Maximize your productivity the (really) old fashioned way

Writing career advice for 21st century job seekers can make you feel like you are on the cutting edge of workplace productivity and management. Then you pick up an old book from college on a whim called Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, and realize that you are not so new and innovative after all.

For the uninitiated, Aurelius was the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 and not only was he thought of as one of the good emperors, he is also considered one of the most eloquent proponents of Stoic philosophy. Turns out those Stoics knew a thing or two about maximizing productivity.

Most of what we say and do is not essential. Eliminate it, and you’ll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself, is this necessary? ~ Marcus Aurelius

There is more than a little wisdom in that quote. How much of what we do, day in and day out can really be considered essential. Never-ending email threads, paperwork, mandatory 60 minute staff meetings, paperwork, lunch meetings, did I mention paperwork? So much of the average worker’s day is spent doing the adult version of “busy work,” rather than actually innovating or improving processes which should be the core of just about any knowledge worker’s job.  

So why do we do it? Why do we spend so much time doing the non-essential when clearly mankind has been aware of this problem for literally thousands of years? My guess: tradition. Above all, humans are creatures of habit, and if we have grown accustomed to working in a certain way we have a hard time envisioning an alternate way.

Scott Berkun in his book, My Year without Pants, talks about this issue in detailing how WordPress.com overcomes it through a corporate structure of remote working.

Why is it that work has to start at 9:00 a.m. and end at 5:00 p.m.? Why are meetings sixty minutes long, by default, and not thirty? We have little evidence these habits produce better work. Instead we follow these practices because we were forced to when we entered the workforce, and over time, they became so familiar that we’ve forgotten they are merely inventions.

The concept of thinking outside the box has become a management cliché, but it is exactly what many of us need to do. Stop and analyze why we do what we do. Is it truly necessary? If not, let’s stop just spinning our wheels and let’s take the advice of a first century philosopher in order to recreate work for  the 21stcentury.


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