Focus, Leadership and Productivity: How the Stoics Got It Right

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We’re not just employees or managers — we’re leaders and tide risers, at least in the version of ourselves that inspires the best of those around us. Try doing that jet-lagged and sleep deprived, running from meeting to meeting, deadline to deadline, only to touch down at home then off to travel sports on the weekends. I have been on my Stoic essentials (and routine) and off, and the off wasn’t pretty. After a recent off week, passing by a few books on my shelf, I was reminded of the genius of the Stoics and the need to renew.

Stoic philosophy is having a resurgence in popularity, and for good reason. The famous Stoic “dichotomy of control” and focusing your time and energies on what you can control is an incredibly important principle in business and life. It’s self-evident really — getting caught up in the noise of what you can’t control is a distraction away from time and energy on what you can. Though there will be many adversities in life that we have limited control over, our responses are always up to us.

Related: Why Today’s Best Business Leaders Look to Stoicism

Ask yourself: Is this essential?

One of the attractions of Stoic philosophy is practicality. It’s a philosophy and psychology to fortify both character and headspace. Without the right habits, one will have a tough time enjoying the benefits of Stoic principles — hence being off my game without my routine.

Marcus Aurelius urges us that “Disturbance comes only from within — from our own perceptions.” He posed a key rhetorical question: “Is this essential?” reminding us that our headspace is ultimately up to us to go deeper into the essentials and remove non-essentials. Essentials like focusing on what we control, pausing when angry, using difficult circumstances/people as opportunities and retreating to your inner citadel (meditation, breathing exercises, reflection, etc.) are very relevant Stoic practices for leadership. Exercise is another key practice for the Stoics; not to look good, but to get comfortable with struggle as life is a struggle, hence fortifying the mind/body.

It turns out the Stoics were not just deep philosophically, but also way ahead of their time with principles and practices that foster our best headspace.

Get your neurobiology right

Leaders need to inspire, so our focus, mood and temperament are key. Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc in mood, overall cognitive performance, sympathetic nervous system activation (“flight or fight” response), increase in cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and a whole host of other issues. There cannot be optimal neurobiology (or any biology, for that matter) with poor sleep.

Inspiring the best in others all rallied around “the why” requires a steadfast supply of dopamine — a key hormone for motivation, focus and satisfaction. We aspire to be authentic servant leaders with poise in the face of adversity. A leader’s dopamine level requires investment and renewal if they hope to positively influence the dopamine levels of those around them. Good dopamine through shortcuts with addictive behaviors is truly toxic, as we’re rewarded by the behaviors that — at a minimum — distract us from our best, and at deeper levels, flat-out reveal our worst.

Not your issue? Check your screen time. In a 2021 survey of over 2,000 people ages 18 or older, 68% of respondents spend on average three to six hours on their phone daily (not including work-related use). Excessive phone time, scrolling and social media is poison for our minds and our potential. Add this to sleep disruption — compounding doses of poison.

Of course, it’s not all about dopamine. Serotonin is all about being present, content and grateful. Leaders also need to be present and grateful to their teams, but balance is key. If you have too much serotonin, you’re too relaxed; but if you do not have enough, you’re highly stressed. Leaders need poise and a happy middle. Exercise increases dopamine and serotonin, but also releases endorphins (and has countless other mind-body benefits) culminating in that energized, feel-good, de-stressed state. Leaders are better with exercise, period.

It’s the same with mindfulness — a Stoic essential called “retreating the inner citadel.” For me, this is meditation which has a myriad of benefits including increased focus, emotional well-being, reduced stress and reduced anxiety, which is not surprising given the practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system (balancing the sympathetic response), reduces cortisol and positively influences both brain region activation and grey matter growth as well. Not into meditation? Feeling angry at a colleague (or one of your kids)? Anxious about a big presentation? Even doing some basic deep breathing exercises will lower heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels.

Related: These 7 Lessons From the Ancient Stoics Are Relevant for Entrepreneurs Today

Decide your routine in advance

When I’m on my game, it’s principles, not feelings — the right routines drive the right neurobiology. When I’m off my game, I’m not “too busy,” I’m simply not intentional enough — the old timeless truth that one’s structure and schedule just reveal their priorities. Habits, indeed, are atomic and priorities are ultimately value judgments. We must decide to commission the habits that actualize our best as leaders in advance. If I fall off the horse, I’m reminded by Marcus Aurelius to “get back up” and “fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”

When I’m on my game, here’s my routine:

  1. Evening. Stop scrolling: Social media, Netflix or any other blue light activity are cut off two hours before bed, and I leave all devices out of the bedroom. Leaders are readers, not scrollers — read to expand horizons and improve as a leader and thinker (not to mention a nice settle-down activity before going to bed). Read, journal and/or reflect before lights out and try to get seven to eight hours of sleep.
  2. Morning. Get up early and invest in your mind and body before the noise starts. The person you want to be, your personal why, your group/company why — as leaders, we know noise and obstacles are coming. Fortify the mind/body every morning before the day starts with exercise, reading, meditating, journaling, etc.
  3. In between. If you couldn’t exercise early for whatever reason, find the time during the day. Same with meditation, breathing exercises, reflection or even a quick walk — find mindfulness breaks sometime between meetings, even if it’s just a few minutes. I practice Stoic principles throughout the day by asking myself, “What do I control in this very moment?”

Related: Billionaires Like Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Mark Cuban Live by Ancient Stoic Philosophy

Do our businesses, families and spheres of influence deserve our best headspace? As leaders, we must constantly ask ourselves — with our time, energy and, ultimately, our priorities — is this essential? Imagine the type of leader we could be if it is (or isn’t).

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