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What Stoic Philosopher Seneca Has to Say About Productivity

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Everyone’s obsessed with productivity. All you need is one Google search, and you will be bombarded by countless hacks, tools, and software that promise results of making the most out of the workday. This need to be better, faster, and more effective is understandable. Idle and wasted time is costly for both businesses and individuals, especially since it’s the one resource you can’t buy or take back again.

However, there’s a difference between working smart and working hard through busywork. To illustrate, a company that invested in reliable employee experience solutions will be able to maximize resources because they can identify specific productivity problems and create targeted solutions. On the other hand, businesses that only rely on gut feelings and anecdotal data will more likely treat surface-level issues. Ignoring the root problem will lead to the pain points repeating again and again.

Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, popularly known as Seneca, calls this band-aid solution a waste of time. It only promotes the illusion of busyness, which is a distraction that hinders reaching results that have a significant long-lasting impact. Seneca explains that people pursuing new fixations, only modify the reason for their misery instead of working towards ending it.

Seneca’s writings, like his stand on busyness, remain relevant in today’s modern world. He contemplated on the different aspects of living, ranging from happiness to wealth and connections. But his essay, “On The Shortness of Life,” is widely referenced as he contemplates on what productivity and managing one’s time wisely may mean. Here are additional techniques as prescribed by Seneca:

Ponder about death

No one likes to reflect on their mortality, especially when it seems far away. However, according to Seneca, this lack of contemplation about death is the biggest reason why people waste time. They take for granted the gift of life by procrastinating and filling their hours with nonsensical things. The reality is tomorrow is not guaranteed, no matter how much one perceives it to be.

This reminder of life’s fleeting nature can be depressing, but it can also be a source of strength. People will learn to live day by day like it’s their last, prioritizing meaning and impact over distractions and trivialities.

Avoid being stuck in the past or the future

Brainstorming in the meeting

Seneca divided time into three: the past, the present, and the future. While all three are significant, it is by living in the present that work can be done. Staying in the past and reliving it constantly will lead to anxiety and debilitating fear. No one can change what already happened, no matter how many times a person plays the events in their heads. What they can hope for is to learn from their experiences and apply them to the things that matter in the present.

On the other hand, spending an excessive amount of time planning the future will take away attention on what’s currently going on. The future can alter in a snap, with forecasting never being 100% accurate. That is best illustrated in the changes brought about by the pandemic, an unprecedented worldwide event no one saw coming.

Humankind’s fixation on finding ways to maximize talents and resources is nothing new. One can even trace it back to ancient Greece when philosophers like Seneca studied the topic extensively.

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