Stoicism and Stephen Covey – You don’t need to worry anymore!

“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things” The Enchiridion, Epictetus (translation by William R Connolly)

How would you feel if you did not have to worry again? Is this attainable? The Stoics certainly thought so.

More recently, Stephen Covey revisited this theme and provided a mental model to approach about such situations.

It becomes amazing how, sometimes, key tenets of Ancient Philosophy find their way into modern popular handbooks and practical how-to guides.

It is useful to occasionally revisit and embrace the transformative nature of these tenets, in combination with their modern variations, in an effort to lead more meaningful, productive and fulfilling lives (professionally and in the private sphere).

Let’s look at one of these tenets and mental schemes in action.

 

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

 

STOICISM

Stoicism is a movement that started with Zeno of Citium at the early 3rd BCE. Other major philosophers involved in this movement were Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (you can find more information here).

The basic tenet of the movement was “apatheia” (equanimity). Stoics posit that one way to attain this state of mind is by recognizing what lies within our power or influence and what is outside. Thereafter, come to terms with this realization.

Meric Casaubon elaborated on this thought in his translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as follows:

“Two points in the Stoic system deserve special mention. One is a careful distinction between things which are in our power and things which are not. Desire and dislike, opinion and affection, are within the power of the will; whereas health, wealth, honour, and other such are generally not so. The Stoic was called upon to control his desires and affections, and to guide his opinion; to bring his whole being under the sway of the will or leading principle…..” (Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Meric Casaubon)

 

Stephen Covey

 

STEPHEN R. COVEY

Stephen Covey mentions more or less the same theme but expands on it providing a mental scheme enabling us to better visualize how to go about this basic idea.

His mental scheme consists of concentric circles that portray our circle of influence and our circle of concern (see picture below).

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE

Stephen contends that we should first reflect on “where we focus our time and energy” and then consciously refocus our efforts to what we can influence, in an effort to increase our effectiveness.

Specifically, usually, we tend to worry or be concerned about many things such as, our health, our children, problems at work, the national debt, nuclear war. These concerns can and should be separated based on our mental and emotional involvement but also based on those for which we have some real control over and those that we cannot influence at all.

Thereafter, by focusing our time and energy in influencing those that we have some kind of control over we succeed and hence, we may also increase our circle of Influence further. We see people who embrace this behaviour being positive and empowered.

CIRCLE OF CONCERN

On the other hand, we see others that focus their time and energy on things they have no real influence over. These tend to blame and accuse circumstances or people and use reactive language. Eventually, the Circle of Influence of these people will shrink. I am sure you can think of a few people who embrace the one or the other behaviour and can possibly reflect on the consequences of their stance in life.

Like the ancient Stoics, what Stephen rightly highlighted is that we have to look at our attitude towards these situations and change our perspective so we can be “highly effective” in our lives. This happens if we do not waste time and energy on worrying about things we cannot control or influence but instead focus our energy to influence those that we can.

You can read more about this mental scheme here.

 

SCIENCE ABOUT THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF A POSITIVE ATTITUDE

Until recently this could have been described as a feel good and  useful belief. More recent scientific studies though have started to test even such esoteric beliefs.

I have written here about an insightful talk from Kelly McGonical which details a recent study that looks at the link between attitudes and cardiovascular disease.

In particular, this study links the attitude we have against stressful situations to specific responses our body has and the associated risk for development of cardiovascular disease.

 

CONCLUSION

People respond to different challenges in a different way and develop their own defense mechanisms to deal with the vicissitudes of life.

Practical philosophy such as the ideas described in this blogpost provides an extremely useful guide to think about things and be-free oneself from behaviours that damage productivity, happiness and the attainment of fulfillment in life.

A great resource to continue this journey with is Alain De Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy (an easy to read and immensely entertaining book or DVD).

Maya Angelou who recently passed away put it succinctly when she said:

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”, Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter:

What are the tenets, beliefs or thoughts that help you to get through the day?

 

Multitasking, a misused term! How to put your real multi-tasking power to good use!

“Do not multitask. I’m going to tell you what you already know. Trying to brush your teeth, talk on the phone, and answer e-mail at the same time just doesn’t work. Eating while doing online research and instant messaging? Ditto. If you prioritize properly, there is no need to multitask. It is a symptom of “task creep”—doing more to feel productive while actually accomplishing less. As stated, you should have, at most, two primary goals or tasks per day. Do them separately from start to finish without distraction. Divided attention will result in more frequent interruptions, lapses in concentration, poorer net results, and less gratification”  Tim Ferriss – The 4hr workweek

Multitasking is a term I constantly find people overuse and misuse.

I have seen this especially with people who are eager to prove that they have the ability to do everything at the same time.

Recent research highlights that “trying to focus on more than one thing at a time causes a 40% drop in productivity” (see below infographic for more research outcomes on the effects on this kind of  “multitasking”).

Moreover, the outcomes of “multitasking” is usually outcomes that are sub-optimal in quality. This of course creates more work negating the perceived “benefits” of saving time through Tim Ferriss’ described “multitasking” anyway.

The art of focus management is very important. More so, when you are working in an open office environment where distractions are very common and beyond anyone’s control.

Let’s see what the right way to think about multitasking is and a few tips on how to avoid disruptions as well as a presentation explaining a popular productivity method that can assist towards better focus management.

caffeinating, calculating, computerating

MULTI-TASKING

So, do we not focus on multitasking as a key skill for the modern professional?

Of course we do, but we need to redefine the term.

“MULTI-TASKING can be defined as the ability to work on multiple projects within the same span of time e.g. Have multiple projects on the run, but not at the same time”.

Good organisational skills, good action and project management skills are essential to achieve this.

It is obvious that the quality of work is in the effectiveness and efficiency by which we approach a task or project. Hence, we have to always look at these two terms working in tandem.

Efficiency means that you choose the right steps to the desired result and effectiveness is the fact that you get to the result.

Remember good old Einstein:

Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler”.

STEPS FOR INCREASING EFFECTIVENESS FOR MULTI-TASKING

1. Focus Management – Select periods to work on specific projects and tell your colleagues that you do not want to be disturbed during this time. Select symbols to denote that this is your “mental focus time” e.g. A do not disturb sign always works 🙂

2. Become aware of where you dedicate time during the week. Eliminate the tasks that do not have an effect on the business and are just noise (meetings you do not need to attend and email people copy you in for the shake of been copied in are just some examples).

3. Work on your ABCs i.e

  • A- Tasks that are URGENT and IMPORTANT come first,
  • B- Tasks that are IMPORTANT but not URGENT come next and
  • C- the rest can wait.

4. Set out a time to review tasks and prepare a list of steps that need to be done (David Allen’s Getting Things Done method is highly recommended). The below presentation briefly describes this method:

 

OTHER RESOURCES

The below infographic gathers some research that proves that the multitasking as described by Tim Ferriss above is not efficient nor effective.

 

Multitasking

The Perils of Multitasking – infographic by onlinecollege.org

 

Image courtesy of Ryan Ritchie / flickr.com

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