Productivity advice from a slave and an emperor

Katy Bowman called it “the bane of human existence.”

She was talking about the schedule. Another worthy competitor for that title is the to-do list.

Between the constraints of the schedule and the terror of the to-do list, we have an overwhelming amount of things to accomplish everyday.

The typical way to tackle them is simultaneously. You check email while you’re helping the kids get ready for school. Breakfast doubles as an opportunity to catch up on Twitter and Facebook. Work is divided between conversations with colleagues, fielding phone calls, answering memos and working on multiple projects.

We all know the dangers of multi-tasking, of spreading ourselves thin. Yet we still do it.

This morning, I was thinking about the upcoming day. Four pieces of writing to work on. Notes to transfer from books into my commons. Coaching in the evening. My schedule is far from hectic, but I still have commitments.

I find myself succumbing to the do-it-all-at-once disease.

Whilst reading I’ll be thinking about what to do next. Whilst walking the dog I’ll be deciding what to do when I get home. When writing I’ll be worrying about where I have to be in a couple of hours.

And then I remembered some advice from two people, who although they held very different positions, held a common opinion regarding productivity.

The first was Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic.

“If someone asked you how to write your name, would you clench your teeth and spit out the letters one by one? If he lost his temper, would you lose yours as well? Or would you just spell out the individual letters?
Remember—your responsibilities can be broken down into individual parts as well. Concentrate on those, and finish the job methodically—without getting stirred up or meeting anger with anger.”

Secondly, the words of Publius Syrus, former Roman slave turned playwright.

“He who chases two hares will catch neither.” Another less metaphorical observation from Syrus is that “to do two things at once is to do neither.”

If we were to constantly consider all that we had to do, the weight of obligation would be too much to bear. By contemplating what there is to be done over the next day, week, month, year, decade, we scare ourselves into paralysis. The immensity of our responsibilities can consume us. 

It can also cause us to devote far less than our full powers of attention to the task at hand. 

But our primary concern is not with the past, or with the future, but with what we have to do in the present, in this moment.

As best as you can, do as Marcus recommends. “Stick to what’s in front of you—idea, action, utterance.”