This is a guest post from Roberto Rosso. Roberto is Italian, has a Masters Degree in Psychology in which he analyzed how technologies can improve cognitive performance, and another Master Degree in Ancient Philosophy in which he analyzed ancient education systems. He is co-author of the book C. Muccinelli – L’arte dell’agenda – (The Art of Scheduling). currently being published as of this writing.
“Whom, then, do I call educated? First, those who manage well the circumstances which they encounter day by day, and who possess a judgement which is accurate in meeting occasions (τῶν καιρῶν) as they arise and rarely miss the expedient course of action.”Isocrates, Panath. 30
How many books and blog articles on time management have you read? Many, I suppose. What usually happens? You read about wise advice, great ideas, real proofs from people who put them into practice successfully, then you try to practice them diligently, but there is always something wrong. For example, someone asks you to get up at 5 AM, and this would mean divorcing your wife. Another asks you to go jogging at 8 AM and to not pay attention to the tasks of the day, but you don’t think that your boss would agree very much with that, and you are definitely not someone who runs in the park in the early morning cold. Finally, others tell you not to work after 5 pm, but the evening is the only time of day when you feel a little more lucid. What then? The most scrupulous of you will commit themselves to change their habits and to adapt their behavior to the method. Still, the the experience is similar to when you wear a pair of shoes too small for you—it is uncomfortable, and, after a week, the shoes end up in the attic. You also know what happens next. You look for other advice, but the story is more or less the same. You jump from one professional to another, looking for something suitable, and the story repeats itself, increasing your frustration and your sense of failure. Well, a sentence from Mike’s book, The Front Nine: How to Start the Year You Want Anytime You Want (2012), helped me consider this blog in a different way, which I will tell you about later. Towards the end of the book wrote, Mike wrote:
“My version of simplicity isn’t your idea of the term […] Once you figure out what works best for you, you’ll figure out what your version of simplicity is. Once you do that, your version of simplicity will no longer just be subjective. It will also allow you to better reach your objectives. . .”Mike Vardy, The Front Nine: How to Start the Year You Want Anytime You Want
It is not a good idea for me to dwell too much on how these words offer a different perspective than what we have said before. It is quite a revolution compared to what we have said so far. One thing that struck me most of all—these words have ancient roots. They can be traced to a great Greek philosopher, Isocrates. Funnily enough, however, the only Greek philosopher Mike mentioned in the book was Socrates. I took the liberty of writing to him to point out the missing “I”, underlining above all, how many confirmations the perspective of this site could draw from that “I” in our search for greater production efficiency.
In his famous theory of education, Isocrates pointed out that we live in a reality too complex to be reduced to a finite set of rules. In order to be effective, a rule should cover a finite number of cases. As the number of cases contemplated increases, its practical effectiveness decreases, becoming a beautiful aphorism of little use. Today, I want to propose the same approach he used with his ancient students, summarized in six simple rules.
1. The protagonist is you; the target is you.
You don’t have to worry about copying someone else’s method perfectly. The situation they describe is not and will never be yours. Instead, you have to identify some critical issues in how you face your workday. Mike rightly suggests finding a way of taking note of everything quickly and easily. You need to have a clear picture of your situation to understand the areas of intervention, and explore the different solutions proposed by the experts, and try each one for a sufficient time until you decide whether to refuse or accept it. After that, you make it yours and shape it into something unique and non-trivial.
2. The situation you live in is complex and paradoxical; listen to it and do not trivialize it.
Be suspicious of too simplistic formulas. It would be like trying to trap the ocean in a bucket. Your life situation is unique and unrepeatable. It cannot be a photocopy of any other experience, no matter how successful this is. Suppose you want a long-lasting and efficient approach to work. In that case, it needs to be flexible, with the ability to adapt to an ever-changing reality.
4. Listen to your physique and your mood.
Your situation is unique. You have the advantage of approaching it from three different and converging points of view. The first is with your feelings at a given moment. It is better to listen to your body and not lie to yourself than to give yourself rules with the clock in hand. In The Front Nine (2012), Mike talks about a possibility that would have made Isocrates happy: organizational systems exist that do not include a daily or chronological scan of things to do. Mike gave the example of the daily scan, but there can be others. The only limit is your patience to wait and listen to yourself. A normal day is like a swing of energies or a succession of waves—you should be able to see them and ride them. When the positive wave has passed, it is useless for you to indulge yourself, as you only waste time, and you will get low-quality products. Commit yourself to recharging your battery with effective rest, relaxing activities, and targeted food intake. It may be that you will do the best things at 3 AM and then allow yourself a more unloaded day. Or that you will keep up a very high pace for an entire week but then have to give yourself a long period of rest. Another Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, tells us something about this that may seem trivial, but is interesting: the way up and down are one and the same (DK 22 B 60). This means that you must give yourself an equal time to rest and recover for every moment spent at your maximum. If you hope to manage your productive life perpetually in top gear, this is a dead dream because you will have to resign yourself to up and down performances, leading you to go back to the point where you started, and wandering from one method to another.
5. The world is full of opportunities waiting for you; learn to see and seize them.
According to Isocrates, the other main point of view on the uniqueness of your situation is about your opportunities. It is useless for me to tell you about the opportunities I have or for Mike to tell us about his (I greatly appreciate that, unlike others, he is very reserved on that point). Everyone lives in a world of different opportunities. Everyone has to learn to see and take advantage of them on their own. However, we can say two things, easily verifiable in any environment—everyone has more opportunities than they think. Look around, really do it, and you’ll find a sea of possibilities. Be honest. Of course, not all will be meaningful, and not all will seem to go in the desired direction. Nevertheless, they are close to us, and it is up to us to build a path through them. Here, Mike recommends the excellent IDEA method (take opportunities that respect your ideals, do not interfere with other things that are exciting to you, whose interest in your life may last, and they can bring active or passive income).
6. There is only this one moment, and you have to learn to be completely immersed in it.
Isocrates is categorical on this point. I believe all of us would rationally agree with such advice. Yet, if you review your workday, it may be broken up by hundreds of unproductive interruptions (emails, notifications, conversations, colleagues, etc.). We must learn to isolate the moment from everything else and avoid the thousands of background noises. Mike’s experience in lifehacking techniques is very useful, as well as the importance attributed by Cal Newport to the concepts of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. The main point is to learn how to fight all the distractions you are constantly immersed in. I am sure that if I were able to look into the heads of many of you during a specific task, such as preparing a report, it would be full of thoughts about your past self, the failures you have had doing similar tasks in the past, or your future self and what would happen to you, and what they would think of you if something went wrong. This is a mistake. Isocrates would have demanded two things: that you remain focused on the present task without thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow, and that you learn to distinguish between the result of a performance, which can always be improved, and the judgment on your person as a whole, which is not involved in the task.
In the end, I added only a single letter, ‘I’, to Mike’s meritorious essay, but I hope that this new look with an ancient twist will help you look at your daily productivity in a new light.