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Productivity and “The Art of War”: Applying Sun Tzu’s Teachings to Business

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Productivity and “The Art of War”: Applying Sun Tzu’s Teachings to Business

    Sun Tzu’s seminal work “The Art of War” has been referenced for millennia by historians, military tacticians, and world leaders. In fact, the book is still recommended reading for the US Marine Corps. With such timeless advice, I found myself asking one simple question: How can we apply Sun Tzu’s principles of warfare to our modern goals for productivity?

    1. Personal Accountability

    Sun Tzu said: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

    The Bottom Line: If you communicate ineffectively, then any problems caused by unclear communication are your fault. Make sure that every email and conversation you have is clear and distinct.

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    The important corollary to this aphorism is important to keep in mind as well: “But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.” If other people are hampering your productivity, take decisive action.

    2. Keeping Your Cool

    Sun Tzu said: “Disciplined and calm, to await the appearance of disorder and hubbub amongst the enemy:–this is the art of retaining self-possession.”

    The Bottom Line: The fastest way to lose productivity is to lose your cool. Take a deep breath, and think before acting rashly. If you can keep your wits about you in the midst of a crisis, it will serve you well.

    An important quote that relates to this concept is: “Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy. Do not interfere with an army that is returning home.” Staying productive and staying professional are one in the same. Never lose your cool with co-workers or bosses. At least, not where it can get back to them.

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    3. Be Prepared

    Sun Tzu said: “The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.”

    The Bottom Line: Do everything in your power to be prepared, because it’s only a matter of time until something goes wrong. If you have daily deadlines, work two days ahead to give yourself a buffer. Take initiative to track trends in your division, so that when your boss asks you to compile a report, the work is already done. Think of all the possible complications that you might have to contend with, and work out a plan to be ready for when the inevitable happens.

    4. Do Work to Get Work

    Sun Tzu said: “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

    The Bottom Line: The boss needs volunteers to stay late and work on a project? Do it. Your company needs a speaker to represent them at a conference? Do it. The more experience you gain, the better your resume will look, and the higher the quality of your contacts will be. Just be careful of spreading yourself too thin.

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    5. Grow Your Social Network

    Sun Tzu said: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.”

    The Bottom Line: Stay in touch with former co-workers, colleagues, and yes, even bosses. You never know when a former business contact may recommend you for a new position. But it’s not enough to just stay in touch. You need to have a plan for how you can leverage your connections.

    Note: This quote, while attributed to Sun Tzu, is likely apocryphal. Nonetheless, it is good advice.

    6. Be Selfless

    Sun Tzu said: “The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”

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    The Bottom Line: No one likes a manipulative ladder-climber. Just do what is best for the company, and ultimately, you’ll be doing what’s best for you, too. Stay humble, even after winning awards and accolades, and you’ll make more friends (read: allies.)

    7. Play to Your Strengths

    Sun Tzu said: “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

    The Bottom Line: If you always play to your personal strengths, and understand any potential problems that could cause a decline in your productivity, you will always be successful in your industry. Stay abreast of industry trends, and always keep honing your skill set.

    Conclusion

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    Sun Tzu may have been the master of wartime strategies, but his advice still resonates with us today because it can be so readily applied to politics, business, and our personal lives. Follow his precepts, and everything will go your way.

    Resources and Further Reading

    http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html
    http://www.history-of-china.com/three-kingdoms/sun-tzu.htm
    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Art_of_War (Contains original Chinese and variant translations.)
    http://shop.history.com/detail.php?p=104545&v=history

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    Tucker Cummings

    Writer and social media professional sharing productivity tips on Lifehack.

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    Last Updated on October 21, 2021

    How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

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    How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

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    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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