The Traits of Immensely Focused People, According to Ancient Greek Philosophy

Jon Hawkins

Adopt these characteristics to reach your goals faster.
“People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents.” — Andrew Carnegie

Carnegie highlights a vital life-lesson. Many of us have the natural abilities to achieve greatness. If cultivated correctly, some of us have the required abilities to cure cancer, produce a world-renowned symphony, or become a Michelin star chef.

Despite these natural abilities, most of us fail to utilize them and reach our full potential. Either because:

  • We’re not motivated enough, and don’t push ourselves or become the master of our own skills.
  • We get distracted by all the opportunities available. Rather than focusing on one thing, we spread ourselves too thin. In doing so, we become the jack of all trades and the master of none.

I don’t believe success comes down to intelligence or natural ability. A lot of people have both and fail to achieve anything of real merit. Instead, according to entrepreneur David K Williams:

‘Success isn’t down to effort, it’s down to focused effort.’

Keeping your eye on the ball is a strong determinant between success and failure. But with the vast amount of distractions and opportunities available, how do you stay focused and use them to achieve your goals?

Here are the character traits required, according to Ancient Greek Philosophers.

They Avoid Unnecessary Busywork

In his Meditations, Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE) wrote:

“It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth…”

A lot of the actions we make are unnecessary. We get bogged down in pointless tasks that take a significant amount of time to complete and achieve very little. Worse, most “busywork” requires next to no skill; so almost anybody could complete them.

Think about every time you:

  • Organized a filing cabinet for someone else.
  • Fetched someone you don’t know a cup of coffee.
  • Spent hours washing dishes, when you could have used a dishwasher.

These are instances of busywork. They are tasks you took on (or were assigned) to keep you busy and pass the time, but they have no inherent value and achieve nothing. They don’t help us practice and master our skillset or help us attain our goals. And the end result is the same whether you do it or someone else does.

Busywork is a complete waste of time. Focused people recognize this, and they avoid it at all costs.

Stoicism teaches you to prioritize your tasks. In doing so, you can choose to perform actions that help you achieve your goals as quickly as possible. Rather than undergoing busywork, you should work on practicing and implementing the necessary skills needed to ensure you reach your full potential.

Writer and Entrepreneur Aytekin Tank refers to these types of tasks as “valuable work.” For a writer, this could be sitting down and writing (rather than getting bogged down with formalities). For a Chef, that could be cooking and experimenting with flavors (rather than wasting time washing the dishes).

Whatever their profession, immensely focused people pick their battles carefully, and they do so by avoiding busywork.

They Measure Success by their Actions, Not Words

The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do.” — Booker T. Washington

A lot of us are great at talking about actions and making plans, but very rarely implement them. We tell ourselves we will get to that task later, instead of tackling it now. We give ourselves permission to procrastinate.

We live in a society that revolves around social status and class. In an attempt to appear more socially attractive; a lot of us are backward, rather than forward-thinking. We like to talk about our past successes (in fact, talking about them is often encouraged,) when we could be using that time to better ourselves even more.

Stoicism teaches you to measure a man by his actions, not his words. By what he is doing, not what he claims to have done.

Because of this, focused people spend less time talking about their plans and past successes, instead working to achieve their future goals. They stop procrastinating and are always taking action to better themselves.

They don’t settle or reward themselves for being below their best. Instead, they push themselves to achieve their full potential.

“In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your thoughts, don’t wander. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive. In your life, don’t be all about business.” — Marcus Aurelius

They Guard their Time

As humans with a finite existence, every passing second is time that we can never get back. At this very moment, you’re choosing to read this article rather than do something else. Is it the most effective use of your time? Could it have been better spent elsewhere?

The amount of time we have left is out of our control. But we can change how we spend it.

Most of us don’t achieve our goals, because we believe there isn’t enough time in the day. But for Stoic Philosopher, Seneca (54BC — 39AD,) it’s not that we don’t have enough time — it’s that we choose to waste most of it. This happens when we fail to treat time as something of value; even though it’s the most finite resource in our lives.

We spend hours a day watching TV. We focus our efforts on trying to impress people we don’t even like. We do favors for people who are taking advantage of us. All for no apparent reason.

For Ryan Holiday, time is comparable to money. We wouldn’t aimlessly and unnecessarily throw our money away. Time is an even scarcer resource: once it’s spent, you can’t earn it back — so why do we waste it so carelessly?

Acknowledging this, focused people carefully manage their time. They’re prepared to say “no” to wasteful tasks and requests. Rather than misspending it all, they set aside enough time each day to focus/improve themselves, and work to achieve their goals.

“People are frugal guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy” ― Seneca

They Recognize That it’s Okay to Pause

When we get caught in our daily routines, it can be difficult to find room to relax. We’re always on the go and always striving for more. We tell ourselves that the more we work, the faster we will achieve our goals — so we push ourselves and avoid breaks.

Sadly, this assumption is false. Skipping breaks won’t boost your productivity. Quite the opposite: research undergone by Alan Kohll (Forbes,) shows that insufficient breaks are the leading cause of chronic stress and job burnout.

According to Stoic Philosophy, to work at our best and produce something of quality, the mind needs time to rest. Recharging isn’t a waste of time, it’s an investment in yourself, your body, and your health — and that will help you produce better results in the long run.

In the words of Seneca:

“We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air. At times it will acquire fresh energy from a journey by carriage and a change of scene.”

Acknowledging this fact, immensely focused people recognize to achieve their goals, they must look after themselves. They take regular breaks and care for their well-being on regular occasions. And they recognize that doing so is beneficial, rather than detrimental to their goals.

Having a well-earned break is nothing to be ashamed of. After all;

“Idleness is fatal only to the mediocre.”― Albert Camus

Pause, Postpone, Anticipate

On our quest for greatness, we believe we have to act quickly to achieve our goals. But if you are overworked, you might not be in the best position to make key decisions — especially when you’re tired and your thinking gets hazy. It’s at moments like these, that we make choices that we later regret.

Recognizing we are not always in the best position to make a decision, Ancient Philosopher, Epictetus (50AD — 130AD,) argues when faced with a decision, we should pause, rest, and fully think it through.

Rather than rushing to make a quick decision, focused people take a moment to breathe and properly weigh up the consequences of their actions. In the words of Epictetus (Discourses and Selected Writings):

Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, “Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.”

Rather than going in all guns blazing, focused people don’t let their emotions get the better of them. They keep their eye on the prize and carefully work out which choices are best for achieving their goals in the long run.

The Takeaway

Most of us have incredible natural abilities, but fail to reach our full potential. Either because we aren’t motivated enough, or because we get distracted by the vast array of opportunities around us.

To succeed, you must stay focused, properly develop and utilize your skills. But how do you stay focused and avoid distractions? According to Ancient Greek Philosophy, immensely focused people:

  • Avoid unnecessary busywork. Rather than completing pointless tasks that achieve very little, but take a long time — they hone in on actions and opportunities that help them achieve their goals as quickly as possible.
  • Measure success by their actions, not words. Rather than putting off tasks and talking about their past achievements, focused people are always taking action to better themselves — up until they reach their desired end.
  • Guard their time. Rather than wasting their time on pointless tasks, focused people say “no” more often and make the most of every passing second.
  • Recognize it’s okay to pause. Rather than working themselves to the point of burnout, focused people give themselves room to think and recharge. In the long run, that leaves them producing work of higher quality, that is better targeted at their aims.

In cultivating and maintaining these traits, these people are able to use their skillset to reach their full potential.

Stay focused on your dreams and aspirations. They are nearly in your grasp and can be achieved with enough hard work. In the words of Aurelius:

“A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other ambition, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.”

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.


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