Four Productivity Principles From The Stoics You Can Use Today

This is a guest post by Monil Shah

I find it fascinating how, nowadays, we intend to beat procrastination by procrastinating on finding the “Best” productivity apps. Are paragraphs of code really going to help us? Or, is the issue deeper?

Shouldn’t we focus more on changing our mindset as compared to changing our apps?

And, to change our mindset who better to turn to than The Stoics themselves?

#1 Do Less

“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential. Do less, better. Because most of what we do or say is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more tranquility. But to eliminate the necessary actions, we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well.”  — Marcus Aurelius, Book 4, Meditations.

Today, we’re so focused on doing more stuff that we lose sight of what’s really important. What’s worse we try to chase everything (unrealistic) and end up getting nowhere.  Our list of to-dos is so big that we actually get off on striking everything off.

But.. how is that helping us get deeper work done? How is that going to put us in the flow state? And, if we’re not focused enough, how are we going to deliver quality?

So, how can we do less?

Pareto’s 80/20 principle can be used. The goal is to devote energy to those 2-3 most important tasks that are likely to give us higher returns.

So, look at the list of your tasks and ask yourself these questions:

– What’s the ideal outcome if I finish this task (this will help you think about the returns)?
– How can I automate this task (helping you focus your energy on things that */really/* require your effort, leaving the rest to computers)?
– How is this task going to help me or someone else? (helping you strike out things that isn’t likely to benefit anyone)

Getting more shit done is great. But, the quality of your work is likely to be shit. Instead, acknowledge the fact that we have a limited attention span and focus on figuring out two-three most important tasks of the day and devote your undivided attention to accomplishing them.

#2 Visualize the Process to the End

“Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy; none of its parts are unconnected. Together, they compose the world.” — Marcus Aurelius, Book 7, Meditations.

 

“I have a relationship with other parts, so, I have no right as a whole to complain about what is assigned to me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can’t harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn’t benefit it. So, by keeping in mind the whole that I’m a part of, I’ll accept whatever happens. I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action towards what benefits us all and avoid what doesn’t. If I do that, then my life should go smoothly.”— Marcus Aurelius, Book 10, Meditations.

When we start working on something, so often, we fail to clearly think about the process. We just..start with unrealistic expectations. And this lack of clarity leads to procrastination.

That, is a recipe for failure.

Applying Logos (logic) to the tasks we do would mean systematically breaking each and every task down into individual steps from the start, till the end (visualizing the process). This would help us clearly notice how tasks move from one stage to another and also, if there are any visible bottlenecks in the process. This exercise will helps us see the individual steps that are needed, giving us a more realistic sense of what we can accomplish today with a hundred percent focus.

Mind Maps are useful tools that can help us break down the process and clearly see the steps needed to accomplish a task.

So, break down the three most important tasks you plan to accomplish for the day. Ask yourself the intended result and list the process out, step by step. Then, focus on one step at a time with undivided attention.

That, is a recipe for deep work.

Additionally, once you break down something into its individual parts, you will notice that every single step is important. Thus, in reality, work does not have a nature. There is no ‘grunt work’. Every step has a purpose that leads to something bigger.

#3 See What’s in Your Control

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself with are externals, not under my control, and which have to do with the choice I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are me own.”
— Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4-5.

If you attempted to visualize the process of a task, you would’ve noticed something- sometimes, not every step of the process is under your control. In the modern workplace (or school/college), working with others is a necessary skill. And, to some extent, it makes sense why- we can’t do everything on our own.

Now, while working with others is great for the overall benefit of the organization, it could leave us a little stranded on our productivity path.

So, what can we do when we’re working with teams, and, nothing everything is in our control?

We can clearly differentiate between steps that are in our control and ones that aren’t.

The Stoics acknowledged the fact that not everything in our life is under our control. And, thus, getting upset over these uncontrollable things is not only irrational, but, can actually drive us insane. No amount of bitching about a colleague is going to make them do their job. The fact of the matter is- we cannot control other people’s choices and actions.

But, we can fully control our job. We can gain the clarity to know which part of the process is in our control and leave the rest to others. And then- do our job.

Nothing less. Nothing more.

#4 Change Your Definition of Success

“Enjoyment means doing as much of what your nature requires as you can. And you can do that anywhere. Keep in mind the ease with which logos is carried through all things. That’s all you need.” – Book 10, Meditations.

We’re all quite aware of the fact that success is dependent on many variables. Some, in our control while others, not quite. Things in our full control include our effort, while, external variables include things like luck, and other people’s efforts (in case of a team task).

And yet, despite knowing this, failing at something drives us mad.

For the stoics, enjoyment meant doing their job. And, to some extent, the same ideology can be applied to success.

Success shouldn’t be whether or not we accomplished something. Instead, it should be measured by the amount of effort we put towards a task. It should be the extent to which we completed our job.

This perception not only makes us take full control but, also helps us reflect when things don’t work out. And, if we know something about reflection, it’s that it makes us wiser.

So, the next time you work on something, measure your performance by your effort. As long as you put your hundred percent into it, you’ve won. That’s success. It doesn’t matter what the external outcome is.

Over To You

Regardless of whether you use Trello or some other productivity app, I hope these tenets help you achieve clarity and wisdom as you strive towards becoming more productive.

I will let Marcus end this post.

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.”

Monil Shah is a blogger and a philosophy enthusiast, aiming to make life a little less overwhelming and a little more sane. You can find him on facebook.com/mindandtheheart