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 the stoic philosophy to the very end. He accepted his fate with calm, even though those around him urged him to beg 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.”
Our modern-day obsession with striking a work-life balance has numerous downsides. We tend to divide time into work and leisure. We procrastinate on our most difficult and important tasks, and we panic when those tasks become urgent.
We fail to realize a simple truth:
“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.”
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.
“This is our big mistake: to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.”
Deep down, we all know we’re not going to live forever, yet we insist on forgetting it, day after day after day.
There is perverse psychological inability when it comes to wrapping our brains around the fact that someday we will cease to exist.
And whenever we are made aware of this simple fact, we try to numb ourselves with petty distractions.
Paradoxically, all this wasted time and energy brings us closer to death.
The stoics, however, made a practice of doing just the opposite. Rather than run from the thought of their own death, they actively confronted it every day.
In his Meditations, the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
This exercise often feels exaggerated, to say the least. Constantly reminding us that this day could be our last on the plan and that we shouldn’t put things off feels like it would weaken our spirits, but it’s quite the contrary. The thought of our death should inspire and energize us to seize the day, or as the Romans would say, “Carpe diem.”
John Steinbeck, in his novel, East of Eden, wrote that, “It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.”
Constantly thinking about death should not only inspire us to seize the day, but also to do work that truly matters, work that is tied to a cause, not to our desire for applause.
Proper time management, it seems, is somehow intricately tied to us becoming intimate with our most human self, a self that wishes to have a positive impact on the world.
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.”
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 were 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:
- Complete the tasks you set for yourself.
- Fight off the distractions that are meant to discourage you from completing those tasks.
By going through this process of inversion you are effectively creating a plan of action that allows you to take full advantage of the time you allocate to a particular task or towards reaching a certain goal.
Say No to What Demands Too Much of Your Time
“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements—how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!”Seneca
One of the hardest things to do in life is to decline all the other people’s invitations and requests for time.
Most often than not, we fall prey to impulses we can’t quite understand. We waste time being angry over something that won’t matter five days from now, or we get excited to start a project we will forever abandon once the initial rush of adrenaline subsides.
If we’re not careful, these emotions will slowly consume all our time, as we become addicted to those negative impulses and emotions.
Start by learning to say no to whatever you feel might waste your time, whether it’s your own mind demanding attention over a negative emotion or a friend asking that you waste your precious time with them.
Indeed, it often feels like a balancing act, and you will feel, from time to time, as if you’re walking on tightrope trying to decide whether something is worth your time and mental energy or not.
It’s going to require a lot of hard work before you even begin to develop the instincts that will allow you to feel when something demands more time than you are willing to allocate it.
One of the best ways to develop this instinct is by becoming aware of how you feel after you’ve given something your time. We often feel a sharp pain of regret after we’ve wasted our time. Listen to this voice of regret. Become aware of what is trying to tell you.
Time is the most valuable commodity there is. No man can ever get it back once it’s spent. And yet, it’s the one commodity most people are quite okay with wasting.
To paraphrase Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga, 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 rulers Rome had ever seen, would have been more than aware of the fact that we shouldn’t take even a single 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 waste.
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.