Stop Being Busy

You know the story. You see a friend. It’s been awhile. You shake hands. You give a hug. As you sit down for coffee to talk, your friend naturally asks, “How are you? How have you been?” There’s lots you could share, right? All the things you haven’t shared with your friend – the updates, the changes in your life, the challenges you’ve been dealing with, new discoveries you’ve made that you’d like to share.

But instead, you answer, “Busy. I’ve been busy.” Even as your lips purse to form the burst of the “B,” you regret it. But it’s out there. The most boring answer to your friend’s question that you could give. Worse yet, your friend doubles down. “Oh yeah, me too. SOOOO busy.”

How often have you had this conversation? I know I’ve had it more times than I could count, and many more times than I care to admit. What’s behind this answer? Are we really that busy? Our feeling of how busy we are has increased over time. Take a look at Google’s graph of this use of the word “busy” between 1800 and 2010:

144c47cc-4850-418c-ad96-5c551a2ed17a

From this timeline, we used the word “busy” at an increasing rate until the mid-1940s. That makes some sense – the world at large did have an awful lot to deal with in 1944. And it appears that people were in the mood for a well-deserved 25 year vacation after the war. But around 1975 (notably, the time that most of my generation were appearing on the Earth), we started another climb towards increasing business.

Are we really that busy? There are differences between being busy, believing that you are busy, and wanting others to believe you are busy. It seems to me that people generally fall within a three categories. Some people really are unbelievably busy, filling their lives with professional and personal obligations from sunup to well past sundown. There are people who are not busy at all, although people don’t often admit it. Last there is what I suspect is the largest group of all – people who say and believe that they are busy, but actually are not really getting much done at all. Do we need to be busy? Is there a better way to be? And if we are busy, what should we be busy doing?

There are two places in our thought process where we often get confused. The first is in dealing with the pressure the modern world places on us to be in perpetual motion. The second is making good choices about how to spend our time.

Turning Off Your Monkey Mind

Work, side projects, family, spouse, kids, friends, and community all demand attention from us in amounts greater than we can meet. We careen through life with a thousand different to-do lists and scheduling conflicts dancing in our head. It’s easy to live life almost entirely in your head, bouncing between thinking over and “re-doing” past events and worrying about future ones. Past-future-past-future-yesterday-tomorrow-where are my car keys?

Left uncontrolled, our thoughts can take over and make a ping-pong ball out of our psyches. Buddhists refer to this phenomenon as “Monkey Mind.” When Monkey Mind takes over, you are unsettled, restless, lost in daydream or worry, inattentive, confused, and indecisive. It’s what makes you feel busy and overwhelmed. You don’t want to encourage Monkey Mind.  You want to turn it off.

How? If you want to avoid being lost in these thought loops, you first need to become aware of those thoughts and how they arise. Take a quiet moment and sit comfortably. What does your body feel like in the chair? Is it heavy or light, calm or restless? Do you feel pain or tight muscles? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Breathe normally and notice your breath. How does it feel in your body? Where do you feel your breath? Does each breath feel different? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Chances are, the first time you try this, you will find yourself thinking about your afternoon appointment calendar or weekend plans or work stress without any desire to do so. You might not be able to focus on even one or two entire breaths before new thoughts pop up in your head. This is OK and normal. It’s actually the point of the exercise. You might have believed all along that you spend time thinking thoughts because you choose to. That’s not the case. It’s your uncontrolled Monkey Mind filling your peaceful mental stillness with worry, planning, and regret.

After you understand how thoughts arise in your mind, you can practice letting them pass by while observing them calmly, instead of being whisked away. This is simple, but not easy. It involves nothing more than noticing thoughts when they arise, and over time, improving your ability to do that so that you can avoid being swept away and lost in thought. You can call it meditation, or mindfulness, or being present, or anything else that works for you. You don’t need to adopt any religion or new philosophy or recite mantras. You just need to pay attention to how your mind works. There’s no better way to do that than to sit down and watch it.

Should I Do This?

The second reason we feel too busy is that we do things that we don’t want to do. I’m not talking about taking out the trash or cleaning out the gutters. I’m talking about big projects or time commitments that require a lot of us, but that don’t help us accomplish any of the goals in our lives. We take too much on. We don’t say no. We get caught up in societal pressures to have more, do more, be more, win more. If a friend calls you at 2PM on a Wednesday on the first warm day of spring and asks you to go play 9 holes of golf, what would you do? If your spouse calls you at the office and invites you to lunch and a long walk, would you go? If you have a choice between attending the third networking lunch of the week or having a quiet lunch to read and think about a problem at work, what’s the better choice?

Why are we making ourselves busy with things that make us miserable? I am not advocating sloth. I do believe, however, that as a society we are absolutely confused about how to spend time to do our best thinking, produce our best work, and live our best life.  Derek Sivers has a wonderful take on this in his short post, “Hell Yeah.” When presented with an opportunity, only commit if your reaction is “Hell, yeah!” Otherwise, say no. Don’t follow lukewarm feelings.

The interesting thing is that, the more you tame your Monkey Mind, you’ll desire less. You’ll worry less about the future and regret the past less. You won’t spin your wheels trying to address phantom concerns. You’ll dump the unnecessary tasks. You’ll feel more present and energized by your work and pursuits. You’ll spend less time doing things you don’t want to do. You’ll get more done in less time. You’ll be less busy, and you’ll be more interesting at the coffee shop.

Avoiding the Trap of Association Bias

We call ourselves rational.  We believe that we are capable of making informed and unbiased decisions between competing options.  But we are often blind to the psychological pull we feel to the familiar and the pleasurable and the opposite aversion we have to unpleasant experiences.

Association Bias Causes Us to Make Mistakes

Our past positive and negative experiences unconsciously cause us to make mistakes in our future decision-making.  Peter Bevelin explains in Seeking Wisdom:

We automatically feel pleasure or pain when we connect a stimulus – a thing, situation or individual – with an experience we’ve had in the past or with values or preferences we are born with.  As we’ve learned, we move towards stimuli we associate with pleasure and away from those we associate with pain.  We most easily associate to the event whose consequences we have experienced most often and the ones we easily remember.  The more vivid or dramatic an event is, the easier we remember it.

This may seem obvious on its face, but let’s think about the consequences.  Your impulse to move towards pleasurable experiences and away from painful experiences can cloud your judgment if you’re unconsciously making decisions based on an item or person’s mere association with something we like or don’t like.  If a vendor you work with treats you to a steak dinner and cocktails once a month, you’re more likely to buy from him, even if his prices are too high or his product of poor quality.

Association Bias Causes Us to Miss Opportunities

If you are presented with an opportunity, but it reminds you of a past negative experience, you will have an unconscious bias against the new opportunity unrelated to its present value.  For example, if you experienced a loss in a particular business sector or project type, you’ll be inclined to avoid similar projects, even if the underlying market conditions or personalities involved have changed.

Judge Things on Their Own Merits, Not Associations

You’ll make better decisions if you can develop the habit of identifying positive or negative stimuli that you associate with each of your options.  Your past experiences are context dependent.  Whether past experiences were positive or negative likely was a product of variables including time, circumstance, personality, emotion, psychology, and market.  As these variables change, a stimulus that you associate with pain or pleasure is not guaranteed to cause the same pain or pleasure today.  It takes work and attention to evaluate things on their own merits instead of on their packaging.

Using Mental Models to Make Better Decisions

One of the goals I have with Country of Quinn is to explore in depth different ways of thinking about our world – how to observe, compare, process, and analyze the world. These tools are called mental models.  They are the best ideas from the key disciplines in life.  You can learn and use these to improve your decisions and predictions.

What are Mental Models?

The idea of mental models originated in philosophy. American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce postulated in 1896 that we make our determinations of truth by first making mental assumptions, and then running thought experiments on those assumptions and the relations between those assumptions.  Fifty years later, Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik proposed that the mind constructs “small-scale models” of reality that it uses to anticipate events, to reason, and to underlie explanation.  They are similar to an architect’s building model, the models of molecules you used in chemistry class, and the diagram of a physics problem.  The model is not reality, but it helps us understand reality.

Mental Models Help Us Make Better Decisions

Our toughest decisions usually involve predicting future outcomes in complex scenarios with multiple unpredictable variables in play.  How do you filter out unnecessary or distracting data to test your predictions?  When we reason or make a tough decision, we are using mental models (either consciously or unconsciously).

We believe that something is true if it remains true under all imagined circumstances. To test this, we try to imagine counter-examples.  If the premise remains true, we test it from different angles or disciplines.  As a conclusion holds true over all of the tested models, our confidence in the conclusion’s correctness strengthens. On the other hand, if a model shows a weakness in our conclusion, we can then adjust the conclusion.

One of the important qualities of a mental model is that it acts as a filtering device – it intentionally causes us to engage in selective perception, where we can focus on a narrow set of information for the purpose of testing.  The use of multiple mental models to test an idea or a decision allows us to examine different aspects of a problem or scenario, and ideally, to make a sound decision.

feedback loop for decision making

When we operate without the use of a mental model, we are trapped in a reactive feedback loop.  We exist in the real world.  The world provides us sensory feedback.  We rely on that feedback to make a decision.  Our decision impacts the world and changes it in some way.  This leads to more feedback, and more decision.  And yet in scenario, there is no foundation for our decisions other than our raw experience.  In other words, there is no improvement, no change, no learning.

A mental model changes this and introduces learning to our experience.

When you add a mental model,mental models for decision making
you introduce decision-making
rules to the decision.  This means
that you rely not only on environ-
mental feedback to make your
decision, but also upon controlled
decision-making rules that are
based on the mental model.  What’s
more, you can adjust and improve
your mental models based on the
feedback you get from your decision.

Mental models help you make better decisions and get smarter.

 

A simple example highlighting the difference between these two loops is a thermostat.  A simple thermostat that turns the heat on in your house whenever the temperature drops below 68 degrees is a feedback loop.  If you have one of the exciting new Nest learning or “smart” thermostats, it asks, “Why am I set to 68 degrees?  Is there a better temperature for the moment?”  It uses environmental feedback to improve its decision-making rules.

Mental Models You Can Use

Cataloguing and explaining mental models is too great a task for one simple post.  Charlie Munger explains that this is a life-long process.

You have to learn all the big ideas in the key disciplines in a way that they’re in a mental latticework in your head and you automatically use them for the rest of your life. If you do that, I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll look to your right and left and you’ll think “my heavenly days, I’m now one of the few competent people in my whole age cohort.” If you don’t do it, many of the brightest of you will live in the middle ranks or in the shallows.

Psychology teaches us ideas of cognitive bias such as confirmation bias, availability bias, anchoring bias, or survivorship bias. Financial study teaches us about sunk cost, time value of money, and competitive advantage. Neuroscience and biology teach us about meta-cognition, feedback loops, and reciprocity effects.

I’ll be creating a dedicated page for discussion of mental models here.  I’ll be writing new posts, at least one per week, discussing these models with ideas on how you can use them in your decision-making.

Cal Newport on the Power of Deep Work

Developing the ability to work deeply on important work without interruption will lead to great things.  Make it a priority.

We Are Losing Our Ability to Work Deeply

As a lawyer, manager, and business owner, on most days I juggle client work, needs of coworkers, and management and administration tasks.  If I’m not careful, the day can be swallowed in seconds entirely by an endless list of unpredictable moment-to-moment engagements.  They all matter in some way, but unchecked, they obliterate the opportunity to do deep, meaningful work on revenue-generating matters.

Cal Newport’s newest book Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World theorizes about success in the modern knowledge economy and identifies implementation tactics. Newport’s central claim is that we are losing ability to do deep work:

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Deep Work vs. Shallow Work

Newport defines his terms as follows:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Despite the value of deep work, modern knowledge workers are losing their ability to create it due to the ubiquity of the distraction of 24 hour networks:

In aggregate, the rise of these [networks], combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.

You can’t produce deep work with fragmented attention.  But Newport recognizes that you are not lazy.  To the contrary, you probably feel more busy than ever.  What can explain this disconnect?  You feel busy because you’re overrun with shallow work:

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

This isn’t a conscious choice.  Our culture has shifted, and we now use “busyness” as a proxy for productivity.  Don’t worry – there is great opportunity here for those who can wrestle command over time to commit to deep work:

Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow (whether you think it’s philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth….

 

Strategies for Reclaiming Your Time to Perform Deep Work

Newport outlines a number of great strategies for time protection.

The power of distraction

First, you must simply recognize the power of distraction, as so many great thinkers did in the past:

The sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne … work[ed] in a private library he built in the southern tower guarding the stone walls of his French château, while Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer…. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts. It was during a 1995 Think Week that Gates wrote his famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo that turned Microsoft’s attention to an upstart company called Netscape Communications.

If you make time for thinking, you’ll have time for thinking.  It’s as simple as that.

Learn to embrace boredom

Second, be wary of distractions.  Embrace boredom and learn to be by yourself.

If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where … it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.

If you’re not in the habit of sitting quietly by yourself with your thoughts, start practicing.  These are habits that you can develop over time.  But you need to start.

Structure your deep thinking

Thinking deeply is difficult without a method.

[Start] with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem and then storing these values in your working memory. Once the relevant variables are identified, define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables…. The final step of this structured approach to deep thinking is to consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified. At this point, you can push yourself to the next level of depth by starting the process over. This cycle of reviewing and storing variables, identifying and tackling the next-step question, then consolidating your gains is like an intense workout routine for your concentration ability.

 

Quit Social Media

This is a tough one for most people to swallow.  I must admit I have not gone cold turkey. But you should certainly be conscious about whether your social media time is adding to your life or simply serving as a distraction.  I’ve cut my Facebook and Instagram time by about 95%.  Twitter remains a valuable communication tool to reach people that I otherwise lack access to.  But I’ve recognized that it’s almost always a waste of time.

Commit to Fixed Schedule Productivity

The beauty of this idea is that there is plenty of time in your day to make it work well.

The typical workday is eight hours. The most adept deep thinker cannot spend more than four of these hours in a state of true depth. It follows that you can safely spend half the day wallowing in the shallows without adverse effect.

Newport suggests dividing the hours of your workday into blocks and assigning activities to the blocks.  You should not dedicate every block to a work task. There will be time blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks.  But, “when you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.”

This may sound rigid and overly disciplined, but it is not.

This type of scheduling, however, isn’t about constraint—it’s instead about thoughtfulness. It’s a simple habit that forces you to continually take a moment throughout your day and ask: “What makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?” It’s the habit of asking that returns results, not your unyielding fidelity to the answer.

Finally, end your day when it’s over.  Deep work requires rest.  It’s like interval training. You can’t do it constantly.  So when the day is over, go home.  You can return to focus on your most important work tomorrow.

Bruce Lee on Developing “Mind Like Water”

If your Nerve, deny you —

     Go above your Nerve —

-Emily Dickinson

The Obstacle is Your Mind

I have spent a great deal of time lately thinking about Action.  Understanding Action, planning Action, taking Action.  In moments of difficulty and uncertainty, we can find ourselves constrained and paralyzed not by our actual circumstances, but by the mental constructs we build around those circumstances.  We define our own limitations by our perceptions and internal definitions.

Developing the understanding that what you perceive as an obstacle is, often times, only in our minds is a challenge.  Yet once you ponder this, you will find its obviousness and reality floating on the surface of consciousness, ever present, always there and identifiable, if you only sit still long enough to notice.

Bruce Lee’s Pathway to Mind Like Water

Icon and Chinese-American martial artist, action star, and filmmaker Bruce Lee was masterful in developing a personal, mental perception of reality.  Even more, he was unique in his ability to translate his metaphysical insight into both plain explanation and superlative physical action.  Though superficially an action hero, Lee possessed and communicated a profound understanding of the nature of mind, and what was required for a human being to act to fully express himself or herself.

Lee’s worldview began with the notion that the mind was the source of worldly experience.  He told the story of an old man and his son with one horse.  When the horse ran away one day unexpectedly, the boy exclaimed, “What bad luck!”  The father responded, “Who knows?”  When the horse returned with five new mares, the boy excitedly said, “What good luck!”  The father replied, “Who knows?”  In training the mares, the boy broke his leg severely, and mourned, “What bad luck!”  Predictably, the father observed, “Who knows?”  The kingdom entered a war and drafted its young men into military service.  With a broken leg, the son was spared.  Good luck or bad luck?  Who knows?

Lee’s point was that reality begins and ends with the mind.  To successfully navigate the world, Lee believed that you need a combination of natural instinct and control, which are combined in harmony.  Lee’s goal was “unnatural naturalness,” or “natural unnaturalness.”  Keeping these two poles in their ideal balance requires “mind like water,” according to Lee.

Empty your mind.  Be formless, shapeless – like water.  Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

The revelation Lee had came from a point of frustration he was dwelling on while sailing:

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Embracing Your Nature Leads to Self-Actualization

Combining Lee’s thoughts lead to self-actualization.  They let us see that we can be our most effective by observing our minds, allowing unblocked emotion, and accepting our nature.  Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:

In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.

The beauty of Lee’s insight was that in embracing the nature of water lies the path to self-actualization and control.  Being like water is “not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked.”  Lee realized that “in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

This doesn’t come easily.

But to express one’s self, not lying to one’s self — that, my friend, is very hard to do.  You have to train, so that when you want it, it’s there!  When you want to move, you are moving.  And when you move, you are determined to move.

 

Understanding Information in the Modern Age

You’re awash in information every day.  But do you know what information is, the roles it plays in the world, or how to maximize its value?  As Charlie Munger reminds us, without worldly wisdom, you end up a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

Information is Data that Reduces Uncertainty

Luciano Floridi’s Information: A Very Short Introduction provides a map of the ways that we can speak about information.

Information is made of data.  When data are well formed and meaningful, the result is also known as semantic content.

 

map of informational concepts

Information understood as semantic content, comes in two main varieties: instructional and factual. For example, if your car displays a red flashing light and won’t start, you might interpret the red light flashing in two ways: (a) as an instruction to recharge the battery; and (b) as factual information, that the battery is dead.

Factual semantic content is the most common way information is understood and also one of the most important, since information as true semantic content is a necessary condition for knowledge.  This is what you’re trying to build and grow.

The Growth of Information

While humans have been recording and transmitting events and information since the invention of writing, Floridi explains that “only very recently has human progress and welfare begun to depend mostly on the successful and efficient management of the life cycle of information.”  Today, every G7 nation receives at least 70% of its GDP on information-related goods, generating “more data than humanity has ever seen in its entire history.”

This rapid growth has caused us to lose our understanding of information:

The information society is like a tree that has been growing its far-reaching branches much more widely, hastily, and chaotically than its conceptual, ethical, and cultural roots. The lack of balance is obvious and a matter of daily experience in the life of millions of citizens.

Copernicus taught us that we are not the center of the universe.  Darwin taught us that we are not the center of the world.  Freud taught us that we are not even the masters of our own minds.  What we are encountering now, Floridi argues, is a Fourth Revolution:

What we are currently experiencing is therefore a Fourth Revolution, in the process of dislocation and reassessment of our fundamental nature and role in the universe. We are modifying our everyday perspective on the ultimate nature of reality, that is, our metaphysics, from a materialist one, in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one.

We are no longer independent beings, but “interconnected informational organisms,” sharing a world made of information.  This environment is made of all informational processes, services, and entities, and their properties, interactions, and relationships. This means that you are surrounded by a wealth of new opportunities, if you understand that they are there.

On the other hand, Floridi warns that those who do not (or cannot) adapt to this Fourth Revolution will suffer the consequences:

One thing seems indubitable though: the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between information-rich and information-poor.

Build a Web of Information to Improve Your Knowledge

 

Understanding the current state of information is important because building knowledge depends upon it.

 Knowledge and information are members of the same conceptual family. What the former enjoys and the latter lacks, over and above their family resemblance, is the web of mutual relations that allow one part of it to account for another. Shatter that, and you are left with a pile of truths or a random list of bits of information that cannot help to make sense of the reality they seek to address. Build or reconstruct that network of relations, and information starts providing that overall view of the world which we associate with the best of our epistemic efforts. So once some information is available, knowledge can be built in terms of explanations or accounts that make sense of the available semantic information.

This echoes the best advice of Charlie Munger.  Understanding the best ideas from a broad array of disciplines will let you develop a comprehensive mental toolbox to attack and solve problems.  Understanding the value of connecting these mental models, Munger advises, “You must have the models, and you must see the relatedness and the effects from the relatedness.”

How do you do this?  Read a lot from a wide variety of fields.  Set aside time to think. Look for the connections between ideas, and watch your knowledge grow.

Marcus Aurelius on Finding Peace

The Meditations is a master work on finding peace amidst the chaos of life.

I discovered it a few years ago on Ryan Holiday’s list of Books to Base Your Life On.  For me, it was one of those books I find once every few years that fundamentally shifts my view of life, and has remained one of the best manuals on living I’ve ever read.

Finding Peace in the Chaos of Life

Bookstores today are full of “quick fix” self-help books, promising happiness and wealth with an easy to use five point system. Most of these self-help books are worthless.  They contain recycled ideas processed repackaged with a shiny cover and are made for a quick buck.  This is why Nassim Taleb recommends reading no books written in the last twenty years (aside from history books), as not enough time has passed to allow them to demonstrate their value.

The advice and insights of the Meditations has survived for over 2,000 years now.  It’s here to stay, and with good reason.

Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius

Stoic philosophy grew and developed through five hundred years of Greco-Roman history. The philosophy emphasizes finding mental peace and ethical direction in the midst of life’s chaos, unpredictability, and cruelty.  Stoics found that the solution to the mental and spiritual turmoil that we so often experience in life was to focus on the things in your control and to stop wrestling with the things out of your control.  According to the Stoics, events are neither good nor bad, but our reactions to those events may be good or bad.  Our experience is, therefore, dictated by the sum of our reactions to the events of our life.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was influenced by the Stoic teachers in Rome during his life, including Epictetus.  Drawing on Epictetus’s teachings, Aurelius wrote the Meditations in the second century C.E. while engaged in war with the German tribes to the Empire’s North.  He originally intended the text to be merely a series of private reflections, his personal diary.

The value of the Meditations lies in its ability to calmly stare deeply into and confront the immutable difficulties of life and the human condition.  From that perspective, it teaches that virtue, not pleasure, is the key to fulfillment and peace.

Lessons from the Meditations

Remember Your Purpose Daily

Aurelius begins Book II of the Meditations with a reminder to start each day by rehearsing your response to negative moments.

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.  All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.  But I, who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly…I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly….

This one really works.

Practice Mindfulness

Keeping in line with the Stoic focus on things in our control, Aurelius reminds you to watch your own mind carefully, not the thoughts of others.

Failure to observe what is in the mind of another has seldom made a man unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.

Focus on the Present Moment

Even if you were going to live three thousand years, and even ten thousand times that, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses.  The longest and shortest are thus brought to the same . . . For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived. . . .

It is always now.  Each of us has the present, nothing more, nothing less.

Take Action Now

Remember how long you have been putting off these things, and how often you have received an opportunity from the gods, and yet do not use it.  You must now at last perceive of what universe you are a part, …and that a limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use for clearing away the clouds from your mind, it will go and you will go, and it will never return.

You have the present moment.  Don’t waste it.

How to Read the Meditations

One of the best things about the Meditations is that you don’t have to read it cover to cover. It’s short, so you could certainly do so.  That’s how I read it the first time.  But now that I’ve read it a few times, I find that it is most valuable to me when I pick it up and read just a page or two at random.  There’s always a new insight to find and think about.  It’s in my briefcase about half the time for exactly this reason.

Pair this with Epictetus and Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.