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The Productivity Paradox and Stoicism

Combatting a modern problem with ancient tools.

You can get a lot done in a New York minute… or at least you used to be able to. Organizations in New York and across the country have been experiencing decreased productivity despite increased access to technological productivity tools (such as digital calendars, informational resources and messaging) since the 1970s. This seemingly paradoxical relationship between access to technological productivity tools and actual productivity has been an area of debate since the 1970s. So what is the reason for this paradox?

Well, of course, access does not guarantee correct utilization. These tools can become distractions affecting mental health, particularly depression and even addiction in the worst scenarios.

As a New York City-based therapist and coach, I work with organizations and high-performing individuals including c-suite executives and professional athletes to optimize their productivity. In our productivity work, some of the most powerful tools I use are drawn from the teachings of Stoicism, which has helped high performers throughout history, including Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Some of the stoic lessons my clients have found most impactful are below.

Have Goals

Stoicism reminds us to strive towards our goals, avoiding temptation and distraction. Everything my high performing clients do is in service of their goals rather than comfort or pleasure. Goals are typically in the domains of health, family, community, environment, and career. Comfort and pleasure are certainly a part of their lives, but they don’t allow comfort or pleasure to distract them from their goals.

Respect Time

Famous stoic teacher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius teaches us to use our resources (such as time) like a wartime general. Time is our most valuable and equitable resource. The wealthiest, fittest, happiest people have the same number of minutes in a day that you do. Despite the equitable nature of time, people get different outcomes for a variety of reasons, including structural inequalities, but I want to focus on factors that we all have immediate control over, like time management.

Time is finite, and therefore should be scheduled deliberately. Time is scheduled for work towards goals, time for physical fitness, time for community and friends, and time for recharging (sleep, entertainment, releasing muscle tension, baths, responsible intoxication, etc.). Effective balancing of these things will dramatically increase your productivity and general health. The improvement in health contributes to a greater lifespan, increasing the time and ability to achieve even more. If a stoic is not working towards career goals, they are spending time with friends/family or spending time on improving their health and wellness.

My high performing clients are deliberate about their time. My most successful clients follow a schedule every day. They even schedule their days off. I want to note here that flexibility is important. The universe doesn’t care about your schedule. It will need to change and adapt throughout the day. The goal is not to fulfill every task on your schedule, but rather to have intentionality about the time you’re spending. As Seneca said about time management, “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it.”

See Social Media as a Tool

Social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and Tik Tok carry risks, like anything else. My high performing clients use social media deliberately to access information, communicate messages, and connect to others, but limit tangential actions while using social media. It is my opinion that social media isn’t going to cause a meteoric downfall of morality and mental health like some predict, but it isn’t as harmless as others claim either. Like alcohol, fast cars, gambling, etc., use is not inherently problematic, but irresponsible use can carry the most serious of consequences. It's a good idea to have a deliberate SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) goal for social media use.

Schedule Recovery Time

Some of your most valuable time is the time used to recharge from the stresses of the day. You need time to unplug, refocus, and refresh the brain. Entertainment use should always be moderate and deliberate. Be intentional about scheduling the most effective leisure activities for you. Traditional leisure activities like drinking or watching t.v. may not be as effective as taking an Epsom salt bath, doing yoga, or drinking chamomile tea with a friend. Experiment with healthy forms of recovery time and see what works best for you.

Accept Pain Before Pleasure

My high performing clients don’t shy away from painful things. If there is a challenge, they confront it head-on rather than avoiding it. Avoidance causes growth. This is true for both pain and pleasure. Think about it. When you put off that thing that you don’t want to do it just gets harder. When you delay gratification, the payoff just grows.

Be Grateful Every Day

Neuroscience teaches us that thinking of reasons for gratitude is pretty much the healthiest thing we can do every day for our mental health. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”


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