How An Ancient Philosophy Helps Me Improve Productivity
Stoic philosophy may hold the key to a less stressful and more productive workday.
Inspiration can come from a variety of sources, and at Adept, we regularly share our inspirations among our entire team. As the agency's analytics and optimization strategist, some might think that my inspiration comes from well-researched, data-supported sources. Well, that’s partially true. I also find inspiration from many other sources including philosophy — more specifically, Stoic philosophy. It's inspired me to reach new productive heights at work, and perhaps it can help you as well.
Stoicism is lightly defined as using one’s mind to understand the world, and to do one’s part in nature’s plan. Admittedly, there was a time when I perceived Stoicism as cold, stone-faced, emotionless, and quotes from old dead guys. But I know how easy it is to have misperceptions about something I don’t understand. Shifting my perspective, I’ve learned that Stoic philosophy is a powerful philosophy of virtue, discipline and introspection, and it can benefit all aspects of our everyday lives, including work.
It’s fascinating to think that there was once a time when people didn’t have the answers to everything at their fingertips, but had to contemplate life, its meaning, and how to become better, wiser and more resilient people in the face of life and its challenges. And it’s amazing that over 2,000 years later, some concepts easily apply to life in today’s world.
What We Can and Cannot Control
An important theme I’ve spent time with lately is developing a true understanding of the things that are inside of my control versus the things that are outside of my control.
“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor
To me, power over the mind comes from not getting so overcome, overwhelmed or weakened by the exhausting cycle of worrying about the things that are out of our control. And many of us spend too much time in this state of mind.
Personally, things that fall outside of our control include other people’s opinions and judgments, minor events like weather, traffic and travel delays, major events like pandemics and the great unknowns in life, to name a few. And professionally, we cannot control the business climate, when a favorite client’s team restructures and no longer works with us, or a prospective client’s final decision regarding whether to work with us.
Of course, we can influence some of these events; however, in the end, some things simply fall outside of our control.
So what can we control?
Personally, we can control our judgments, opinions, attitudes and actions, as well as our responses and choices in a given situation. And professionally, we can control our character and how we conduct ourselves in the workplace, the level of effort and preparation we put into our work and presentations, and so much more.
As a result, having an acceptance of what you can’t control and shifting attention towards what you can control creates more satisfaction instead of dissatisfaction because you’re doing what you can. It’s invigorating instead of exhausting because you’re not trying to fight an uphill battle. And you’re more focused instead of distracted because you know what you need to do and can channel your efforts towards doing it well.
Will this happen every time? No. We’re human, and oftentimes unexpected events and situations will get the best of us, especially in the marketing world. Rapid shifts in industry trends and best practices can push teams to quickly refine their tactics. Time and effort put into what is initially perceived as a great strategy or plan may be met with criticism. Difficult conversations or high-pressure situations with clients and team members happen.
But life is a practice, and we have the opportunity to practice bettering ourselves daily.
Start Focusing on What You Can Control
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”
—Epictetus, Greek philosopher
Here’s a practice you can implement today: If you’re facing and struggling with a personal or professional challenge, make a two-column list by breaking it down into what you can control versus what you can’t control.
By doing this, it familiarizes you with what you can’t control so you aren’t so surprised or flustered if or when those events surface, and helps you stay focused on what is within your power.
Then, focusing on what you can control, do those things, and do them to the very best of your ability. Recognize that even though things don’t always go to plan and the outcome will be what it will be, you won’t be so shaken by any obstacles or disappointments but rather more satisfied that you gave it one hell of a shot.
And if you can bring that into every situation, I don’t believe you can lose in the long run.
- “The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness” by Epictetus (Interpretation by Sharon Lebell)
- “The Essential Marcus Aurelius” by Marcus Aurelius (Translated by Jacob Needleman and John Piazza)
- “How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life” by Massimo Pigliucci
- The Daily Stoic (https://dailystoic.com/)