17 Lessons On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
It’s not that we don’t have enough time, but that we squander it.
1. It’s not that we don’t have enough time, but that we squander it.
The absolute amount of time we have on Earth isn’t the issue. It’s easy to think that more time is all we need to live our lives to the fullest. However, Seneca points out that math isn’t the problem, but that we waste time on the wrong things.
“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.”
2. Existing =|= Living
Even if someone is deemed old counted by a calendar, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve lived all that long.
“there is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles; he has not lived long—he has existed long.”
3. Busy =|= Productive
It’s possible to waste a plenty of time acting busy while still managing to get nothing done.
“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing harder to learn.”
4. Idle =|= Relaxed
An idle man may look like he’s relaxing but internally has no peace. One can worry themselves away even in solitude. When you work, work. When you relax, relax.
“Even the leisure of some men is engrossed; in their villa or on their couch, in the midst of solitude, although they have withdrawn from all others, they themselves are the source of their own worry; we should say that these are living, not in leisure, but in busy idleness.”
5. We must move quickly because time moves quickly.
Anyone who has looked at their watch at 11:00 am only to realize they haven’t even started their day knows how quickly time can pass without our noticing. If we want to keep up with time, we must work urgently and take control of our days.
“Unless you seize the day, it flees… you must vie with time’s swiftness in the speed of using it, and, as from a torrent that rushes by and will not always flow, you must drink quickly.”
6. Time moves silently
Not only is time quick, but also silent–the ultimate ninja. It will never announce to us how fast it’s passing. There’s no way to stop it’s inevitable march forward.
“Life… will make no noise, it will not remind you of its swiftness. Silent it will glide on; it will not prolong itself at the command of a king, or at the applause of the populace.” (16)
7. Time is the one true nonrenewable resource
Time is our one truly nonrenewable, finite resource in life. Money can be replenished. Time cannot. Natural resources will grow back. Time will not. Thus, it makes sense to value time more than money.
“No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal.”
8. Beware of deferred life
Procrastination in any form is dangerous. Putting off living the life we really want until we’ve reached some imaginary milestone (e.g. enough money, retirement, etc.) foolish because there’s no guarantee we’ll live that long.
“postponment is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from the present by promising something hereafter. The greatest hinderance to living is expectancy.”
9. Beware of time wasters
Seneca teaches us the main time wasters to watch out for:
Vices: Money, work, alcohol, the opinions of others, greed, ambition, and war (ie. paranaoia that someone will hurt you). Seneca says wine and lust are especially dishonorable because they take up so much time and have such little or even negative returns.
“how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much [time] was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you”
Hedonic Treadmill: The Hedonic treadmill will steal your money, but more importantly it will steal your time. Accumulating things may make you unhappier not because they’re inherently bad, but because once you attain things, you also attain the fear of losing them.
“even their joys are uneasy from fear…All the greatest blessings are a source of anxiety.”
“What is doomed to perish brings pleasure to no one; very wretched, therefore, and not merely short, must the life of those be who work hard to gain what they must work harder to keep.”
The more powerful you are, the less freedom you have. Your time is taken up by other people’s problems and you don’t have a choice in the matter if you want to keep your power. Don’t envy the famous and powerful because…
“those things are bought at the price of life” and “they have but toiled for an inscription on a tomb”
10. Time Waster vs. Time Master
“Has some time passed by? This he embraces by recollection. Is time present? This he uses. Is it still to come? This he anticipates. He makes his life long by combining all times into one.”
“But those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and troubled.”
“They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.”
11. Plan each day as if it were your last
Seneca doesn’t say “live” each day as if it were your last. “Plan” is the specific verb. This shuts down YOLO thinking. When I hear the advice, “Live each day as if it were your last,” I think about jetting off to some tropical location to have a night of debauchery. However, if we’re to plan for each day as if it were our last, then we consider things beyond ourselves like family, friends, and legacy.
“Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.”
Act as if you were a soldier about to be deployed. They know they may not come back. They know every day could very well be their last, but they don’t fly to Los Cabos and go berserk. No; they get their affairs in order, make sure their family is taken care of, and take care to be extra present with the people they love the day before they leave.
12. Have a fixed plan for the day
Without a plan, it’s so easy to let the days pass you by. When you look back on your life, how many days did you actually spend with a fixed plan, as you intended, freely as you chose? If you’re like me, probably few.
“Many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn-so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of the utterance which the greatest poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.”
13. Reflect on how you used your time
At the end of each day, ask yourself how you used your time. Were you productive or wasteful? Present or distracted?
“It is better to have knowledge of the ledger of one’s own life than of the corn market.”
14. Keep death in view (Memento Mori)
I know it’s morbid, but build reminders of death into your life. Decorate your surroundings with skulls if that’s what it takes. Forget wasting time, what you’re really wasting is life. When someone takes your time, or when you waste your own, you’re being robbed of precious life.
“you allow it [time] to slip away as if it were something superfluous and that could be replaced.”
15. Become a philosopher
Stand on the shoulders of giants. Learn from the great minds of history who have already wrestled with the problems you are facing today. No need to reinvent the wheel.
“we have access to all ages.” (especially true now with the internet)
16. Why become a philosopher?
If you want to live well, you have to study what it even means to live well. We should study history and philosophy not so we can sound smart or spout off facts, but so we can become with friends with the great minds of the past. We don’t chose our parents or our households, but we can adopt whatever intellectual households we choose. People have already wrestled with the problems you’re facing right now and they wrote down the answers, usually in books.
“[those who make time for philosophy] annex every age to their own; all the years that have gone before them are an addition to their store.”
17. Learn how to die
Above all, remember: learning how to use time well takes a whole lifetime, but how you spend your time is worth examining so you can figure out how to protect it.
“it takes the whole of life to learn how to die.”
Cover Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash