These 5 Lessons Are the Key to Productivity According to Stoic Philosophy

Becoming more productive has been a popular topic since forever. It’s even more prominent today when there are endless devices for procrastination. From TV, to social media, to texting, to porn, hours of procrastination lie right at our fingertips.

Productivity is all about finding ways to accomplish more in less time. Time is the valuable quantity we have on this earth, it’s the only one that can’t be replenished once used. It’s important we’re using it as well as we can and that we’re not wasting any of it.

Of course, things are never that straight forward. The digital distractions of today are just oh so good. There’s so much pleasure in not doing work and giving in to the distractions. To really be more productive, we’re going to need a better strategy than just sheer will power.

The Stoics knew a thing or two about productivity. In fact, proper use of time is one of the primary focuses of stoicism. To live fully each and every day. To never take your time for granted.

There are 5 key productivity lessons from stoic philosophy that I want to share with you today. These lessons have helped me tremendously in making the most out of my time. I hope they will do the same for you.

Simplify things

“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.”
— Marcus Aurelius

Many of us are so focused on doing more that we lose sight of what’s really important. We’re always trying to fit in more stuff, squeezing as many things onto our to-do list as possible. Productivity gurus are selling pipe dreams like reading 100 books a year or tripling your word count with this one simple trick!

But squeezing everything in is not an effective way of working. All it does is stretch your energy and attention across many things. But when you’re so stretched out, you end up doing a mediocre or even a poor job on everything, rather than getting a few things done well.

Great work requires focus and simplicity. Doing less so that you can focus your limited time and energy on the things that matter most.

Some people refer to this as the 80/20 rule — 20% of the things we do give us 80% of the results. It’s true, there are usually only a few important things that are actually driving the result you want.

Try to simplify your day. You can do so by checking your to-do list and asking yourself:

“Which of these items can I remove and still accomplish my goals?”

Asking this simple question will put the important stuff into perspective.

Do work that you enjoy

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”
— Aristotle

I first came across this productivity “hack” when I read the book Mastery by Robert Greene. The book talks about how all great people who achieve mastery love what they do. They’re drawn to it. They feel a strong connection to their work.

That connection is the key.

When you do work that you love, it won’t feel like you’re putting in tons of effort. You won’t feel pressured, because you’re enjoying what you’re doing.

Procrastination is the enemy of productivity. But when you do what you love, there is never any temptation to procrastinate. You’d rather be doing the work anyway.

This can be a challenge for many. Finding work that you love in such a big world can be daunting.

My advice to you would be to experiment. Try different jobs, take on different projects, dabble with different side projects. Pay attention to what you really have fun doing, especially for long periods of time. That’s what you want to do.

Minimize distractions

“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, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.”
— Marcus Aurelius

We’ve talked about how important focus is. We know it’s important. Without it, we can’t get meaningful work done.

Distractions pose a major danger to your focus. And believe me, they’re everywhere.

Entertainment can come from your cellphone, TV, laptop, tablet, or any of the other digital devices laying around you. We get distracted by these things because they’re easy and entertaining. There’s no work required at all to access the entertainment. Companies designed their products this way so you could keep using them and keep paying them.

You must break free from these distractions by living each day as if it was your last. Because, honestly, it could be.

Think about it. What if this day was your last one. Would you be happy with all the time you used on distractions?

Marcus is giving us sound advice here. To consider how valuable the present moment is. It’s more valuable than anything in the past (which is gone) and anything in the future (which might change or not happen at all).

Do the work that ought to be done now, in the present moment. It’s the only thing that counts.

Create a habit system

“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 that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.”
— Epictetus

It’s hard to stay productive for long periods of time. In the beginning, we’re always super motivated! But as time goes on, we get tired, losing the energy and willpower to keep going.

We can make things a lot easier on ourselves by forming habit systems.

Habits are those actions that have become automatic to us. We don’t have to think about it anymore. We just do it. We can use that “automation” to our advantage for productivity.

Create a habit system that maximizes your productivity:

  • Pick a place where you will always work and stick to it. Your brain will become wired to recognize that “this is where I get work done.”
  • Wake up every morning at the same time. Your body will thank you with more energy every day.
  • Establish a healthy diet and stay physically active. It will pay dividends in mental clarity and physical health.
  • Get used to optimizing your work environment. If where you work is too noisy, switch rooms or put on headphones. Experiment with different working methods like timeboxing to see which one works best for you.

They may seem like relatively small actions. But, as with everything in life, the small steps lead to a long successful journey. Form a habit system that supports your long-term goals.

Never give up

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
— Confucius

People are often motivated to work at the beginning of a project. But there is always that inevitable dip somewhere in the middle, before the success that lies over the horizon.

That dip is where most people fail. It discourages them as they face failure after failure.

But you should never let those setbacks stop you from accomplishing your big goals. Failure is a part of the process of success. No one gets it right the first time. It’s hard. Things take time and practice.

Thomas Edison went through 10,000 failures before succeeding with the lightbulb.

Walt Disney was fired from his newspaper job for not being creative enough.

JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers, nearly driving her to suicide.

But you know what all of those successful people had in common?

They kept going. They never gave up.

Always remember that if you never stop, you can never lose. You either learn or you win.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

The Discourses by Epictetus

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