10 Stoic principles for getting things done

Lifehacks from a life philosophy

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

Stoicism isn’t just a philosophy of productivity hacks. In fact, as a life philosophy, it holds that productivity is indifferent. It isn’t valuable in and of itself. It’s only good if it is used towards worthy ends.

That said – that doesn’t mean there are no important heuristics we can divine from the philosophy. To prove that, here’s a list of 10 Stoic productivity principles. When understood correctly, I think they’re about more than mere efficiency.

Focus on what you can control

This is the fundamental Stoic teaching. Take responsibility for what is your own. Don’t waste time on what is not up to you.

Know thyself

Reflection should be built into your schedule. It's useful for catching what's going well, what could be better, what you're learning, and whether you're working on the right things. The amount of time you spend reflecting should be proportional to the amount of time you're considering. Spend more time reflecting on larger chunks of time.

Productivity is autocatalytic

If you succeed at one task, you'll increase the expectation that you'll succeed at the next one. This makes it more likely that you will. Take advantage of success spirals and positive feedback loops. To do this, your goals need to be realistic.

If you would not be of an angry temper, then, do not feed the habit. Give it nothing to help its increase. Be quiet at first and reckon the days in which you have not been angry. I used to be angry every day; now every other day; then every third and fourth day; and if you miss it so long as thirty days, offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.

Epictetus, Discourses 2.18

Setting goals and reaching builds self-trust

Likewise, failing to do what you set out to do erodes the value of your word. Don't eat into self-trust. Do what you say you will.

What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.


Productivity is indifferent

Whether or not you are efficient, doesn’t fundamentally matter. What matters is who you are and what you’re doing. Most jobs should be done with excellence. Yet some are better not done at all.

Be direct

If you want to achieve a goal, go directly to it. As Epictetus said:

If you would be a reader, read; if a writer, write.

Epictetus, Discourses 2.18

This is one of those simple rules that many people get wrong.

If you don't get what you want, it's a sign either that you did not seriously want it, or that you tried to bargain over the price.

Rudyard Kipling, An Unqualified Pilot

Do not act like you will live ten thousand years

Default to moving quickly.

This is likely one of the largest mistakes I made earlier on. I tend to think things through slowly and overemphasize accuracy. Life is short. Feedback is valuable. If you have an error correction system, making more inaccurate decisions can be better than making fewer accurate ones.

“Everywhere means nowhere.”

Seek depth. Consider Seneca on reading:

Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.

Seneca, Moral Letters 2

Invert your attitudes

The most impressive people have an inversion of attitudes: what others see as unpleasant they see as fun. Successful athletes like getting up at 4am. I think of this as the edge of discomfort. If others don't do X because it makes them uncomfortable, you can do well by learning to like X.

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.

Epictetus, Handbook 2

Emulate successful people

But choose who you admire carefully.

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Seneca, Moral Letters 11

🎯 Action

Choose one rule above and consider how you can use it to cultivate a more focused, reflective, and intentional approach to life and work

🎺 Become More Stoic – The Course

As I announced last email, Michael Tremblay and I are creating a course on Stoic theory and practice.

Michael got his Ph.D. studying Epictetus and has a black belt in BJJ. I’ve taught meditation for almost five years through Stoa (and also have a background in philosophy and startups). So there are many things we could focus on. Let us know what would be most useful to you.

Get early access and fill out the survey here.

🔗 Resources

⏲️ This is not a “Stoic” rule, per se, but one of the most useful productivity tips I’ve heard is the 2 minute rule: if something will take you 2 minutes do it right away.

🔬 There’s a law of equal and opposite advice. It should always be kept in mind when reading lists like the above. The fact of the matter is that for some advice (“Persevere!”), there are some people who need to hear the exact opposite (“Quit!”).

📖 The quote from Hecato comes from letter 6 of Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius. I appreciate his insight on how knowledge is shared by action and example:

Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates…Therefore I summon you, not merely that you may derive benefit, but that you may confer benefit; for we can assist each other greatly.

Seneca, Moral Letters 6

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