Stoicism – A Philosophical Blueprint for Productivity

By Jon Rumens on 14 August 2019

Stop looking for hacks and get your foundations right

Sometimes, we find ourselves get stuck at the task before us. No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to get ahead and get the job done. A common reaction to this is procrastination. We simply say to ourselves: ‘I’ll just do it later.’

Another common reaction is to head over to Google, and ask the hive mind questions such as ‘how do I get more done’, ‘how to combat procrastination’. Or maybe you don’t even ask a question but enter some random key phrases, like ‘best productivity hacks’. True, it’s a start, and much better than doing nothing and despairing. Very likely, it’s how you arrived here on this page.

But is it the best way of going about things? Arguably not.

There are hundreds of hacks and tips and tricks, and few of these have any real system to them. Some of them might even be directly incompatible with one another.

These tricks range from the obviously simple to the quirky and exotic. One blogger might argue that you remove all distractions from your work environment, another tells you to turn up the thermostat.

Now, I’m not here to argue about the validity of these ideas. What I will argue against, is that you start implementing all these random tactics without having guiding principles in place, a major battle plan that will help you win the day.

And this, this is what philosophy is all about.

Stoicism as a blueprint for daily life

Philosophy often has a reputation of being overly abstract and disconnected from the real world. Philosophy is a way of looking at the world, but unfortunately, it often remains within the realm of the theoretical, in the minds of academics and the halls of universities.

Oftentimes, when people do have a philosophy, but this philosophy is usually limited to our opinion on certain things, or to platitudes such as ‘seize the day’.

What philosophy often fails to do, is provide practical guiding principles on how to organize our lives. How do we handle setbacks and deal with obstacles? How do we make sure every day becomes a day well-lived?

It is in this regard that the Stoïcist philosophy distinguishes itself.

Now, let’s talk about Stoicism and why it is so useful for our purpose of being more productive.

Stoicism finds its origins with a philosopher from Ancient Greece who went by the name of Zeno. Later on, his ideas were adopted by other great men of the ancient world such as Seneca, Epictetus, and the Roman emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism is based on the idea that we are able to control our thoughts and our reactions to what is happening in the outside world. It teaches that there may be external circumstances, but that these are neither good nor bad. It is only our internal reaction to these that give them this qualification. How we react to them is completely within our control.

In practice, this might mean that you suddenly have a lot of work to do, and this work has to be finished in a very short period of time. You might panic and start procrastinating, but it’s completely within your power to react differently, because it’s you who decides if this is a bad situation or not.

Alternatively, you could change your outlook and look at this situation from a more positive point of view. A different reaction might then be: I suddenly have all this work, this can be an opportunity to improve my skills and distinguish myself. And once the work is done, I will be very pleased with myself and I will get a major boost of confidence in my abilities.

Stoicism, the ultimate anti-procrastination weapon

Why do we procrastinate? Because a task is easy and requires hardly any effort? No, quite the contrary.

We procrastinate because a task is hard, because it’s not very fun, and because there’s a very real chance of failure, which intimidates us. This makes us feel uncomfortable and instills fearful emotions.

For a Stoic, this is no problem at all. As Marcus Aurelius put it: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

A Stoic doesn’t see an obstacle, he sees an opportunity. In his mind, a difficult task will make him stronger, and if he fails, he will learn from it. An obstacle on the path is a natural part of that path.

There are two basic ways to look at an obstacle: either as something that holds you back, or something that makes you stronger. The latter is far more likely to produce success.

And failure is not a bad thing if you believe it to be so. This is completely within the power of your mind. This is exactly why Stoicism is the perfect antidote to procrastination. It neutralizes the fearful thoughts that keep us from doing our work.

It also works by keeping the mind on a tight leash. A Stoic’s thoughts aren’t allowed to wander free, to be distracted by every trivial thing that comes along.

And it teaches that a good life ultimately does not spring forth from thoughts and emotions, but from action. It is only by our actions that we can distinguish ourselves, not our thoughts.

Just sitting there, doing nothing and waiting for some magical force to push you into doing your work is very much antithetical to Stoicism.

Then there’s the mood management aspect of procrastination. Procrastination is essentially a way to remove those bad feelings of intimidation and replace them with the joy of doing fun yet useless activities, the ones that have no negative consequences attached to them, but ultimately don’t do very much for helping you advance in life either.

Stoicism sees these feelings for what they truly are: merely thoughts and externalities, which have little basis in reality, and which we can override with logic.

Why is a task intimidating you? Probably because you have a fear of failure.

But what of it, if you fail, if something bad happens? What if you didn’t close the sale, or you got a bad grade on your test? Will it truly be so bad? Is this fear based in reality? Is the world going to end if you fail?

Most likely not. And even if it did, again, what of it? If you do nothing, the same bad thing, or maybe worse, will happen.

Spend less time on frivolities

One other way in which Stoicism can make our lives easier, while making us more productive, is by helping us see what is truly valuable time spent, and what is not.

Take this quote from Marcus Aurelius, for instance:

“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 lesser things beyond what should be allowed. Since the vast majority of our words and actions are unnecessary, corralling them will create an abundance of leisure and tranquility. As a result, we shouldn’t forget at each moment to ask, is this one of the unnecessary things?”

If the emperor were to have lived today, you know he would be talking about e-mail, Facebook, and useless meetings. How much time are we spending in our inbox, that can be spent doing real valuable work, the kind of work that gets us noticed and gets us promoted, the kind of work people will pay a lot of money for? Most likely, way too much.

The emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Could a man with such an awesome beard ever be wrong?

The same goes for the hundreds of tips and tricks to increase productivity. How much time are you going to spend trying to learn them all, and then implementing them? How do you know which ones are worth anything and which aren’t?

Before you’ve figured that out, you’ll have wasted hundreds of hours, if not more. With not much to show for it.

Once we’re able to cut this useless waste of time, we can then spend it doing actual, real, valuable work. We’ll get the work done faster. And the effects aren’t merely limited to increased productivity either. Being able to do more work in less time also means there is less rush, less stress and hurrying.

That means less overtime and more time for the things in life that lead to happiness. More time to spend doing the things you love, with the people you love. This is what Marcus Aurelius means by creating ‘an abundance of leisure and tranquility’.

The Stoic Reading List

As you can see, adopting a Stoic philosophy will help you in many ways. Not only will it help increase your productivity, but it will help you lead a more fruitful and fulfilling life, with less worry and a solid state of mind.

Stoicism is such an ideal philosophy for productivity because it praises the virtue of action, and because it helps us deal with distractions and externalities, and reveals them for what they truly are.

But whether you will adopt Stoicism, the real point of this article was to show you that all these productivity hacks are ultimately useless if you don’t have a set of principles, a blueprint to guide you. Maybe you have a practical philosophy of your own, with its own set of rules and tenets, one that works just as well. That’s absolutely fine.

Your philosophy is the palace. Your tactics are merely interior decoration.

You can still use your favorite productivity tricks, of course. Turn on the thermostat, only check your e-mail two times per day, create deadlines and find an accountability buddy, but ensure that these tactics fit within your central framework, as some of them might just cause more distraction.

If you implement all these ‘lesser things’ without setting a foundation in place, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time, and it will all be for nothing.

All that being said, it’s very hard to give an exhaustive explanation of all the Stoic ideas in one blog post. That’s why I absolutely recommend that you delve a bit deeper into these ideas by doing some more reading.

Here are a few books that will help you on the path.

  • Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
  • The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday
  • Letters from a Stoic, by Seneca

I didn’t include too many, because it’s good enough if you stick with the basics, and it would be counter to the main argument of this article if I were to include ten different books for you to read. Get the basics right, worry about the details later.

These authors will provide a good starting point to change your outlook, and help you live a more fruitful life.

All the best, and until next time,