This post examines the virtue of industry (a.k.a. “assiduity,” “enterprise,” “industriousness,” or “productivity”). It is meant mostly as an exploration of what others have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope this post (and your comments on it) will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
“Lose no time: be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” ―Benjamin Franklin
Industry is the virtue of habitually devoting one’s sustained effort earnestly toward worthwhile goals. It is contrasted with such things as idleness/laziness/sloth, but also with things like aimlessness, dabbling, dithering, flitting, being ironic (un-earnest), triviality, and wasting time. The self-motivating impulse behind industry is sometimes distinguished from industry itself and called by names like “drive,” “eagerness,” “enthusiasm,” or “ambition.”
“There is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in work. Were he never so benighted, forgetful of his high calling, there is always hope in a man that actually and earnestly works: in idleness alone there is perpetual despair.” —Thomas Carlyle
Some virtues that are in the same ballpark as industry include:
The virtue of determination / follow-through is also associated with industry, but it can sometimes be counterproductive if taken to extremes. If you are determined to push something through to the finish line no matter what, you may be exhibiting a stubbornness or bullheadedness that interferes with industry: you continue to devote yourself to an unproductive enterprise because you’re unwilling to give up or to change your mind or because the sunk cost fallacy has captured you.
“Never shirk the proper dispatch of your duty, no matter if you are freezing or hot, groggy or well-rested, vilified or praised, not even if dying or pressed by other demands. Even dying is one of the important assignments of life and, in this as in all else, make the most of your resources to do well the duty at hand.” —Marcus Aurelius
Most obviously, industry helps you achieve goals and accomplish things that you value.
It is also sometimes supposed to have some inherent value, aside from the value of whatever it is that it helps you to do or produce.
Purposeful, earnest action can contribute to a sense that your life has meaning. If you are idle and aimless, the questions of “what am I doing here? what is the point of my being alive?” are more likely to gnaw at you.
“The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much…” (Ecclesiastes 5:12)
People seem commonly driven to do something goal-oriented. If you do not choose something meaningful to do, you may spin your wheels doing something just to pass the time.
“[W]ork… is a necessary condition of life… If a man does not work at necessary and good things, then he will work at unnecessary and stupid things.” —Tolstoy
If you are idle and lazy, work is hard and daunting. You may find that just doing the basic tasks you need to do to get through the day is irritating or difficult. By contrast, if you habitually put your shoulder to the wheel and apply yourself to an enterprise you find valuable, the more mundane chores of life are less likely to bother you.
“Whether you like to or not, acquire the habit of working hard, then you won’t have to work hard. Idleness does not make work easy, it ensures that work will be hard.” ―Crates
Purposeful effort can itself be pleasurable. It is enjoyable and invigorating to be “in the zone” — applying yourself thoroughly to the task at hand.
“[T]hose pleasures are most valuable, not which is most excellent in the fruition, but which are most productive of engagement and activity in the pursuit.” ―William Paley
“[L]et him who gropes painfully in darkness or uncertain light, and prays vehemently that the dawn may ripen into day, lay this other precept well to heart, which to me was of invaluable service: ‘Do the duty which lies nearest thee,’ which thou knowest to be a Duty! Thy second duty will already have become clearer.” ―Thomas Carlyle
It is hard to be industrious when you are mentally or physically fatigued. If fatigue makes it difficult for you to apply yourself, you may need to attend to physical fitness, general health, nutrition, sleep, and exercise. Stress, depression, and other psychological ills can also make it difficult to concentrate or to exert productive effort. Some drugs can mimic or exacerbate the effects of fatigue (others, such as caffeine, modafinil, and amphetamines can at least temporarily alleviate them; and some people swear by more exotic nootropics for this purpose).
You may find it easier to accomplish things if your life is more orderly. Some attention to tidiness might increase your effectiveness. Some time management tips might also help.
A common complaint these days is of short attention span, and a feeling that thousands of things are tugging at us all the time to try to get our attention. It is hard to roll up your sleeves and get down to business when a vibrating phone, blinking icon, and clanging inbox are all lining up to take swings at you. So many global crises really are very important and really do demand attention, but it is hardly possible to even stay up-to-date on all of them, much less address them with any competence, unless you narrow your focus and allow some of them to remain ignored.
You may want to reconsider the utility of some of the distractions you have invited into your life. How much is all of that doom-scrolling doing for you? Could you maybe leave that next flame war unfought? Do you really need to make it to the boss room of Ultimate Myth Hammer ⅩⅦ? Is all of that trivia-collecting about your favorite band / celeb / sports team / whatever really the best use of your time? Perhaps a few moments installing ad-blockers and tightening up app notification settings and abandoning dead-end screen-habits and played-out hobbies today would save you lots of future scattered thinking and allow you to set your sights higher.
Sometimes we unwisely use distractions as more-or-less deliberate techniques of procrastination (and then blame the distractions for it).
Warren Buffet had this bit of advice: Make a list of your top 25 goals. Then pick out the most important five of those. Then avoid putting in any work at all on the other twenty things until you’ve taken care of those five.
Ivy Lee had a different technique but one that seems to have a similar aim: Each day, start by listing the top six things you have to do, ranking them by their importance. Begin working only on the most important one (not for example the easiest, most time-sensitive, most well-understood, or some other such tempting heuristic), and keep at it until you’re done, and only then move on to the next one.
There are an asston of such simple-secrets-of-titans-of-industry tricks (and similar “Getting It Done” advice) out there, though, and it’s hard to tell if they’re genuinely useful or just a genre of stories. On the one hand, advice is so bountiful that if you wade into it you’re eventually bound to stumble upon something you’ll find useful. On the other hand, there’s just so much to wade through.
One piece of advice that seemed sensible to me is that you periodically remind yourself of your big, important goals when you’ve been spending a lot of time buried in the nitty-gritty of some difficult subtask. “Keep your eyes on the prize,” as the song goes.
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography Ⅸ (1791)
Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843), chapter Ⅺ: “Labour”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Ⅵ.2
Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom (1910), March 7
Crates of Thebes, letter to Hermaiscus
William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), chapter Ⅵ: “Human Happiness”
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus Ⅱ.9 (1836): “The Everlasting Yea”
James Clear “Warren Buffett’s ‘2 List’ Strategy: How to Maximize Your Focus and Master Your Priorities”
James Clear “The Ivy Lee Method: The Daily Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity”
About that Warren Buffett advice: It seems to be made up, or at least wrongly attributed.