Remember when everyone used to talk about multitasking? It was defined as “doing several things at the same time.” We borrowed the term from information technology, when computers became better and faster at handling several processes at the same time without crashing.
Women were allegedly better at multitasking than men. Multitasking soon became a much-desired soft skill for potential employees. In fact, within less than a decade, employers started expecting the ability to multitask from a new employee.
Wow, what a concept!
Hmm, but wait. Didn’t the cases of burnout at work also rise? And what about the numbers of work-related illnesses. What about the rise of depression and anxiety. Okay, I’m not really blaming all of these phenomena on us mimicking machines these days. But we can probably attribute a part of that to it.
Stoicism and the Economy of Action
How can philosophy help here? I would like to borrow a helpful thought from the school of stoicism.
The Stoa was an Ancient Greek and Roman school of thought. It was founded by a man named Zeno in Athens. The name “Stoa” came from the columns that graced the school’s porch, standing ever so tall and unaffected by whatever outside conditions. The Stoa remained pretty popular from 300 BCE to about 200 CE.
You can kind of think of it as the Western version of Zen: A “stoic” person is usually known for a somewhat even temper. Sometimes, a person is called “stoic” for not showing any extreme emotions in response to life events, bad news, unexpected losses, and so on. While this understanding could be up for discussion, what I want to focus on in this post is:
Aside from their emphasis on temperance, and on leading a virtuous life in one’s pursuit of happiness, the Stoics also practiced and taught an economy of action that could use a revival in our busy modern times.
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), emperor and follower of Stoicism, believed in keeping the number of his commitments as low as possible. Rather than trying to fit as many things as possible into our days – as seems to have become our new norm of living -, he thought it was far better to do only a few things, but do them well.
Every Commitment Requires an Investment
To use some financial vocabulary here, each one of our commitments requires an investment – not just of money, but more so of time.. And energy.
“Energy” can be a vague or even “new-agey” concept, but if you have trouble imagining what I mean by an energetic investment, think of it in terms of emotional attachment.
For example, a business idea you might have is not just an abstract construct of your mind. A new business idea also requires a certain emotional investment on your part – in short, a commitment from you to stick with it and simply make it happen. You have to, as we say, “believe in it.”
The Cost of Believing
Many entrepreneurs talk about just how much sleep you can lose over a new business. Weekends can become essentially non-existent when you’re trying to create something where there previously was nothing. While some entrepreneurs will start several businesses in their life-time, there are also those that got burned by the industry, by a change in demand, or simply, the downturn of the economy. Entrepreneurs who have seen an idea turn into reality, only to see it fail due to outside circumstances, can become hesitant in starting another venture.
A very simple explanation is that it takes an energetic investment, and we as humans have a somewhat limited supply of it: After a project we believed in fails, we may need a period of recovery to “recharge”. We need that time to process what happened, figure out what went wrong or what to do differently next time around. Eventually, we have to let go of the project – so we can reinvest in a new project or idea when the time comes.
With today’s rising demands for our attention, and virtually endless opportunities for distraction from what’s really important to us , many of us are tempted to try to “keep up” with all of it – it changes so fast. We want to hold on to it all. We don’t want to lose touch with the people we just met on our road trip last weekend. We absolutely must take that summer class, get further certified, hire more help at home, maintain several social media profiles, network continuously, see every encounter as an opportunity, and even if we don’t care about it at all, we kind of have to know what the world is currently talking about. Simply ignoring the news has become equivalent to living an irresponsible life.
But just as usual, there is a rise in the counter-movement. A considerable number of people take conscious breaks from social media and all digital entertainment. Some do it for a day, others for a weekend. Some make it a once-a-week event, others try it for two weeks. And some people decide to step out of the madness permanently, and delete at least a few of their accounts.
How are they liking it?
“I can finally read a book again.”
“I’m making it a point to go outside more again and just be by myself.”
“I have started writing letters again!”
“It sounds weird perhaps, but I like hearing my own thoughts again.”