Let’s get philosophical about getting productive

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

I still remember the introductory philosophy course I took as a freshman in college. It’s curious, isn’t it, what sticks to your brain like so much proverbial glue?

More than 40 years after the fact, I can recall the purposely nonsensical examples the professor cited to illustrate the transitive properties of logic. “If all Martians are green and this is a Martian, then it’s green.” Obviously.

A decade later when my late wife took a philosophy course at what’s now Colorado Mesa University, we discussed at length the implications of Plato’s well-known allegory about those pitiful souls stuck in his cave and the nature of reality. Think ancient version of “The Matrix” without Keanu Reeves or the cool special effects.

I don’t consider myself a philosopher by any stretch of the imagination — or particularly philosophical, for that matter. But I’ll gladly accept wisdom from any source. Thank you very much.

Perhaps at this point you’re asking yourself: Oh, that’s really interesting. But what does it have to do with business? What could those old Greek guys possibly know about running a company in the digital age?

A lot, as it turns out. Maybe not so much about social media marketing, but certainly the basics. Take productivity, for example. And what business owner or manager doesn’t think productivity is a pretty darn good thing?

As much as I’d love to take credit for making the connections between philosophy and productivity, I can’t. Thankfully, there’s someone who can — and does in compelling fashion. Darius Foroux, an entrepreneur and author who frequently addresses topics related to productivity, offers lessons he’s gleaned from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other famous philosophers.

The first of those lessons, Foroux asserts, is that less can be more.

To prevent what Socrates described as the “barrenness of a busy life,” it’s important to avoid taking on more tasks and responsibilities only to do them less well. The modern idiom would be to run around like a chicken with your head cut off. Productivity, Foroux says, is about doing the same amount of work in less time — not more work. In addition, there’s a genuine risk for those whose lives are so busy in striving to reach some distant destination, they’re missing out on the pleasures of the journey to get there.

Plato similarly emphasized quality over quantity: “Better a little well done than a great deal imperfectly.” In other words, it’s better to make a little progress each day in achieving great things over the long term. As Foroux points out: Life is long, but our days are short.

At the same time, it’s important to have some fun. While practice makes perfect, so does pleasure, Aristotle contended. Those who enjoy and take pride in their work are far more likely to enjoy not only success, but also fulfillment. The alternative is a sense of sacrifice that leads to resentment.

Foroux goes on to share a lesson from Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher and Roman emperor who stressed the importance of eliminating that which is nonessential to enjoy more tranquility — and, in turn, productivity. That’s prescient advice for a digital age given the ubiquitous distractions of cell phones and internet. The more you can eliminate nonessential tasks and distractions, the more productive your work.

Then there’s Plutarch, a biographer who warned against the hazards of excessively blaming or praising yourself. Neither is a particularly productive effort — nor leads, for that matter, to productive efforts.

Foroux concludes his lessons on productivity in citing the admonitions of the Chinese philosophers Confucius and Lao Tzu.

Confucius emphasized the importance of  continuous progress toward a goal over the pace of work. As the hare discovered in the fabled competition against the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race.

Lao Tzu offered a similar reminder about the cumulative result of small deeds — great acts. Consequently, a systematic approach to doing the small things right can lead to big achievements.  Retired Navy admiral William McRaven suggested the same thing in his notable commencement address and subsequent book: If you want to change the world, he advised, start off by making your bed.

Not to get philosophical or anything, but I’d argue ancient wisdom remains forever applicable in the modern workplace. Consider what the French philosopher René Descartes had to say:
“It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.”