There is one thing on Earth (at least in this part of the multiverse) that you can’t change, grow, or get more of—it’s called time.
Time has a built-in opportunity cost, because doing something is to the exclusion of doing something else. Where choosing one path takes you away from other pathways.
We live in the knowledge that all things have an end.
But in the moment of living itself, time is something that we give away too readily.
One thought experiment is particularly helpful in putting things into perspective. What would you do if you know that you only have one year to live? What would you do and why?
How about one month?
One week? Or even one day?
When we see things through this lens, we start to treat time in a different way.
“I don’t have the time”
Now, if you’re a lawyer or law student (or almost anyone really), time is important to you.
In Lawyer Land, time is so important that most lawyers calculate it by six-minute units. But this can create an odd situation where we value our “billable time” far more than time spent elsewhere. Let me explain.
A lawyer once told me a story about how they waited in line for lunch during a busy workday. As they waited, a random thought popped into their head, “This is costing me $250!” At that point, they had to stop themselves and think a bit about whether work was starting to define their life.
I can relate—and you may too.
The problem is that elsewhere, you might often find yourself saying, “I’m too busy for this” or “I don’t have the time”. If so, it might be worth assessing where your time is going to—and whether you’re happy about it.
Let’s travel back 2,000 years
This week, we look at the wisdom from Seneca (5 BC – 65 AD) in his writings: On the Shortness of Life and On Tranquility of Mind.
Believe it or not, it didn’t take long to be hooked.
First of all, Seneca is a pretty funny philosopher. He describes how humans were 2,000 years ago and how we are collectively… well, ridiculous. Some of his views are outdated for our time, but others are simply timeless (no pun intended). It also makes you realise that we humans haven’t evolved terribly quickly.
Seneca is also a practical philosopher. A lot of his writings apply to how we live life today. He gives us some valuable lessons that we can all take away on our journey through time.
1. We waste a lot of time
Y’all kidding!? Ok, I jest. But we do. Can you imagine how long life would be if we spent every minute in a conscious way?
Note that REST and SLEEP are not a waste of time. We often fall short on this because we waste time elsewhere.
“It’s 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.”
On the contrary:
“… when [time] is wasted in heedless luxury and no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.”
money time, anyone?
We protect our property, but we don’t do the same with time.
“You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
And it turns out that having pointless meetings (amongst other follies) is a millennia-old problem.
“I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response… as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being decided because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap—in fact, almost without any value.”
3. Live like it’s your last day
Seneca has a word of warning for the overachievers in us who think of nothing else but what the future holds. That maybe, just maybe, tomorrow will be better. Many lawyers are guilty of this and Seneca drops a special mention here.
“… That advocate is grabbed on every side throughout the forum, and fills the whole place with a huge crowd extending further than he can be heard: but he says, ‘When will vacation come?’ Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present.”
When will vacation come indeed! Instead, let’s aim to live life like it’s our very last day. With gratitude, and in the moment. Here’s Exhibit 1:
“But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organises every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day. For what new pleasures can any hour now bring him? He has tried everything, and enjoy everything to repletion.”
4. Don’t put things off
I love a good PRO-CRAS-TI-NATION. And I’m sure you do too.
Sometimes procrastination is wrapped up in organisation. It involves writing lists, long lists, maybe even longer lists for “when I get this done in the near distant future”. None of them will get done. You might only realise it when you reach the 100th item on your “To Do” list and none of it is getting crossed out. Ouch!
So what can we do about it?
Seneca has strong words for those of us who put things off into the near distant future. For example, busywork to distract ourselves from the most important work we should be focusing on. Or in the modern age, our ultra-long To-Do lists which only postpone the inevitable (or the never):
“Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But 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, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.”
Have something you always wanted to do? What’s stopping you? As they say, don’t aim for perfection—good enough is good to go.
5. Quit the FOMO a.k.a. “busy is the new stupid”
Oh gosh, I love this most. It describes modern society to a T. And with a bit of a spine chill, you realise that these words are echoing from 2,000 years ago:
“We must cut down on all this dashing about that a great many people indulge in, as they throng around houses and theatres and fora: they intrude into other people’s affairs, always giving the impression of being busy. If you ask one of them as he comes out of a house, ‘Where are you going? What do you have in mind?’ he will reply, ‘I really don’t know; but I’ll see some people, I’ll do something.’ They wander around aimlessly… and they do not [know] what they intended but what what they happen to run across.”
So how do we counteract this? One answer is to find purpose.
6. Live with purpose
When you let purpose—rather than the superficial—direct your every action, then we can spend our time in a more worthwhile way. Seneca provides clarity, saying that we should:
“… ensure that we do not waste our energies pointlessly or in pointless activities: that is, not to long either for what we cannot achieve, or for what, once gained, only makes us realise too late and after much exertion the futility of our desires.”
Purpose is different for everyone, but the vast body of philosophical works tells us that it’s often not what everyone else is chasing. On this note…
7. Be careful of what you wish for
Things always look glossier from the outside than when you’re looking inside out. Seneca issues a warning for those who chase titles and the corner office.
“Some men, after they have crawled through a thousand indignities to the supreme dignity, have been assailed by the gloomy thought that all their labours were but for the sake of an epitaph.”
Instead, live life that is true to yourself in the way that matters to you. And this is where philosophy comes in.
8. Philosophy is a path to immortality
OK Seneca, a bit of bias here! But 2,000 years on, I would tend to agree.
Philosophy is the oldest version of self-help. Most of what exists in self-help books these days are rehashes of what already exists in some form, often from Stoic philosophy.
Seneca makes a point that while we can’t choose the parents we’re born to, we can choose the philosophy in life that we subscribe to.
Go forth in your journey!