Learning About Productivity from Napoleon

Productivity Apr 17, 2021 4 min read

Although Napoleon, like most historical figures, had his failings, there is much to learn from the man who was arguably the most successful general in history, sponsored scientific breakthroughs, reformed the French education system, created a law code that served as a template for countries around the world, and even had the time to write a romance novel.

A quick story. Following the surrender of Malta. Napoleon:

  • Established a new civil code,
  • Abolished slavery,
  • Eliminated long established feudal privileges,
  • Set up a new government that included 12 individual municipalities complete with their own judges,
  • Established public finance to stimulate the economy,
  • Revamped the public education system and established a university.

Did that take a year? A month? Nope, just 6 days. Keep reading to discover how Napoleon achieved this remarkable output.

The Napoleon Technique for Correspondence

Photo by Torsten Dettlaff on Pexels.com

Put non-urgent emails and letters (do people even get those anymore?) on hold. Note, I am not suggesting you should risk your relationship with your family, spouse, friend, etc, by ignoring their messages. Rather, if you have work or school correspondence about a non-urgent issue, wait a day or two, and see if the issue gets resolved without your input. Ninety-nine percent of the time, people will have no issue with slightly delayed response to their email.

This practice comes from the following story about Napoleon:

“It was a whimsical economy of the same kind which dictated [Napoleon’s] practice, when general in Italy, in regard to his burdensome correspondence. He directed Bourrienne to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself and no longer required an answer.”— From “Napoleon; or, the Man of the World”, by American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his collection “Representative Men” (1850)

By utilizing that method, Napoleon found that four out of every five of his letters did not need a response. By using this method, you can prioritize your time and energy on more important tasks.

The Napoleon technique for your emails or other correspondence also allows for batching. Batching is when you do a set of similar tasks (i.e. answering emails) at one time instead of multiple times throughout the day. You will then work more efficiently doing similar tasks at once, and eliminate the possibility of becoming distracted and pulled in an unproductive rabbit hole (TK).

Say no to Multitasking

As a successful general, Napoleon had many enemy states banding together in efforts to defeat him. Napoleon could defeat large armies by breaking them into more "manageable chunks". One example is in 1805, after the French had taken Vienna, he was threatened by the larger Austrian and Russian armies. Napoleon then recognized a critical point at Austerlitz, dealing a ferocious assault that split the Russian and Austrian armies. He then overpowered the left wing of the enemy, sending them into a retreat. Shortly after, Austria sued for peace. A similar example was in the following year, during fighting between France and Prussia, Russian sent forces to aid Prussia. Napoleon then decided to immediately attack the Prussians before the Russians arrived. Next he pursued the Russian force, culminating in a victory there as well. Napoleon summed up his strategy with

"The secret of great battles consists in knowing how to deploy and concentrate at the right time", and that victory comes from "being always able, even with an inferior army, to have a stronger forces than the enemy at the point of attack." - Napoleon

His strategy can effectively carry over to our everyday work and other tasks. Although when we multitask we may feel that we are accomplishing a lot, we actually are less productive and have worse performance.

Compartmentalization

As a follow-up point on limiting multitasking, is Napoleon's ability to compartmentalize his life and tasks. “Different subjects and different affairs are arranged in my head as in a cupboard,” he once told a minister. “When I wish to interrupt one train of thought, I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep? I simply close all the drawers, and there I am — asleep.” No matter how much we think otherwise, the human mind is only capable of so much at one moment. By compartmentalizing various tasks a.k.a single-tasking, we end up being more efficient and can handle multiple projects.

Napoleon could communicate effectively with his men, flourish his creativity, and for this article, effectively manage his life as a general emperor, husband, and academic.


Thank you for reading this article and I would love to hear your thoughts via email/twitter/instagram. Have a nice and productive day!

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