Productivity Advice From A Bygone Era

I was just reading an article on one of my favorite blogs, The Art Of Manliness, which is basically the text of a book on productivity book called “How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day” by Arnold Bennett. In today’s flood of “productivity p0rn”, this book sets itself apart, despite being written over a century ago (1910, to be specific). I thought it would be fun to quote a couple passages and reflect on them a bit.

The most important preliminary to the task of arranging one’s life so that one may live fully and comfortably within one’s daily budget of twenty-four hours is the calm realisation of the extreme difficulty of the task, of the sacrifices and the endless effort which it demands.

Bennett aptly describes how one of the most difficult things about productively using your spare time is just how little of it you have. I’ve written previously about my own realization of this fact, and how it radically changed my priorities. Like it or not, our lives are bound by time, and no matter how much you would like to, we extend ourselves beyond that. Choosing what to do with your time is hard and requires careful consideration if you are going to do it wisely.

But when you arrange to go to the theatre (especially with a pretty woman) what happens? You rush to the suburbs; you spare no toil to make yourself glorious in fine raiment; you rush back to town in another train; you keep yourself on the stretch for four hours, if not five; you take her home; you take yourself home. You don’t spend three-quarters of an hour in “thinking about” going to bed. You go.

When we face a task that we truly value, like an important date with someone we care deeply about, we don’t waste our time pondering about what to do next or how exactly to accomplish things; we think for a bit, then we act. The old phrase “paralysis by analysis” has a lot of truth to it. We can spend enormous amounts of time thinking about doing something worthwhile, or wandering aimlessly around the web. But if we don’t force ourselves to take action, we will never accomplish anything.

People say: “One can’t help one’s thoughts.” But one can. The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatever happens to us outside our own brain; since nothing hurts us or gives us pleasure except within the brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on in that mysterious brain is patent.

This is why I fell in love with the science of human behavior, and to this day greatly enjoy learning about how we think. To say that we are victims of our emotions and whims is simply false; one can absolutely learn to use reason and logic to examine and fundamentally change how we think. There is nothing more powerful than using the might of our minds for our own purpose, nor nothing more destructive than our thoughts run wild.

Man, know thyself. I say it out loud. The phrase is one of those phrases with which everyone is familiar, of which everyone acknowledges the value, and which only the most sagacious put into practice. I don’t know why. I am entirely convinced that what is more than anything else lacking in the life of the average well-intentioned man of to-day is the reflective mood.

Self reflection is probably one of the most important habits we can cultivate in our daily lives. The great Roman philosopher Seneca said that we should “retire into [ourselves] as much as possible.” Being conscious of and evaluating our actions and habits can bring about change in our lives like no other act. I make it a point to write in my journal for a few minutes every morning, even if it is simply noting down some highlights from the previous day. Looking back on events, I’m often amazed at the revelations I have about how I could have acted differently. It is only by shining the light on ourselves in a thoughtful and prescriptive manner that we can fully realize our potential.

The book illustrates how truly great advice can be timeless. Despite being written in an era drastically different from our own, the book is filled with salient points. The language, while somewhat formal, is often witty and entertaining. A highly recommended read, especially considering its short length.

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