By Eric Barker
December 4, 2017
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Everybody would like to get more of the right things done. But how does Stoicism fit into all of this?

The word “productivity” seems new and sleek and shiny. And Stoicism is old. Really old. Like older-than-grandpa-old.

I have news for you: Facebook and email may be recent but people have always wasted time. And smart people have been thinking about how to stop doing it for almost as long.

Most productivity advice is focused on work. Following it makes you feel like you’re turning into a machine. Nobody wants to be a Transformer. (On second thought, being a Transformer would be pretty cool, but you get my point.)

A more philosophical approach to getting stuff done is nice because sometimes the things you wanna do aren’t work. You wanna see friends, have fun, and all the stuff that gets shoved off the calendar by work.

And as we’ll see, the Stoics’ ideas are actually backed by a lot of modern science and expert advice.

Alrighty then, time to tighten your toga — we’re rolling old school…

1) Protect Your Time Like Your Money

The old saying is “time is money.” But we sure don’t act like that.

If people came up to you all day asking for $20 you’d tell them to get lost. But people do come up to you all day (or email, or text, or call) asking for your time. And you just hand it on over.

And the great Stoic philosopher Seneca does a face palm every time you offer up an hour of your day without thinking it through:

And research has shown that to our brains, time and money are seen differently. You’re naturally conservative with money — not so with time.

From Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong:

Plain and simple, you need to treat your time more like money. Be more miserly with hours than dollars. Why? You can get more money in this life. You can’t get more time.

(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)

Alright, so you’re protecting your time and you have more of it. Great. But what’s to stop you from wasting all those hoarded hours procrastinating?

Read more: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

2) Manage Emotions To Better Manage Time

Stoicism isn’t just some old philosophy. Its central ideas went on to inspire some of the most powerful psychological tools of the modern era, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

And what was one of those big ideas? Beliefs underlie feelings.

If I point something at you and you believe it’s a gun, you’re scared. If you believe it’s a toy gun, you’re not. You’re not psychic or omniscient. It’s your beliefs that create your feelings, not reality.

Here’s big-deal Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

I know: Interesting insight, blogger-guy, but what the heck does that have to do with productivity?

Research shows your mood drastically affects how much you accomplish. You procrastinate the most when you’re in a bad mood and think you can improve it with something fun.

From Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess:

Don’t manage your mood by procrastinating. Ask yourself what beliefs underlie your feelings and question those.

Are you afraid of the task? Why? Does it have a knife pointed at you? No. You’re afraid you’ll do a lousy job. Well, you’re gonna do an even worse job if you don’t get started.

Change your beliefs and you change your feelings. Change your feelings and you’ll get more done.

(To learn the 6 rituals ancient wisdom says will make you happy, click here.)

Okay, you have more time and you’re not wasting it because now you’re managing your mood. But what should you do first when there’s a lot of stuff to accomplish?

Read more: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

3) Important Beats Urgent

You usually know what’s important. But often you do something else. Something that’s right in front of you or something screaming your name.

You do what’s easy or urgent, not what really moves the needle.

Well, Stoic legend Marcus Aurelius just ain’t having it:

Productivity gurus Peter Drucker and Tim Ferriss both agree. Here’s Tim:

(To learn the 4 rituals Stoicism says will make you mentally strong, click here.)

Okay, you have enough advice to really get cranking. But how do you make sure you don’t get stressed out or discouraged and quit?

4) Focus On Effort, Not Outcome

Another big idea from the Stoics: understanding what you have control over is critical.

They thought you didn’t have control over anything but your choices. And if you can’t control something, you shouldn’t worry about it.

Here’s that Epictetus guy again:

What’s that have to do with productivity? Plenty. Because you worry about all kinds of stuff that you can’t do anything about. And that’s wasted time and energy.

You cannot control any outcome. Things outside your control can always influence the final result. You can control how much effort you expend and what process you use. So focus on that.

Bestelling author and guy-who-knows-more-about-Stoicism-than-I-do, Ryan Holiday, explains:

And neuroscience research shows that by focusing on what you have control over, you decrease stress.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

And don’t just trust the research. Astronauts, Special Forces soldiers and even Samurai agree: a feeling of calm control can reduce how much you stress about a task.

(To learn how to be productive without being miserable, click here.)

Alright, we learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and find out the best piece of advice where the Stoics disagree with the research…

Read more: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

Sum Up

Here’s what the ancient Stoics can teach you about productivity:

  • Protect your time like your money: You can get more money.
  • Manage emotions to better manage time: Feeling too cranky right now; I’ll explain this later.
  • Important beats urgent: Getting a lot of unnecessary things done is not productivity; it’s stupidity.
  • Focus on effort, not outcome: You can’t control whether it ends up as a “robbery” or an “attempted robbery”, just focus on executing the heist in a way that would make mom proud.

So where do the Stoics and the modern experts part ways?

Karl Pillemer of Cornell University interviewed 1200 people age 70 to 100+ for his book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, asking them:

What was the #1 answer? “Life is short.”

Seneca, in a beautifully worded passage, strongly disagrees:

No offense to Karl. He did a survey. So he didn’t necessarily get the right answer, he got the most commonanswer.

I’m with Seneca. Life doesn’t have to be short. We all have 24hrs in a day. Every single one of us.

You can use them to create something awesome, to visit that someone special who misses you desperately, to provide for your family, or to savor a great moment.

But don’t waste your hours. Don’t end up wondering, “What have I been doing with my time?”

Leave a trail of accomplishments or smiles behind you.

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Buy Barker’s book Barking Up The Wrong Tree here

This article originally appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree

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