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7 timeless productivity tips from ancient philosophers

The question of productivity is as old as humanity is young. Need proof? Here are seven simple and timeless ways to live a more productive life from ancient philosophers.

From articles about the latest productivity “hacks” to tips and tricks on how to maximize your day and conquer your inbox, productivity occupies a special place in our personal and professional lives.

This isn’t surprising. We live in a culture that celebrates success — and that leaves everyone looking for ways to be more productive, no matter where they work or what they do.

But for all the “workday hacks” and “productivity boosting tips,” our desire for productivity strikes at something uniquely human: How to make the best use of our time.

Time is both our greatest asset and a finite resource, making how we use it and how we maximize it a timeless question everyone grapples with — including ancient philosophers, as the writer Darius Foroux points out.

From the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato to the Sanskrit sage Patanjali, philosophers have long wrestled with the question of how best to work — and what the essential ingredients of accomplishment are. Many of these teachings remain powerful in their simplicity and timeless in their application.

Need proof? Taking a page from Foroux (and adding our own twist), here are seven simple and timeless ways to live a more productive life, according to ancient philosophers.

1. Start Small.

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

   – Lao Tzu

Too often, the sheer scale of a given project, task, or job is enough to scare us away. Worse yet, we often mistakenly think big things happen all at once — and miss the many smaller events that led up to them.

Isaac Newton’s fabled discovery of gravity is a prime example: With a falling apple and five minutes of thought, the story goes, he unearthed one of the prime forces of the universe. This, of course, conveniently misses the many smaller developments that led up to his discovery.

Oftentimes when starting a project, it’s best to start small and set yourself a few goals per day (instead of trying to tackle the whole thing at once).

2. Start Strong.

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

   – Plato

It’s common knowledge that the beginning of any project is often the most challenging part. Anyone who has stared forlornly at a blank Word document or PowerPoint presentation can tell you this. But the more you can focus on getting the beginning right, the better off you’ll be.   

Both Plato and Aristotle, two of the most famous and persevering Ancient Greek philosophers, recognized this and took is a step further, calling the beginning of anything in life or work the most critical predictor of success. Or, as Aristotle said more eloquently, “Well begun is half done.”

Focus on starting any given task or project strong, and you’ll be halfway there when it comes to finishing it.

3. Prioritize Wisely.

“Remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth.” 

  – Marcus Aurelius

To paraphrase the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: Focus on the important stuff first. 

It’s easy to get tangled up in busywork and lose sight of the larger picture. Taking the time to step back from a given project and ask yourself what’s truly important is a critical step we often forget to take when tackling a project. Prioritize your time in the right ways, and you’ll see the rewards quickly.

4. Focus on What You Can Control.  

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

  – Epictetus

Whether it’s an errant sick day or some part or other of your job that a colleague operationally owns, there are plenty of things you have little power over during your workday.

To paraphrase the Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus: Don’t get hung up on things you can’t change. Focus on what you can control and learn to let go of the things you can’t.

This starts with your personal life decisions — eating well, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep — and ends with your workday decisions (like focusing on your core objectives).

5. Be Ambitious.

“Big results require big ambition.”

  – Heraclitus 

It’s inarguable to say that ambition and productivity go hand in hand. The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it best: “Big results require big ambition.”

Without having a sense of intentionality and a big vision for what you want to accomplish, you’ll likely find yourself adrift as you check boxes here and there — and mistake small gestures for purposeful act.  

It’s important to be ambitious enough to articulate what you want to see happen and intentional enough to bring that vision to life. 

6. Don’t Rush Perfection.

Haste in every business brings failures.”
  – Herodotus

When it comes to productivity, we’re often guilty of thinking that working quickly and working well are the same thing. They’re not.

Whether it’s the rush to launch a new product or the desire to publish a creative project, prioritizing speed over quality can jeopardize any endeavor: Corners get cut and half-baked ideas are granted license, leading to suboptimal results.

The Ancient Greek philosopher and historian Herodotus said it best: “Haste in every business brings failure.” Or, put another way: You can’t rush perfection.

7. Search Out Inspiration.

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds.”

  – Patanjali

For all the productivity “hacks” out there, the most timeless trick is the simplest: Search out inspiration.

When inspiration strikes, our work hums. We know what we need to do, we are intentional about doing it and we have the motivation to bring our vision to life.

That’s where Patanjali, a sage in Ancient India, offers up some key advice: Inspiration comes to those who are driven by a powerful vision for what should — and can — be. In layman’s terms, don’t wait for inspiration to strike; search for it in the work you do and the purpose you bring to your work.

Take this with You

Whether you’re reaching a milestone, trying something new, or achieving something significant, being productive is its own reward — and the centerpiece of a fulfilling workday.

Productivity isn’t needlessly filling our days with busy work. It’s being purposeful about the work we do and pointed about how, where and when we do it.

As the ancient philosophers above tell us, making better use of our time starts with being intentional about how we use the time we have in a given day.

And it ends with deriving fulfillment from the work we do. The famous Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle perhaps put it best: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”

Looking for a better place to work? Explore the workspaces and amenities 1,000+ office workers value most in our white paper, Forget Foosball: People Want a Better Place to Work, Not Play.

Feb 11 2020

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