired the way Antoninus scheduled his bathroom breaks, as they allowed him to work for long, uninterrupted periods. Marcus never shirked hard work or avoided his most unpleasant duties. He had a job to do and he didn’t complain about it. “Never be overheard complaining,” he wrote, “not even to yourself”.

Putting off our responsibilities is easy. Complaining is easy. Both are as natural to us as breathing.  But what good has either ever done for anyone in the long run? Sure, shaking your fist at the sky and venting your frustrations can feel liberating in the moment, but has it ever changed your circumstances for the better, solved your problems or made you happier? Has procrastinating ever made your life less stressful and more efficient? We’re willing to bet the answer is no. This is why we must follow Marcus’ lead and tackle our most important tasks first. If we can win that battle first, the rest of the day will be a breeze.

Create A Routine

“In many circumstances, we do not deal with our affairs in accordance with correct assumptions, but rather we follow thoughtless habit.” — Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Sayings, 6.7

Epictetus once said that “every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.” If you don’t want to do something, he said, make a habit of doing the opposite.

For this reason, the Stoics were big on habits and routines. In a world where so much is out of our control, committing to a routine we do control, they said, was a way of establishing and reminding ourselves of our own power. Without a disciplined schedule, procrastination inevitably moves in with all the chaos and complacency and confusion. What was I going to do? What do I wear? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or rush to put out this fire?

That’s torture. Seneca would call it a design problem. “Life without a design is erratic,” he wrote. “As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct, and beating a cowardly retreat. This will happen in all our affairs unless we remove the faults that seize and detain our spirits, preventing them from pushing forward and making an all-out effort.”

The writer and runner Haruki Murakami talks about why he follows the same routine every day. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing,” he says, “it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” Routine is antithetical to procrastination, to the Resistance. They feed on our uncertainty. Routine eliminates that uncertainty. We know what we do and when we do it. Procrastination is boxed out—by the order and clarity you built.

Use A Counterforce

“Since habit is such a powerful influence, and we’re used to pursuing our impulses to gain and avoid outside our own choice, we should set a contrary habit against that, and where appearances are really slippery, use the counterforce of our training.” — Epictetus, Discourses, 3.12.16

When a dog is barking loudly because someone is at the door, the worst thing you can do is yell. To the dog, it’s like you’re barking too! When a dog is running away, it’s not helpful to chase it—again, now it’s like you’re both running. A better option in both scenarios is to give the dog something else to do. Tell it to sit. Run in the other direction. Break the pattern, interrupt the negative impulse.

The same goes for us. When a bad habit reveals itself, counteract it with a commitment to a contrary virtue. Sometimes, when you find yourself procrastinating—it’s best not to dig in and fight it. Instead, get up and take a walk to clear your head and reset instead. Try what the artist Austin Kleon calls productive procrastination: “a kind of promiscuous working in which I procrastinate on one project by working on another, sometimes switching between two or more projects until all the projects are done.”

Oppose established habits, use the counterforce of training to get traction and make progress, channel the negative impulse into something, anything, positive.

Get One Small Win

“Well-being is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.” — Zeno

Seneca wrote a lot of letters to his friend Lucilius. We don’t know a lot about Lucilius, only that he was from Pompeii, he was a Roman knight, he was the imperial procurator in Sicily then its Governor, he owned a country villa in Ardea. For all his success though, we get the sense that he struggled with many of the things we all struggle with: Anxiety. Distraction. Fear. Temptation. Self-discipline.

So it’s good that he had a friend like Seneca, someone who cared about him, told him the truth, and gave him advice. One of the best pieces of advice from Seneca was actually pretty simple. “Each day,” he told Lucilius, you should “acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes, as well.”

One gain per day. That’s it.

This is the way to curbing our procrastinating tendencies: remembering that incremental, consistent, humble, persistent work is the way to improvement. Your business, your book, your career, your body—it doesn’t matter—you build them with little things, day after day.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a filmmaker, entrepreneur, author, former Governor, professional bodybuilder, and father of five. He’s also a fan of the Stoics and said in a recent video to people trying to stay strong and sane during this pandemic: “Just as long as you do something every day, that is the important thing.”

Whether it’s from Seneca or Arnold, good advice is good advice and truth is truth. One thing a day adds up. One step at a time is all it takes. You just gotta get one small win. And the sooner you start, the better you’ll feel…and be.

Remind Yourself Of The Archer

“Stick to what’s in front of you—idea, action, utterance.” — Marcus Aurelius

Focusing on outcomes is a good recipe for feeling overwhelmed and then procrastinating. Which is why the Stoics were reminding themselves to focus on process. Don’t get caught up imagining what the results were going to be, Marcus wrote. “Remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present.” In other words, stick with what you can control.

Massimo Pigliucci explains this using the metaphor of an archer.

As Cicero put it in the third volume of De Finibus, where he has Cato the Younger explain Stoic doctrines, an archer will do whatever he can in order to hit the target, but once the arrow leaves the bow, the actual outcome is not up to him. Hitting the target is, Cicero says, “to be chosen but not to be desired” (DF III.22)

That’s the way I think about my book, or really anything else I try to accomplish in my life: I put forth my best effort, and I’m doing my best so to reach people who may benefit from it. But I regard the actual outcome in terms of sales, attention, etc., as a preferred indifferent. It really relieves a lot of pressure.

Interestingly, this is a core Buddhist teaching as well. In Zen in the Art of Archery,  Eugen Herrigel says that the good archer is one who shoots well, which doesn’t necessarily mean always hitting the target. He says the goal is to shoot well while not hitting the target, although paradoxically, this may lead to one hitting the target more often.

When two ancient traditions reach the same idea independently, you’d be a fool not to apply it to your life. Whenever you find yourself contemplating the future, stressing over the target way out in the distance, letting your imagination get crushed by life as a whole—remind yourself of the archer.

Focus on your form. Focus on the process. Be present. It will help you shoot better, but most importantly, it will help you live better.

Be Ruthless To The Inessential

“It is essential 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.” — Marcus Aurelius

Procrastination can often be a product of overwhelm. We have so much on our to-do list we don’t even know where to begin, so we don’t begin. Seneca liked to use the word _discursive. When we have our attention pointed in so many different directions, we have it pointed nowhere. He compared it to the nomad, “everywhere means nowhere.”__ The way forward is to zero in on what’s most important.

It was Marcus Aurelius’ simple recipe for improvement and for happiness. And the fact that it came from such a busy man with so many obligations and responsibilities should not be forgotten. “If you seek tranquillity,” he said, “do less.” And then he follows the note to himself with some clarification. Not nothing, less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction,” he writes “to do less, better.”

Follow this advice today and everyday. So much of what we think we must do, so much of what we end up doing is not essential. Don’t let it swirl around and overwhelm you. Rip off the chains of obligation to things that are inessential. Then, you’ll be able to better do what is essential and get a taste of that tranquillity that Marcus was talking about. A double satisfaction.

Create A Sense Or Urgency

“Stop letting yourself be distracted. That is not allowed. Instead, as if you were dying right now…Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.” — Marcus Aurelius Aurelius

Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s adage was that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson’s Law, as we now know it, states that a task swells in importance and complexity in proportion to the amount of time allowed to it. If you have two weeks to write a paper for school, it will take two weeks. If you block off all day Sunday to clean your house, it will take all day. If you give something unlimited time, it will take forever. When we’re pressed by a deadline, we don’t procrastinate. We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage. And the Stoics did. Memento Mori was their reminder. Remember you are mortal. Remember you are always pressed by a deadline. Remember what Marcus said, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” It wasn’t to create panic, but priority, humility, urgency, appreciation.

As wonderful as it would be if there was no such thing as death, we can use death as a tool, we can use it as a spur to move us forward, we can use it as a reminder of what’s truly important, we can use it to beat procrastination.

Associate With People Who Make You Better

“Above all, keep a close watch on this — that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t, you’ll be ruined. … You must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends … if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.” — Epictetus, Discourses, 4.2.1; 4-5

For thousands of years, we’ve known that humans are influenced by the people we spend the most time with. “Nature gave us friendship,” Cicero wrote, “as an aid to virtue, not as a companion to vice.” Seneca’s line was, “Associate with those who will make a better man of you.” Goethe famously said “Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.”

It’s a pretty observable truth. We become like the people we spend the most time with. That’s why we have to be so careful about the influences we allow into our life.

The research is clear too. The first major study on the depth of social influence was conducted by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. They examined the data from the Framingham Heart Study—one of the largest and longest running health studies ever—when they realized that the study covered more than just heart health. Participants were probed with all sorts of demographic questions, including questions about family members and friends. Christakis and Fowler’s results found:

  • If a friend of yours becomes obese, you are 45 percent more likely to gain weight over the next two to four years.
  • If your friend smokes, you are 61 percent more likely to be a smoker yourself. If a friend of your friend smokes, you are still 29 percent more likely to smoke. And for a friend of a friend, the likelihood is 11 percent.
  • A friend who lives within a mile and is happy with their life increases the probability that a person is happy by 25 percent. If a friend of a friend of a friend is happy with their life, then you have a 6 percent greater likelihood of being happy yourself. Consider that other studies suggest that a $10,000 raise only triggers about a 2 percent increase in your happiness.

If you are feeling stuck, consistently procrastinating, experiencing a lack of motivation, struggling to make the kind of progress you know you are capable of—take a good hard look at the people surrounding you. Do they inspire you, validate you, push you to be better? Or do they irritate you, offend you, drag you down? Are they positive, rational, motivated, reliable, loyal? Or are they hypocritical, fake, lame, pretentious, flaky, dishonest?

The proverb in the ancient world was: “If you dwell with a lame man, you will learn how to limp.” It’s a pretty observable truth. We become like the people we spend the most time with. That’s why we have to be so careful about the influences we allow into our life.

But that idea of dwelling with a lame man cuts both ways. Epictetus was famously “lame,” having had his leg crippled while in slavery. Marcus Aurelius spent enormous amounts of time with Epictetus’s writings. It didn’t make him limp—it made him wiser, a harder worker, more resilient, calmer, more compassionate. Epictetus passed those things onto him. A slave shaped a king and made him better.

If you want to connect with a community that will push you to be better, we’d like to invite you to check out our Daily Stoic Life program. It’s the largest gathering of Stoics in the world. It’ people just like you, struggling, growing, and making that satisfying progress towards the kind of person they know they can be. Some folks pursue philosophy and self-improvement as a side project. But some treat it seriously, they want to go deep, and they know that the best way to learn is to surround themselves with like-minded individuals and people who will push them. Improvement comes fastest through involvement, results through accountability and wisdom through exposure to new people and new ideas. That’s why we created Daily Stoic Life. You can learn more about it here. 

How To Beat The Resistance

We mentioned it briefly above. What Steven Pressfield calls this the Resistance. When we sit down to do any important project whether it’s writing a book or a business plan, we face Resistance. The bigger the project, the more vulnerable or creative it forces us to be, the stronger the resistance.

We’re not productive because of the Resistance.

In other words, productivity is not a matter of organization or distractions, it is primarily a matter of dealing with and redirecting the Resistance. The dog trainer Cesar Millan has a great line, “Never work against Mother Nature. You only succeed when you work with her.”

When a dog is barking loudly because someone is at the door, the worst thing you can do is yell. To the dog, it’s like you’re barking too! When a dog is running away, it’s not helpful to chase it—again, now it’s like you’re both running. A better option in both scenarios is to give the dog something else to do. Tell it to sit. Tell it to go to its bed or kennel. Run in the other direction. Break the pattern, interrupt the negative impulse.

The same goes for us.

When you find yourself procrastinating today—don’t dig in and fight it. Get up and take a walk to clear your head and reset instead. Cross off a different item on the to-do list. Take notes on the book you just finished. Get started on the research for an upcoming project. Focus on one of the little pieces of a big project. Use it as a productive excuse. Just make a little contribution.

As Jerry Seinfeld put it, you want to find the pain you’re comfortable with. That’s the secret. Work, or different work—either one you choose moves you forward.

The real benefit of working on those smaller tasks is that when you cross those other items off your list, you start to accumulate some momentum. When you switch tracks again, that momentum carries over. It makes it easier to get through whatever Resistance was holding you back.

That’s how you beat the Resistance. It’s not about systems. It’s not about technology—you don’t need Evernote or Roam to do it.

It’s about having a set of tasks that you can always do when you feel like procrastinating. This way you turn your least productive habit—running away from your work—into a potent motive force.

All that’s left to decide is what that happens to be for you.

The First Rule Of Productivity

“Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” — Seneca, Moral Letters, 1.2

Don’t do it later. Do it now.

There’s an errand that needs to be run. An email to go out to a client. A project for school. Maybe an unpleasant conversation to have.

What do most of us do? We do it…later. Or more simply, we just don’t do it right now—because we can do it later.

This may be more dangerous than procrastinating. Because this is something more easy to rationalize, this is the “Oh I’m definitely going to do it, but not right this second.” I’ve got time later in the week, we tell ourselves. Or, that we’ll do it when we’re down there doing [some other thing].

As Steven Pressfield writes, “We don’t tell ourselves, ‘I’m never going to write my symphony.’ Instead we say, ‘I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.” We might even think that it’s better this way because we’ll be better rested, or more prepared.

And of course, often we don’t start tomorrow—not because we’re lazy or liars or anything deliberate like that. We don’t start tomorrow because something intervenes. Life, fate, busy schedules, whatever.

We even have an annual ritual dedicated to this idea: I’ll start losing weight, stop biting my fingernails, being kinder on January 1st. We know we could start these improvements at anytime, but it’s safer to put an arbitrary date on them.

Safer, why? Because we know me might not actually have to ever do it.

For this reason, we have to adhere to this philosophy: “do it now.” Ryan Holiday has talked about why he follows the “do it now” philosophy,

Because I believe the world is inherently unpredictable and outside my control, when I have the opportunity to do something, I do it now, and I do not believe in putting things off until later. Because there might not be a later, first and foremost, and if there is, it probably won’t conform to our expectations.

So if you think, you need to go for a run, go for a run! If you have an article to write, write it! If you need to pick up something for the house, put it on your list for today, not “the next time I’m near the store.” Even if that means a little more work now as opposed to later.

It’s best to act having taken, as the Stoics do, “full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.” Which is to say, usually not in your favor.

Things usually get more complicated, more busy, not less so in the future. Things go wrong, you know. Entropy reigns. So if it’s right in front of you, do it. Don’t think about it, decide not to do it, and then make a plan to actually do it later.

The Principle of Progress

Part of the reason we procrastinate is that we have a false sense of how progress happens.  Because we often see only the results and almost never the process of things, we tend to think that the finished product—a book, being in shape, being wise—is impressive, and therefore the process by which that event was created must have been equally brilliant.

In fact, it’s the opposite.

Progress, like the proverbial sausage, is much less pretty when you see how it’s made.

Plutarch tells the story of a rich Delian ship-owner who was asked how he built his fortune. “The greater part came quite easily,” he said, “but the first, smaller part took time and effort.”

How does that work?

Doing anything of consequence or magnitude requires deliberate, incremental and consistent work. At the beginning, these efforts might not look like they are amounting to much. But with time, they accumulate and then compound on each other. Whether it’s a book or a business or an anthill or a stalagmite, from humble beginnings come impressive outcomes.

In one of his most famous letters Seneca gave this advice: “Each day, acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes, as well and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day.”

Just one thing. One nugget. One foot in front of the next.

This is the way to curbing our procrastinating tendencies: remembering that incremental, consistent, humble, persistent work is the way to improvement. Your business, your book, your career, your body—it doesn’t matter—you build them with little things, day after day.

The founder of Stoicism would say that “Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.”

One page in a book. One conversation. One note between friends. A few minutes of Meditation. A single question. A single decision. A single passage like the one that guided Marcus Aurelius  to “take away with him some one good thing every day: he should return home a sounder man, or on the way to becoming sounder.”

That’s why, every single morning, we send out an email for DailyStoic. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world get it. They spend some time thinking about it. Maybe they journal about it. Maybe they forward it to a friend to discuss.

It’s one little thing that makes them better, that inches them towards where they need to go. Because “daily study,” Tolstoy wrote is “necessary for all people.”

That’s what philosophy is actually about. Not grand, pretentious theories.

It’s incremental progress, over a lifetime, done day to day.

The Purpose Of Productivity

There’s something that people who focus a lot on productivity miss. The point isn’t to get more done—the point is to clear your plate of distractions, excuses and bad assumptions. So you can access the deeper parts of yourself.

Here’s an example. One you can probably relate to. Ryan Holiday talks about how his best days are Saturdays. Because he can wake up naturally. He caan exercise with no deadline. There are very few emails. There are no phone calls. There is nothing on his schedule.

There’s nothing surprising there—everyone loves the weekend. But he also does some of his best work on Saturdays. Not of volume but of quality. That’s because the work is coming from the best possible state: stillness. He’s relaxed, unforced, quiet, unburdened, open. He gets things done quickly, happily and the best part, “it all feels like a bonus because I didn’t need to do any of it.”

It’s not just that he is more productive. He is fully himself—not adrenalizing, nor undermining.

The reality is that some version of this day is possible every day. Every day could be a Saturday. But we choose to only allow this to happen incidentally, only as a result of larger factors outside our control.

We have to know: We have the power to make our own lives.

Yet we don’t. Because we’re addicted. Or we’re afraid.

This can change.

It’s not just about having a system or the all latest productivity apps or moving to a cabin in the woods until your novel is done. It’s not just about delegating and organizing and prioritizing. Those things help. But it’s most important to know what kind of person you want to be, what you want to do with your life. So you can make those choices — along the lines of the priorities you actually have, not what is easiest, least painful or most immediately lucrative.

Because when we said earlier that we have a fear of looking inward and doing something about it, we left a part out. It’s not just “something.” It’s a lot of things — it’s a long hard road, filled with tough decisions and difficult periods. There are no epiphanies.

Just self-work and self-care.

What Are The Best Stoic Quotes On Procrastination?

“The first step: Don’t be anxious…The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being…Then do it, without hesitation.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.5


“Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.5


“Stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.7


“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I am rising to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain about, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” — But it’s nicer here …

So were you born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands? — But we have to sleep sometime… Agreed. But nature set a limit on that — as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There’s still more of that to do.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1


“Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be good.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17


“If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24


“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole… Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.36


“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” — Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life


“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested… So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” — Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life


“How long will you wait before you demand the best of yourself? … If you remain careless and lazy, making excuse after excuse, fixing one day after another when you will finally take yourself in hand, your lack of progress will go unnoticed, and in the end you will have lived and died unenlightened. Finally decide that you are an adult who is going to devote the rest of your life to making progress.” — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 51


“It is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control.” — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 20


“Make it your goal never to fail in your desires or experience things you would rather avoid; try never to err in impulse and repulsion; aim to be perfect also in the practice of attention and withholding judgement.” — Epictetus, Discourses, 1.4.11


What Are The Best Books To Help You Stop Procrastinating?

War of Art and Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

Keep Going by Austin Kleon

Deep Work and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel

Solving The Procrastination Puzzle by Timothy A. Pychyl

Getting Things Done by David Allen

The Now Habit by Neil Fiore