The Practicality of Pessimism: Stoicism as a Productivity System

This is a recent 5-minute presentation I gave at Google I/O Ignite called “The Practicality of Pessimism: Stoicism as a Productivity System.”

In it, I discuss the two most effective productivity techniques I’ve found since 2004, both borrowed from Stoicism. I include personal usage examples, as well as several from Seneca and Cato. The audio is quite low, so you’ll need to up the volume.

Ponder this: could defining your fears be more important than defining your goals?

Suggested and related posts:

Fireside Chat at Google with Timothy Ferriss

The Secrets of Super-Productive CEOs – QA with Timothy Ferriss (Inc. Magazine)

Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs

On The Shortness of Life: An Introduction to Seneca

Stoicism for Modern Stresses: 5 Lessons from Cato

For those who’d like to taste the various approaches to this format, here are all of the Ignite videos in one uncut sequence. There are some outstanding speakers:

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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130 Replies to “The Practicality of Pessimism: Stoicism as a Productivity System”

  1. Great advice Tim, it really mirrors the difference between “if only” people and those who stop making excuses and go for it.

    I just attended Ignite Phx 4 last week – can’t get enough of this format and the power/efficiency of the presentations. Very cool to see Google engaged in the program.

  2. Regarding the topic of productivity and avoiding burn out, I’ve been looking at using methods of rhythm instead of balance. There is a book I found-very analytical- that speaks of balance being “like a pose we try to strike” but “rhythm is like a dance” I did a to-the-point review on the work @ on it, if you’re interested.

    Tim, to avoid burn out, do you sort of take big breaks, or dance organic rhythms, or something else? Being such an inventive, busy, bloke, who globe-trots, you must implement something.

    Thanks, for the insights.


  3. Ignite talks are very similar to PechaKucha Night, a worldwide event where presenters get to talk for 20 imagenes x 20 seconds each.

    I organize it in Buenos Aires since 2006 and it is great fun.

    Tim, if you happen to come back, let me know! If not, you can check the global web page as the event takes place in more than 211 cities worldwide now.

  4. Hi Tim,

    The link to the q&a goes to a different article. Thought you’d like to know so you can update it.

    this is where your link currently points: (it says that it’s your q & a but the actual article that shows up at this page is titled: 8 Tips for Managing Staff Through Hard Times)

    here is the correct link to your article (named improperly but is your q&a):

  5. Can someone answer tell me an outsource company that I can dedicate my business e-mail to that is not expensive and is reliable. Also what is the name of the Jamican outsource company Tim spoke about that uses Americans and is not expensive?

    Best Regards,

    Frank Harris

  6. HI Tim:

    I really appreciate what you share on your blog. Your thought process and ability to articulate it is impressive. It’s rare that I come across someone that thinks about life and provocatively decides how to live instead of reacting to it as you do. I’ve learned a lot from you and you continue to cause me to question my own beliefs. It is refreshing to know there are others in life that enjoy continual learning, personal growth, and pleasure all at the same time.


  7. For a simple approach to setting goals and being more productive, you may want to check out, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.

  8. For what it’s worth, I have to respectfully disagree. I think people’s subconscious fears hold them back enough as it is. To bring them to the surface on purpose for practical use is doubling up on an already unfortunate circumstance. If I’m being honest with myself about what I’m capable of, there is nothing but love and action that are going to get me where I need to be. Fear and hesitation have played too big of a part in my life already. I’m fully prepared to move on without them and see what happens and where I can go. There are not enough dreamers out there as it is.

  9. George, Tim and the world

    I too have to respectfully disagree with you. Writing down your fears and looking for ways to minimize their (possible) impact is not something that will empower that fear. On the contrary, as other have commented, once fear is named it loses a lot of it’s subconscious ability to paralyze our actions. Pre-planned actions in case those fear manifest themselves are a must and these are actually school-taught entrepreneurial methods of doing business (the SWAT diagram). And that’s a point of support for those who advocate goals should be defined in tandem with fears. Once you know what you want and what may go wrong you are able to prepare in advance and get yourself a ticket to Success Highway.

    Since I started reading Tim’s blog your comment is the first to contain THE magic word: love. Following on that I have to say I find it funny how out there you guys go from positive visualization to negative vaccine-like visualization, and who knows what may come next, in order to adapt your paradigm with the reality. I hope (and actually feel) that someday the answer will come to you.

    I am curious as to what is your paradigm Timothy. Are we the result of some random accident? Are we a part of some Divine Creation Plan? Were we planted here by aliens? Is there a higher purpose in life or we should just get the best of it? Is happiness one of your fears? What are your fears Timothy, can you share them with us? You wrote in your book that no one can define happiness and therefore it’s useless to talk about it, wasn’t the American Dream about finding happiness? How do you think we should relate to the others – family, friends, complete strangers?

    Thank you very much for your time


    PS: On a meaner ( 😀 ) note – am I the only one that thinks the first speaker from the Ignite conference video has some ‘real’ reasons to want to lose his ‘fragile’ body? He reminds me of one of Tolstoi’s fables.

  10. I’m wondering if Tim, or anyone else, could please help me to understand the meaning of this sentence. I don’t mean to be anal or fixated, but it seemed significant… At 5:32 of the Google Ignite video, Tim says: “undervaluing the things that are easily obtainable.” Does this go back to the 3rd part of the list with all the things I can do to get back to the status quo?

    Or just tell me to let it go. Either way. 🙂


  11. this is general comment about this site: i dont see any sign of tim’s ideas on selling and marketing. should be a top topic here, because not much happens till some sales are made. i read one comment somewhere, that people are more persuaded by fear of losing something than promises to get something. is that true or just a hypothesis by tim without proof? so if it’s true, i need MORE ideas like that, posted on this site, about how to sell better. as an ent, one of my top talents/skills is selling, because i restrict it to things i really believe in, because they are really desirable to anyone almost, eg a cure for cancer, etc.

    so where is the marketing advice on this site?? – thanks – paul

  12. I was introduced to Stoicism because of this video few years ago.

    It changed my life for the better!!

    Thank you so much Tim!

  13. I found that stoicism resonates with me more than western religion. Thanks for introducing me to stoic philosophy Tim!

  14. Hi Tim,

    I have a question about manufacturers. I’ve been through the steps of your book, but in looking for a manufacturer, it is really important to me that I use ethical company. I don’t want to contribute to a culture where they have to hang nets outside windows so people don’t die when they try to kill themselves because the working conditions are so terrible. Any tips?