By adopting Stoicism, we aim to align our desires with what is under our control. This means desiring what we are likely to reach, while refraining from desiring what is out of our control. This is a key component of the Stoic discipline of desire.
From this perspective, it makes sense to desire that we are virtuous. We have direct control over our actions and character. We can shape ourselves. While it makes less sense to desire retiring without ever working — for most people, labor is a necessity for achieving other goods that they want.
Through application of this one idea, one can become free. Freedom is won by disregarding what is beyond our control.
The idea here is that when our desires come authentically from ourselves and are within reach, we are able to live how we’d like. Freedom isn’t a matter of having thousands of options available to us, instead it’s simply a matter of being able to do what we want.
This is a deep insight that has import for many domains in life, let’s focus on productivity today.
These days it’s easy to feel as though there isn’t enough time. There are so many things pulling at our attention. We are distracted by requests from others, sudden changes at work, and an ever changing digital landscape. We also face internal distractions from the desire to constantly check social media to sudden inspiration to begin an entirely new project. In this world, it’s easy to feel busy for an entire week, but at the end look back and wonder how you spent your time.
There are so many important things to do, but not enough time.
Enter the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. He reminds us that you can’t do all the things. Why desire what you cannot have? If you constantly want to be doing a hundred things you are setting yourself for perpetual failure. You’ll be distracted and set yourself up for failure.
If you regard that which is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind, and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings — Epictetus
What you need to do is determine what is most important to you.
The contemporary vision of productivity is sometimes too sparse. We celebrate people who work long hours and get a lot of work done. But recall Seneca’s words:
Love of bustle is not industry.
Instead of thinking of productivity as measuring your output of things done over time, think of it as measuring whether you’re able to complete what is most important to you and what you can do. In other words, productivity should be measured by the value of the task and the likelihood that it will be finished.
Laura Vanderkam talks about this in her book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities. In this book a scattered, distracted protagonist finds herself struck by the following mantra:
Expectations are infinite. Time is finite. You are always choosing. Choose well.
The thought? One must get clear on what one can do and move forward. As a productive and wise character says in the book:
‘I don’t have time’ means ‘It’s not a priority.’ We always have time for what matters to us. I wrote that down. I made myself write that phrase over and over. We always have time for what matters to us.
The sense that there isn’t enough time is an illusion. If you apply the discipline of desire, you have all the time in the world.