Lessons on the Most Valuable Commodity on Earth From the Richest Stoic

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The suicide of Seneca | Image via Wikipedia

In AD 65, Seneca the Younger was ordered to take his own life by the Roman Emperor Nero. Seneca followed tradition by severing several veins in order to bleed to death, while also ingesting poison.

This order was a response to Seneca’s supposed involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. Former consul and advisor to the emperor and one of the richest and most powerful men in Rome, Seneca decided to embody his philosophy to the very end. He accepted his fate with calm, even though those around him urged him to plea for his life.

While Seneca’s words of wisdom touched on countless aspects of life, he is perhaps best remembered for his piercing thoughts on the value of time.

This wisdom is relevant to this day, or maybe even more so, as we live in a world that makes it easy to lose track of time as we immerse ourselves in countless micro-distractions.

Carpe diem, as the Romans used to say, is an art that needs tinkering with as we do our best to seize time, rather than waste it.

You Only Have Life Time

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing.” — Seneca

Our modern-day obsession with striking a work-life balance has its downsides. 

We tend to divide time into work and leisure. We tend to procrastinate on our most difficult and important tasks, and we panic when those tasks become urgent. 

We fail to realize a simple truth: all we have is life time. Time we take from our life, time we’re never getting back.

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested… So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” — Seneca

Life is long if you know how to use it. 

I believe that the stoic way of dealing with time is one that is often described by various other stoics as well, including Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. 

We’re either busy living or we’re busy dying. 

The time we waste, whether we like it or not, is time that slowly carries us towards death. 

If you use your time wisely, with purpose, clarity, and passion, that time has been lived. If, on the other hand, you procrastinate or otherwise wander aimlessly through time, then you’ve been brought closer to death.

Life and death are not opposites. Life is constantly moving closer towards death, locked in a dance with the brevity of our existence. When time is gone, it doesn’t come back.

How you use it, however, is entirely up to you.

Anticipate Your Desire to Procrastinate

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy.” — Seneca

We deny ourselves the chance to do our best in the present because we keep imagining the future.

It is our ability to visualize the future that’s the problem. We give in to our desire for short-term gratification when we tell ourselves that we have all the time in the world.

But do you? Do we?

Time is neither an infinite resource nor a renewable one, and the Stoics we’re acutely aware of this.

One strategy they deployed was called Premeditatio Malorum, the idea of preparing oneself for all the things that could go wrong. It’s a form of negative visualization, and you can use it to mentally prepare yourself for the setbacks posed by your desire to procrastinate.

If you prepare yourself to have to fight off distractions before you even begin going through your list of tasks, you’re far more likely to follow through. You develop a much more acute perception of time, for you have to:

  1. Complete the tasks you set for yourself
  2. Fight off the distractions that are meant to discourage you from completing those tasks

Time is the most valuable commodity there is. There is no way to get it back. And yet, it’s the one commodity most people are quite okay with spending foolishly.

To paraphrase Nicolae Iorga, a famous Romanian historian, we waste years and years only to beg for moments on our deathbeds. 

Seneca, given the inherent risk of working side-by-side with one of the most chaotic rules Rome had ever seen, would have been more than aware of the fact that we shouldn’t take even a day for granted. He articulated this strenuous dance between life and death better than most, and in many of his writings, we can find references to the disproportionate price we must pay for the time we wast.

If you want to take control of your time, if you want to use it wisely, you’ve got to take control of your mind. 

You have to become acutely aware of your habits, routines, and rituals, and you have to have a clear list of goals you want to accomplish while being mentally prepared for the inevitable distractions.


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