Schopenhauer and the Workplace


Arthur Shopenhauer was a German philosopher best known for his 1818 treatise The World as Will and Representation, in which he posited, in short, that the world around us does not exist in itself, but is rather only a representation of the way we each subjectively experience it. Any objective reality, such that it exists, can never be witnessed or experienced by humankind due to the subjective nature of consciousness.

Writing recently in The Atlantic, Arthur C. Brooks, host of the How to Build a Happy Life podcast, argues that while Schopenhauer’s grand thesis may be what made his name, it is his other, lesser-known works which harbour greater wisdoms that we should each be incorporating into our day-to-day lives, especially if we are on the verge of undertaking a large, daunting project.

Brooks says Schopenhaur’s work “offered rules for living that stand up remarkably well when compared with the findings of modern research; they provide what has come, for me, to be the best guidelines for doing the big thing” [1]. By the big thing, Brooks refers to writing a book, running a marathon, learning to play piano, or any other such task that requires endurance and discipline.

The core arguments Schopenhauer made that Brooks champions are: embracing mindfulness, thinking of the big picture, living day-by-day, and blocking out external noise. By undertaking these practices, promoted by Schopenhauer in the middle of the 19th century, one can have a better relationship with their work today.


Research at companies such as Google, Aetna and Intel have demonstrated that incorporating mindfulness into the workplace can decrease employee stress levels while improving focus, thoughtfulness, decision-making abilities and overall well-being [2]. Mindfulness has also been shown to reduce emotional exhaustion, increase openness to new ideas and develop compassion and empathy [3]. Modern procrastination scholars have also found that mindfulness significantly predicts the ability to avoid procrastination [4].

The benefits, then, are evident. And yet some sceptics still remain, because, as with anything in business, how people feel is considered less important than the bottom line. Except that incorporating mindfulness into the workplace has also been shown to be a money-maker.

As we have written about in the past, Aetna, a US health insurer that trained 13,000 employees in mindfulness practices, estimated an annual productivity improvement of around $3,000 per employee, as well as a reported reduction in stress levels of 28% [5]. Meanwhile SAP, a leading German software company, saw a 200% return on investment, based on data from a survey undertaken with the help of 650 SAP employees who underwent mindfulness training through the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) [6].

In other words, mindfulness is no hippy-dippy fad. It’s a cold, hard cash earner.

Thinking big

All businesses, and indeed all individuals, need a north star, some destination to which we’re heading. Of course, there’s rarely a direct route or comfortable mode of transport that takes us precisely where we want to go – the journey tends to be messy, often necessarily so – but knowing where we want to end up helps keep us on track, and more importantly helps us see when we’re heading in the wrong direction. Having a big picture allows us to take little steps towards it. You put a puzzle together one piece at a time.

As Brooks puts it, “Each ordinary day, you have a choice: You can build your house up a little, tear it down a bit, or neglect it entirely. To choose the first option, start each day by envisioning for a minute your whole purpose and your desire to complete it. Then resolve to live this day in alignment with that desire. In the evening, briefly survey the day, notice where you perhaps fell short of your goal, and make a few resolutions to tighten things up tomorrow” [7].

It can be difficult to find the balance between big, end-destination thinking and the micro-decisions you need to get right in order to get there. It takes what Denise Russo, Global VP of SAP and council member for ICF CIO, terms “leadershift.”

Leadershift is “a balance between standing back and seeing the big picture (vision) and moving in close while painting all of the fine details (execution),” she writes in Forbes [8].

“There is a need to balance the excitement of envisioning the big picture alongside the plan for how to best get that picture painted,” she continues. “The best leaders focus inward first and then outward.”

Or, as Pabo Picasso put it, “Our goals can only be reached through the vehicle of a plan. There is no other route to success” [9].

Have a plan, have a destination – set it, know it – only then will you be free to focus on the collection of smaller challenges you must overcome to get there. Which, in turn, requires the next piece of advice.

Live in day-tight compartments

In his article on Schopenhauer, Brooks advocates embracing Dale Carrnegie’s advice to live in “day-tight compartments”. Carnegie was inspired to create this phrase by Sir Wiliam Osler, who in turn was inspired by the Thomas Carlisle quote, “It is not our goal to see what lies dimly in the distance but to do what clearly lies at hand” [10].

Perhaps, in combining the need for big picture thinking with the advice to live in day-tight compartments, we could amend this to: do what clearly lies at hand in order to reach the point that lies dimly in the distance.

A day-tight compartment – quite literally sealing off today’s tasks from yesterday’s and tomorrow’s – allows for greater focus, as well as making progress easier to measure. Make a list of what you need to achieve through the day in the morning, or perhaps plan for the entire week on Sunday night, and ensure that by the end of the day it is done. It really is as simple as that. Do not think about the task you’ll be completing in a week’s time or a year’s, there is no need. Focus only on what you can do in the here and now – the days will add up all on their own.

Block out the noise

The news is a distraction. The song in your head is a distraction. The neighbours’ shouting is a distraction. The world is a distraction.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, everything is a distraction. But that’s okay.

It can be too easy to let external noise – literal and psychological – mess with your routine and prevent you from getting things done. Now more than ever, the whole world is at our fingertips, the temptation to touch it is hard to resist. And yet, most times we do, it offers little to nothing in reward other than a cheap dopamine hit and massive delay to our daily progress. No one is going to lie on their deathbed and say they wish they’d scrolled more.

Blocking out the noise takes a bit of practice, but there are many techniques that can help. Many leading CEOs advocate time blocking, i.e. allocating arbitrary chunks of time to a specific task. Half an hour for emails here. Two hours for the presentation there. Whatever it may be. Indeed, actually setting a timer on your phone or using an egg-timer is a useful psychological trick that forces your mind into focus mode and allows you to switch off once time is up. During this time, fully commit to the task at hand. Turn off your phone. Make yourself unavailable on Teams. Be strict with your limits, and use an app like Rescuetime for assistance if you really want to track how it’s going.

One piece of advice CEOs endorse that can also be tied into mindfulness is rather more simple, passive even: simply allow the distractions [11]. That doesn’t mean jump on social media every chance you get. Rather, if the noise from the street or the table next to you at the cafe is bugging you, make the choice to not let it. Allow the world to happen around you as it is. If you can only get the work done under the perfect circumstances, you’re never going to get the work done at all. Step back, breathe, and rather than fixating on the imperfections, let them fade into the background. You’ll be surprised what you can achieve.

Schopenhauer and the workplace

So there you have it. Schopenhauer’s legacy as one of pessimism’s great philosophical minds who forced humanity to face just how detached from reality we are and always will be is undeserved. He was secretly just a productivity guru, a man ahead of his time, who if around today would be churning out SEO-driven LinkedIn content or life hack TikToks. (Before any enraged Schopenhunnies reach out, please be aware that was written with tongue firmly in cheek.)

But there are lessons to be learned in his teachings. Embrace mindfulness, think big, then once you know where you’re headed, get your head down and focus on the day-to-day, and be sure to block out external noise. Schopenhauer may have been writing in the 19th century, but good advice is good advice forever.

More on Focus

How to focus and become indistractable with Nir Eyal – podcast

The Paradox of Attention

Four Thousand Weeks: Time And How To Use It with Oliver Burkeman – podcast

More on Mindfulness

Mindfulness in the workplace

Mindfulness, Meditation and Compassion in the Workplace and in Life with Scott Shute – podcast

Awakening Wisdom: Exploring the Legacy of Tony de Mello with Dr. Francis Valloor – podcast