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Time Management & Productivity: Key Lessons from the Stoics

July 16, 2019


Originally called Zenonism, the Stoic Philosophy was founded by the Phoenician merchant Zeno of Citium around 301 BC in Athens. The building blocks of this philosophy remain just as relevant today, helping us direct our thoughts and actions in an unpredictable world.

Below we explore four key Stoic principles that you can apply to increase your productivity, deliver greater value with your work, and enhance your overall wellbeing.

1. Always Prioritize Valuable Work

One of the most prolific writers on the Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius, wrote: “It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth.”

In other words, we should learn to prioritize our work. This means not only writing down your to-do list for the day/week but also assigning higher priority to more valuable activities. For instance, your to-do list for the day should start with tasks that are either a.) time-sensitive, b.) of high importance, c.) too valuable to delegate. The bottom of your list should feature low-value busy work or tasks that can either be delegated or automated.

Why is this so important? For one, prioritizing your duties gives you a much better sense of what’s urgent, what needs to be done sooner rather than later, and what’s actually relevant to your work and your long-term goals. It also enables you to harness your motivation and concentrate more on meaningful tasks, because prioritizing actually tells your brain “this is important, I have to focus”.

2. Don’t Obsess About Things You Can’t Control

“To identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals, not under my control, and which have to do with the choice I actually control.”

This was considered the chief task of Stoicism by Epictetus, a prominent Stoic philosopher in the first and second centuries A.D. It bears a truism that can be applied unfailingly to many different aspects of life, business included. Put simply, it is about choosing to focus only on things that are within our power.

We deal with events that are out of our control on a daily basis: traffic, tardy trains, crowded supermarkets, faulty technology, etc. All of these things are inevitable—like it or not, they will happen. But stressing over how much traffic you have to endure to get to work every morning won’t get you there on time.

Instead, we can draw power from acknowledging that certain things are just not within our control. Because focusing on negative emotions like stress or anxiety actually hinders your productivity and performance. A study of 137 managers enrolled in an executive MBA program revealed that individuals who harbored negative emotions were less committed to their work, more inclined to arrive late and leave early without any justification, and displayed an overall lower performance in their work.

3. Change the Way You Look at Success

“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” –Marcus Aurelius

While we do not have control over external events, we can control the way we perceive said events. This particular ideology can also be applied (to some extent) to the definition of success. Success is not just a sum of our accomplishments. Nor should it be seen as one. Instead, we should measure success by the amount of time and effort we’ve put into a task. It’s about the extent to which we completed that task. This outlook allows one to measure performance by effort, not external outcomes.

4. Just Do It

Stoics didn’t care about words, they valued actions. They were doers. It’s not enough to talk about or write down the things you know you have to do—you actually need to do them. Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, better known as “Seneca”, would use the following method to quantify his efforts at the end of each day—he would ask himself this:

  • “How am I better today?”
  • “What did I do with my time?”
  • “What were my outcomes?”

This is a simple, albeit effective way to measure not just your efforts, but also the things you’ve actually managed to achieve in a day. It also allows you to conscientiously go from “intent” to “action”. Because let’s face it, sometimes the best way to get something done is to just get it done.