Being productive the Stoic way

Being productive the Stoic way The stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius
Science of Life


We would all like to be productive, to use our time well and to get lots of things done. I know I would – I tend to have a problem with procrastination. But effective techniques to enhance productivity are well known, if only we would use them. Today I will outline four recommendations given on this matter by the Stoic philosophers, as explained by Eric Barker on his website Barking Up the Wrong Tree

This is a good site with lots of useful advice on various topics and Barker writes in a witty and entertaining style.

Stoicism is a school of Greek philosophy founded in the third century BC. It was famously practiced by people such as Epictetus (50 AD–135 AD), Seneca (45 BC–65 AD) and Marcus Aurelius (121 AD–180 AD). It is a very practical philosophy asserting that virtue is happiness, that judgement should be based on behaviour and not words, that we don’t control external events so we must rely on ourselves and our responses. The ancient wisdom of the Stoics regarding productivity is endorsed by modern psychology.

Recommendation No. 1:  Protect your time like your money

Most of us certainly don’t do this. Imagine if someone approached you every 30 minutes asking for €20 – you would soon tell them to shove off. But how many of us check our emails and mobile phone texts every 30 minutes, reading and answering unimportant messages?

We don’t appreciate that, valuable as money is, it is less valuable than time. We can always replenish our stock of money if we waste some, but time lost his lost forever. The Stoic philosopher Seneca said: “No person hands out money to passers-by, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We are tight-fisted with money and property, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers”.

Recommendation No. 2: Managing your emotions helps to manage your time

Our beliefs, not reality, underlie our feelings. If I wave a sword at you, you will be frightened but if you believe it is a toy cardboard sword you will not be scared. Epictetus said: “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions they have concerning things.”

Many of us procrastinate when we are in a bad or a low mood. We decide that we need to improve our mood by doing something pleasant and distracting rather than tackling the job at hand. You should instead identify and examine what beliefs underpin your low feelings. Are you intimidated by the task in hand? Perhaps you think that you are not up to the job? Well, procrastination certainly won’t help, it will only hinder you.  You will do a worse job if you don’t get started now.

Changing your beliefs will change your feelings, allowing you to get more done.

Recommendation No. 3:  Spend most of your time doing the important things

We mostly know what the important things in life are but nevertheless we spend much time doing  unimportant things – easy tasks like tidying your desk or files or other tasks that are urgent but not important. Make a list of the things that are important for you to achieve and make sure you spend most of your time on them. As Marcus Aurelius said: “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 things beyond what should be allowed.”

Recommendation No. 4: Understand what you have control over and what you have no control over

Much of what worries most of us are things we have no control over but worrying about things we cannot control is a waste of time. Say you have booked and paid for a sun-holiday. You can look forward to the holiday with pleasant anticipation or you can fret over the possibility that bad weather will ruin things for you. But you have no control over the weather. Your worrying will not affect the weather outcome one little bit, but it will waste your time and energy.

You must distinguish between things you can change and things you cannot change. This will not only make you happier, but focusing your energy on things you can change will make you much more productive as well.

The Christian Serenity Prayer offers the same advice – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.”

Barker ends his piece on productivity with a comment from the Stoics on the often heard sentiment that ‘life is short’. The Stoics do not agree with this sentiment. Barker quotes a powerful passage from Seneca: “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 recognised it passing. And so it is – we don’t receive a short life, we make it so”.

Enthused by the subject matter of my topic today I strove to apply the four recommendations of the Stoics to the writing of this article. I am pleased to report that I wrote it in about half the time it usually takes me to write an article for The Irish Catholic.

So now that you know what to do to be productive, hop to it!

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.