Ancient Greek Four Temperaments Define You

Αssociated Press

(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

If in this modern world where it seems the more you hurry the more you are behind, when computers and cell phones and technology and social media seem to overwhelm instead of alleviate, and there's not enough time, a remedy could be what the Ancient Greeks knew.

That is the Four Temperaments, devised by the father of medicine, Hippocrates, who said there were four fluid substances in bodies: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, with Greek philosophers believing the levels determined whether people would have sanguine, choleric, melancholic, or phlegmatic personalities.

An imbalance among the fluids was believed to lead to physical or mental illness.

Time management coach and author Elizabeth Grace Saunders wrote in The New York Times that these old theories could hold a key to why some people can juggle tasks and accomplish more while others seem to be stuck in neutral or limbo most of the time.

Although the four fluid temperament postulations have been debunked in terms of physiology, she said that while helping people manage time she found that the concept “still proves useful in understanding why you struggle to start – or finish – projects and what you can do about it.”

How? It sounds like astrology with medicine and philosophy mixed in. Each temperament describes a pattern of emotional or behavioral responses to external events, she wrote, with your innate emotional response tending to remain stable at first, with some having quick emotional responses to everything.

“But as you grow and mature, you can choose to act in a way that serves your greatest and highest good. For example, you decide to take a day to calm down and think about the best course of action on a new challenge at work instead of diving in immediately,” she put it.

She said she's a sanguine/choleric blend with her extroverted sanguine personality breezy, but introverted choleric side sometimes kicking in, helping her write fast and furiously and churn out multiple books.

She even devised a Temperament Quiz to help people find out theirs.


Sanguines, she said, exhibit fast, strong reactions that last for a short period of time. “If you’re sanguine, you’re likely to have ideas for 20 projects and counting rolling around in your head. But you’ll find it really hard to bring any of them to completion. You tend to feel more enthusiastic about talking about endeavors instead of doing them. And can lose momentum soon after jumping in,” she said.

If you're sanguine, you thrive on wins and celebrations and you'll need to chop your work up into smaller pieces to handle and give yourself a pat on the back for each step completed.


If you're a choleric, you command attention with fast, strong reactions that last for a long time and go after a task with all you have, 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,” she explained.

People in this category have strong execution skills and are leaders who take charge even if they're not officially the leader, but it can leave them overburdened with work, leading to anger, dismissiveness and potential burnout.

“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,” she suggested.

You can learn from the other temperaments the value of taking life slower at times and that could even include taking a nap now and then.


If you're one of these you will take a very long time, slow and unhurried, to decide how to proceed on a project or goal but once a decision is made it will be pursed like a dog after a bone, tenaciously and tirelessly, with a push for perfectionism.

Melancholics have a strong aversion for settling, and will work day and night once they’ve started something new but that means for your work you need to prioritize and then move ahead after finding the goal and key instead of just thinking or mulling.

“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,” she said.


If you're a Phlegmatic, expect to ease into projects and be one of those who can lose momentum relatively easily, the kind of person who doesn't want to rock the boat or ruffle feathers with intensity but who are capable of sustained efforts.

Phlegmatics find it hard to get inspired or motivated, leading to a lot of half done or unstarted projects as they fumble about so the best time management strategy here, she said, 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.