How to Boost Your Productivity, According to Ancient Philosophers

By Jon Rumens on 19 October 2020

Boost your productivity by internalizing these age-old teachings.

Knowing how to properly utilize our time, and boost our productivity amidst regular distractions is a problem that humanity has grappled with for centuries. As humans with a finite existence, our time is limited. And as a result, it’s important that we make the most of each day, and achieve the things we set our sights on.

The problem, according to some Philosophers, is that we are susceptible to weakness of the will (akrasia). By that, they mean we could:

  1. Set our sights on a goal.
  2. Know exactly how to achieve that goal, and it be fully in our power to achieve it.
  3. Want to perform the actions necessary to reach our goal.
  4. And yet, still not perform them.

In the modern world, most of us don’t choose the required action because technological advancements have overloaded us with choices and distractions. And these are more appealing in the present moment, because they offer instant gratification.

As a result:

  • Students ditch their textbooks for mobile phones, despite wanting to achieve.
  • Entrepreneurs ditch their daily grind, despite wanting to be a success.
  • Parents prefer to watch TV, rather than nurture and watch their children as they grow – despite knowing they will regret it in the future.

The question, then, is how we can make the most of our finite time on Earth. How can we remain focused on the things we want, rather than getting caught up in tedious and pointless daily distractions?

To answer such questions, let’s discuss life lessons from Ancient Philosophers, who were grappling with these problems thousands of years ago

1. To Succeed, Take the First Step

Decorative coffee cup with "Begin" written on

During his life, fourth century BC Philosopher, Plato, set himself a task that, to some, might seem impossible. He wanted to offer a universal definition of justice, and do so in a way that proves it is good in and of itself.

His attempt is documented in his book, The Republic. Here, he presents his ideas through a discussion between Socrates and several interlocutors and challengers.  On his journey, Socrates faced numerous obstacles – in particular, he was heavily criticized for trying to debunking old definitions of justice.

When facing a challenge, it can be easy to adopt a defeatist attitude. In fact, when the odds are against us, a lot of us give up before we even get started.

But, when Plato tasked himself with debunking the status quo, rather than becoming defeatist, he exclaimed:  

“The beginning is the most important part of any work.”

Things always appear worse in our heads, and most of us naturally shy away from tasks that appear, on the surface, difficult. It’s here that we opt for distractions, rather than chase our goals.

But, whether you are:

  • Preparing for an important presentation.
  • Starting an academic essay.
  • Or debunking mainstream views on justice.

You should get started, and attempt the task, before giving up. The start of a project is always the most difficult part.  Rather than procrastinating for hours, get the ball rolling – and you’ll soon realize that the task wasn’t as difficult as it first seemed.

That’s what Plato did, anyway. And, despite the obstacles, The Republic has been hailed one of the greatest Political Philosophy pieces of all time. 



When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed, Start Small

The advice to “just get started” might be useful for some, but for others, the sheer scale of a project can make it difficult to know exactly how to get going.

Acknowledging this fact, Ancient Chinese Philosopher, Lao Tzu, stated:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”’

Often, things seem complicated, and it can be difficult to know how to start something. Whenever that happens, the best thing we can do is break down the task into small, segmented steps. 

That way, regardless of whether you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can easily start a task by taking one simple choice.

Doing so will boost our productivity because, rather than trying to tackle a whole project and becoming overwhelmed, we can cut out procrastination by taking lots of straightforward steps towards a big goal.

2. Internalize Stoicism into Your Daily Life

Stoicism is a part of Hellenistic Philosophy founded around the Third Century BC by Ancient Philosopher Zeno of Citium. As I’m sure you’re already aware, their core principles are widely practiced – and when properly internalized, can be used to boost our productivity. 

Let’s talk through a few of these key lessons from Stoic thinkers.

Focus on the Process, and Ignore What You Cannot Control

Arm and hand working at desk, highlighting important info

Beyond distractions, worrying about the things we can’t control and fixating on self-doubt is a big threat to our productivity. Getting caught up in thoughts of “what if,” and doubting your abilities based on the past can detract from the things we hold important.

At times, we overthink ourselves into procrastination. We don’t feel good enough, fear failure, and spend so long worrying about negative outcomes, that we don’t leave room to focus on our goals.

Acknowledging that most of the things we worry about are beyond our control, second century CE Philosopher, Epictetus wrote:

“Make the best use of what’s in your power and take the rest as it happens.” (The Enchiridion)

In truth, almost all of our worry and self-doubt comes from these external factors beyond us:

  • We fixate and define ourselves based on our previous mistakes, despite an inability to change the past.
  • We worry about how others perceive us, despite being unable to control what they think.

And as a result, we proactively avoid performing certain actions because we’re scared of what might happen. And that hinders our productivity, and chances of success.

The reality is that becoming distracted by these thoughts is pointless, because there’s nothing we can do to change the matter of fact. Rather than questioning our abilities based on the past, Epictetus argues we would be better off focusing our attention on those things we have power over.

According to Epictetus, the moment we focus on our own actions, rather than external factors, we will be free, rather than a slave to things outside our control. In doing so, we will spend less time worrying and overthinking, and more time taking positive action that will improve our lives for the better.


Value Your Time & Avoid Superficial Pursuits

A picture of a wrist watch resting on a laptop

In life, time is the one currency that, once spent, we can never get back. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact in our day to day lives, and waste our time on superficial pursuits.

Stoic Philosophers were not materialists; they argue we should pursue a life of virtue, and ignore material superficial possessions. And doing so will allow us to properly spend our time on the things we care about, rather than the things we don’t.

Therefore, according to Stoic Philosophy, to properly make the most of your time and boost your productivity, you should:

  1. Practice intellectual humility:  Shut off your ego, focus your efforts on completing tasks, rather than chasing credit and social status.
  2. Not get too caught up in entertainment or idle discussion about trivial topics. As this will detract from the things you value.
  3. Spend your time wisely, and only perform actions that you truly want to pursue.

Because the reality is, most of us do things which, upon further reflection, it’s apparent that we don’t actually want to perform. So take care of your time. After all, according to Roman Philosopher, Seneca:

“No person hands out their money to passers-by, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We protect our money, yet think too little of wasting time. The only thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”

Final Thoughts

As humans with a finite existence, our time on earth is limited. Consequently, in order to prioritize and achieve the things we set our sights on, it’s important that we make the most of our time and remain as productive as possible.

In doing so, we should resort back to the key lessons taught by Ancient Philosophers thousands of years ago:

  • To succeed, take the first step. No matter how challenging a task may seem, remember that things are always worse in our heads. 
  • Where you’re struggling to get started, according to Lao Tzu, break things down into manageable steps; where each step is easy and straightforward – but leads you to your desired end.
  • Internalize the teachings of Stoicism:
    1. Focus on achieving your goal, and ignore what you can’t control. Doing so will lead to the cessation of self-doubt and worry. Instead allowing you the confidence and courage to chase your goal.
    2. Remember just how important your time is. Avoid wasting it on superficial things like gossip and idle talk. Instead, focus your attention on achieving the things you value.


On the whole, these teachings will cause you to focus more on the things you value, including your goals. And this will inevitably boost your productivity and motivation when pursuing them.