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How ancient Greek philosophy could help you work smarter and better

Though now considered outdated, the four temperaments according to Greek philosophy may help you become a more efficient professional, writes Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders | NYT 

Greek philosophy. Photo: iStock
Greek philosophy. Photo: iStock

Why is your colleague already on step five of a project when you’re contemplating how to approach step one? Or why is another co-worker never finished with anything and still another rapidly checking items off the to-do list?

The answer may lie in a theory from ancient Greek philosophy known as the “four temperaments.” The Greek physician Hippocrates surmised that people had different proportions of four fluid substances in their bodies: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Philosophers and early doctors alike believed that the levels of these fluids, or “humors”, determined an individual’s placement in one of four psychological groups: sanguine, choleric, melancholic or phlegmatic. An imbalance among the fluids led to physical or mental illness.

Each temperament describes a pattern of emotional or behavioural responses to external events. Your innate emotional response tends to stay stable over the course of your life. For example, you may always have a quick, strong emotional response. But as you grow and mature, you can choose to act in a way that serves your greatest and highest good. It’s also common to have more than one primary temperament.

Excited sanguines: ‘Yeah!’

Sanguines exhibit fast, strong reactions that last for a short period of time. For example, they will bubble with excitement about a new idea at a staff meeting and then will have forgotten about the idea by the following week. Enthusiasm comes easily, especially with regard to new shiny projects, but follow-through is much harder.

Tips to manage your time better

Sanguines thrive on wins and celebrations. So a strategy for improving follow-through on big projects is to break down everything into bite-size pieces. Complete the first page of the report? Congratulate yourself: “Awesome! High five! Just four more pages to go!”

Committed cholerics: ‘Roar!’

Cholerics command attention with fast, strong reactions that last for a long time. When they put their mind to something - it will happen, like it or not. Confident and determined, when a project comes under their purview, they’ll drive it to conclusion even if that means leaving tread marks on other people.

Tips to manage your time better

Even if you could move ahead on projects better and faster than anyone else, it doesn’t mean that you should. To feel more calm and collected, you actually need to give up control so that others can take on more of the weight of projects, especially at work.

Scrupulous melancholics: ‘Sigh’

Melancholics take a long, long time to decide how they will proceed on a project or goal. But once they do, that reaction endures. They will work tirelessly to bring the perfection they have envisioned into reality. They have a strong aversion for settling, and will work day and night once they’ve started something new.

Tips to manage your time better

To get more projects done faster, you need to rein in your natural strengths. Want to research something? Great. Go for it. But put a timer on it. Once you’ve put a certain number of hours into research, you need to stop. While you’re at it, put a limit on how long you can take to make a decision before simply moving ahead.

Peaceful phlegmatics: ‘OK’

Phlegmatics take a long time to get into a project and can lose momentum relatively easily. With slow, quick-to-fade reactions, phlegmatics don’t ruffle feathers with their intensity. But sustained effort, especially when there’s any resistance or conflict, is difficult to muster.

Tips to manage your time better

Your best time management strategy is partnership with other temperaments. If you’re on a team where others help get the ball rolling and keep the ball rolling, your natural desire to stay in sync with others will keep you rolling along on your projects right along with them. This strategy works particularly well if your projects and big tasks are broken down into smaller, bite-size items and you can “keep the peace” at weekly meetings by having checked off all the items on your list.

As with all personality frameworks, the temperaments are an imperfect representation of the enormous diversity of individuals. However, understanding these broad, basic concepts can help you get a better sense of why you might struggle to start or finish projects and what you can do to break through those blocks.

© 2019 The New York Times

First Published: Fri, June 28 2019. 21:53 IST