Schopenhauer’s Advice on How to Achieve Great Things

Want to stay current with Arthur’s writing? Sign up to get an email every time a new column comes out.

“How do you write a book?” Like most authors, I get this question often. Sometimes, I find that the person is asking about overcoming specific obstacles, such as getting started (answer: first spend three months talking about your idea to anyone who will listen) and how to deal with writer’s block (answer: lower your self-imposed standards and just get words down). But sometimes, underlying the question is a more general curiosity or concern about how to do a really big thing requiring a great deal of time and intense personal discipline. A similar question might be “How do you run a marathon?” or “How do you play the piano?”

People want to know how to do a big thing because in a life full of quotidian trivia, a major project—even if it isn’t necessary to support oneself—conveys significance and permanence. It can be proof to oneself of being able to accomplish something out of the ordinary. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s reason for the U.S. space program, many people want to do something not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Whether you want to write a book, run a marathon, or play a Beethoven sonata, here are three rules that can supercharge your effort—inspired by the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and backed up by modern social science.

Schopenhauer knew a thing or two about big projects: He published hefty books such as Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation)—two volumes, comprising hundreds of pages—filled with dense theory about our inability to perceive reality directly. But Schopenhauer was also an applied philosopher, one who was determined to show through dozens of essays how philosophy could provide practical life advice. These were not his most popular works, nor are they much remembered today, but I would argue that they constitute some of his most valuable writing.

An example of his applied work is “Our Relation to Ourselves,” one of his Counsels and Maxims published in 1851, when he was 63 years old. In this essay, Schopenhauer 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. Indeed, they are what I think about when I begin writing a book.

Schopenhauer loved metaphor, and his counsel starts with the example of a mason: The man is “employed on the building of a house” but “may be quite ignorant of its general design.” Because of this arrangement, Schopenhauer suggested, the mason was stuck in the daily details of his work instead of seeing it as part of a grand design. And so it is with any aspect of existence: “It is only when we come to view our life as a connected whole that our character and capacities show themselves in their true light.” The mason can take greater satisfaction in his work and stay motivated if he is able to envision the entire house while he works on the details.

Keeping the big picture in view enhances the success of any task requiring significant time and effort. One typical experiment from 2020 showing this involved having a group of undergraduate students set specific goals for their grades, as opposed to others who did not. By doing so, they were induced to see their class performance across the semester in its totality, not just in terms of specific exams or homework assignments. The researchers found that the goal-setting students performed significantly better than their peers.

Having the whole project in mind does not mean having to focus constantly on the future. You need to know where you are going, but Schopenhauer argues that “another important element in the wise conduct of life is to preserve a proper proportion between our thought for the present and our thought for the future.” He goes on to observe, “It is seldom that a man holds the right balance between the two extremes.” For most of us, the problem with finding that balance comes from not being present in the here and now but getting stuck thinking about what is to come. If we’re not mindful in this way, that hurts our ability to focus and make tangible progress in the immediate present, and creates an incentive to procrastinate on big projects.

To think that this was written more than a century before Westerners began to see the well-being benefits of mindfulness is extraordinary. In his interest in Eastern spirituality, Schopenhauer was far ahead of time; on occasion, he even called himself a Buddhist.

As Schopenhauer knew, mindfulness is a skill crucial for the execution of big projects. Indeed, modern scholars studying procrastination—the bane of book-writing, marathon-training, and piano-learning—have found that mindfulness significantly predicts the ability to avoid procrastination. Mindfulness training can also make people more productive in their work, as researchers have shown.

We should work to see the whole project, but we should also limit our vista to that—and, in general, resist distraction from diversions that go outside our project. “We are happy in proportion as our range of vision, our sphere of work, our points of contact with the world, are restricted and circumscribed,” he wrote. “We are more likely to feel worried and anxious if these limits are wide.” The recent work of scholars suggests that he was spot on: Overload of unnecessary information can lower well-being. A classic case of this is, of course, social media, which beckons with terabytes of distracting nonsense that can eat your time and leave you feeling empty, guilt-ridden, or on edge.

Such overload also distracts you from your big projects. After all, what are you likely to be doing when you procrastinate? For many, it is scrolling amusing videos and irrelevant news. This could be the most obvious yet understudied reason for falling productivity in the years since millions of Americans’ jobs shifted more toward virtual work: If your employment involves a screen that forms a window into the vast wilderness of the internet, then it is always imploring you to drift away from what you are supposed to work on.

Schopenhauer’s advice might seem contradictory: Keep the big picture in mind but stay in the here and now. True to his Eastern proclivities, this is really just an invitation to live and work in a balanced way. Envision the cathedral you are building, but then focus on the brick you are laying; don’t be thrown off by unrelated projects. Here are three practical rules for applying this advice to your big goal.

1. Keep the grand plan in mind.
Some special days—your wedding day, the birth of a child—have a profound impact on the whole of your life. Most days, however, are fairly unremarkable. You see your colleagues, family, and friends; do your work; eat; watch a little TV; and try to get to bed on time. Yet these days are the building blocks in a project that takes a long time to accomplish. 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.

2. Live in day-tight compartments.
A daily focus on the big picture is different from living in the future. Although you need to keep the end in mind as you think about the whole project, it is too easy to spend too much time in what is known as prospection—mentally living at the finish line. This subjects you to the arrival fallacy, which means that you imagine meeting a specific goal as the be-all and end-all (provoking frustration and disappointment when it isn’t as sweet as anticipated). Prospection also leads you to miss the only moment you can actually use to make progress: this one. After you envision your completed project, back up to focus on today and only on what you need to do here and now to make progress. Make a schedule and a list for the day, and then—as the self-improvement author Dale Carnegie liked to say—live in “day-tight compartments,” rather than daydreaming or worrying about the future (or, for that matter, ruminating on the past).

3. Block out the noise.
When you learn to drive, you are taught to maintain a level of situational awareness that is wide enough to help you anticipate problems but not so wide that it distracts you. So you watch your mirrors but don’t read and answer texts. (You don’t do that, do you?) The same goes for your project. You need to know what’s going on around you that might affect your life and work, but not what is irrelevant to these things. I am not advocating a “full ostrich” model of ignoring the outside world entirely. Rather, I mean to recommend ordering your information intake so that extraneous stuff doesn’t eat up your attention. Schedule your time in a way that relegates distracting activities, such as news consumption and social-media scanning, to prescribed times. Perhaps you could decide to read the news for 30 minutes in the morning and vegetate on social media for 30 minutes at the end of the day. If time-tabling activities like that works for your schedule, then stick to it permanently.

Perhaps you’ve spent years wishing you could do something challenging and significant, and have concluded that you just don’t have it in you. I once knew a famous intellectual who had written hundreds of short articles but no books. I asked him why that was, and he said, sounding regretful, “Long ago, I figured out that I am just not a book writer.” I believe this wasn’t true in his case, and it doesn’t have to be true in yours, either—whatever your big project might be. All you need is a little Schopenhauer.

The Atlantic