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The Ancient Practice That Will Help you Build Mental Resilience During a Crisis

How to use the Stoic practice of "indifference" to stay focused and useful during the pandemic

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There’s a paradox around productivity advice that few people like to acknowledge.

Being more productive isn’t about time management, intricate task management strategies, or using the latest and greatest communication tools.

Productivity is about energy.

In order to do anything–from writing an email to doing the dishes–you need the mental and physical energy to stay focused and get through your task.

Unfortunately, as journalist Jenna Joanitis writes:

“This pandemic is exhausting, mentally and physically. Our worlds have shifted, and it takes emotional energy to cope with that.”

While most of us were able to get through the stress of office politics or juggling work and family pre-pandemic, the overarching anxiety of this crisis has completely depleted our emotional energy levels.

So how do we rebuild our store of energy and build the mental toughness to protect it from the chaos and uncertainty of the world?

The power of “indifference”

More than 2,000 years ago, philosophers in Ancient Greece followed a belief system called Stoicism that, in a grossly simplified way, advocated for focusing your energy only on the things you can control.

In other words, the Stoics were incredibly practical and believed that if you can’t change it, why worry about it?

As part of that belief system, the Stoics practiced something called “indifference.” Here’s how author and coach Darius Foroux explains it in a recent interview:

“In the Stoic philosophy, there’s an idea called indifference. The basic premise is that you become indifferent to things that you label as indifferent.

“For example, if my copier breaks, instead of getting angry, I label it as indifferent. It’s not an important thing and doesn’t deserve your attention.”

It’s easy to see how you could label simple annoyances as “indifferent”. But is it possible to take a global crisis–one that is completely out of your control–and give it no mental power over your thoughts and energy?

The short answer is yes… but it requires some work.

In order to label bigger issues as indifferent, you need to know what does deserve your energy and focus. You need to know what’s truly important in your life and work.

In other words, you need to know your purpose.

Uncover your true purpose with this 2-question exercise

Purpose is the driving force in your life. But it’s also a loaded term.

Many people feel paralyzed by purpose. They don’t know what deserves their time and energy and instead of trying something, they assume they’re find their purpose.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Purpose doesn’t precede action. It follows it.

You create purpose by focusing on your strengths and finding tasks and projects that challenge you. Not by waiting around for it to find you.

But what if you still don’t know what those tasks and projects are?

Simple. Sit down with a trusted friend–someone who knows you and won’t pull punches if you’re being insincere–and have them ask you two questions:

  1. What are you good at?
  2. What do you enjoy doing?

For example, you might be good at selling magazine subscriptions but what you really enjoy is creating online courses for illustrators.

It takes time and humility to find things that meet both criteria. But once you do, you’ll start to understand the forces that drive you and what really matters in your life.

Use your purpose to block out the “indifferent” issues in your life–both big and small

There’s a quote from American philosopher William James that says:

“If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”

Understanding your purpose gives you the power to change your mind. Instead of drowning in uncertainty, you know for certain what deserves your time and attention and can block out everything else.

In other words, your purpose is what gives you mental toughness and helps you work through everything else that’s competing for your attention and energy.

As Darius explains:

“Mental toughness is performing under pressure. And obviously there’s a lot of outside pressure these days. But that makes it even more important to maintain focus and attention on the things that matter to you.”

Of course, it’s not as simple to just say ‘I’m going to ignore the pandemic because I know my purpose.’

However, a clear picture of what’s important to you will help minimize the constant anxiety and hopefully give you some mental space to focus on the tasks, projects, and people that matter to you.

Regularly journal to analyze your values and beliefs

Your purpose will change over time.

In order to keep it meaningful, you need to regularly reflect on what you’re doing and see if your actions still align with your values and beliefs.

One of the best ways to do this is through journaling.

A journal can be both a personal and professional tool. You can do it in a structured way, or simply write freeform to clear out your head.

Here are a few different ways to work journaling and reflection into your day:

  • Morning Pages: Popularized by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, morning pages are three pages of stream of consciousness writing you do each morning. Focus on anything and everything that crosses your mind. This is as unstructured as it gets!
  • Meeting Notes: Our purpose often manifests itself in the work we do. Yet we rarely have moments to reflect on whether or not our work and purpose still connect. Personal meeting notes let you step out of the stream of non-stop “work mode” and reflect on the tasks you’re doing right now. Especially for remote teams–journaling and reflection like this helps you stay connected and understand where you need help each day.
  • Daily Highlights: Reflecting on your accomplishments each day is a great way to check in on your purpose. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to log a couple “wins” for the day and then ask a question: “How does finishing these tasks make me feel?” A tool like RescueTime can even prompt you at the end of the day to add your highlights (and remind you of what you spent your time on!)
  • Weekly reviews: David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, calls the weekly review “the master key” to productivity. But it’s also a key exercise for reflecting on what you’ve done, what went well, and how you feel about your purpose and work.

Self-reflection in any of these forms can help you recognize when it’s time to reassess your purpose. But it’s also helpful to understand that it’s OK to go through it and still now know how you feel!

If you still don’t know what drives you, focus on what makes you feel useful

There’s one last important thing to remember: Purpose does not precede action.

If you go through these exercises and are still unsure about what drives you, switch your mindset and focus on what makes you feel useful instead. If that means spending time gardening or working on an open-source software development project like Redmine, so be it!

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

The world is a strange place right now and full of anxiety and distractions. But if you focus on your purpose (or on being useful) it will help you build the mental toughness you need to keep pushing forward.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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