No More Procrastination

The Roman emperor on getting things done

Happy new year! 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

There’s a lot of practical advice for combatting procrastination. Only some of it is useful. 

The Stoics offer a unique perspective.

The source of procrastination is judgment. When we’re putting something off, that reveals what we believe. When we’re impulsive, that's often driven by the thought that something else is worth doing. When we’re indecisive, that’s motivated by uncertainty. When we’re afraid of acting, that indicates the judgment that action could harm us. 

A brilliant example of this is Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I am rising to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain about, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

— But it’s nicer here …

So were you born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

— But we have to sleep sometime…

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that

— as it did on eating and drinking.

And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There’s still more of that to do.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1

What’s happening here? Marcus Aurelius is wrestling with his judgment. He’s born to do excellent work, not pursue pleasure. And yet, he hasn’t fully internalized that principle.

The first step Stoics advise then, is to make our principles explicit. 

Once we’re clear about our beliefs, we can turn to action. Be direct. This advice lines up well with the advice that we should break down large tasks into smaller ones. Just get started. Don’t get started with proxy work or fake work, go directly to whatever needs to be done.

This is how I read Marcus Aurelius in 8.32:

You have to assemble your life yourself—action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.

—But there are external obstacles. . . .

Not to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense.

—Well, but perhaps to some more concrete action.

But if you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself—another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action.

Meditations 8.32

All of this is done with one’s philosophy in mind. The ancient Stoics carried books of maxims around them. They used these to inspire and guide action. Whether they use digital or physical reminders, modern Stoics do the same. One of the best maxims for combatting procrastination is the reminder that life is short:

“Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be good.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17

That should bring some urgency to your work. 

No more impulsiveness, delay, or indecision. Start. Action by action.

🎯 Action

Choose a virtue to exemplify today:

  • Courage: not avoiding what ought to be done due to fear

  • Moderation: not acting impulsively

  • Prudence: approaching your problems practically and thoughtfully, with skill

🎺 Become More Stoic This Year

Michael Tremblay and I running a live course starting January 8th!

Check out the reviews from our last cohort: “I believe that this is a life changing course.

Have any questions about the course? Michael and I opened up our calendars – schedule a 1-1 with either of us here.

🎧️ Michael and I broke down the Stoic Solution to procrastination on Stoa Conversations:

“Get everything done that needs to get done.”

What did you think about today's letter?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.