Seneca's Ancient Tips for Protecting Your Time

Jon Hawkins

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Seneca is an ancient thinker like no other, and it’s rare that words spoken thousands of years ago remain so relevant today.

As a key-figure of the Roman Imperial Period, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (also known as “Seneca the young” (c. 4 BC-AD 65)) made a permanent impression on the teachings of Stoicism. He did so by letting his experiences and vulnerabilities guide his teachings — frequently reflecting on his violent emotions along with the negative impacts of his ambition and desires.

But Seneca wasn’t perfect. The literature indicates that he was accused of adultery with Emperor Caligula’s sister and exiled from Rome.

Regardless of whether those accusations are true, his character was a work in progress: his teachings outline the personal reflections and life that he strived to have. One that his peers believed he could achieve. Evident from the fact that, despite his alleged flaws, he was later welcomed back to the city as an advisor of Nero (the fifth Roman Emperor).

Around 65 AD, Gaius Calpurnius Piso was caught trying to assassinate the emperor. Somehow tangled up in this web of deceit, Seneca was ordered to commit suicide, to which he calmly obliged.

Despite such controversy, Seneca’s teachings are still widely taught today. After years of neglect, his thoughts played a vital role in the rejuvenation and modernization of Stoic teachings. Further still, his works have shaped several of today’s philosophical genres.

How did one man make such a lasting impression? In part, we can put it down to his attitude towards time management. Here are vital aphorisms that allowed Seneca the time to become one of Greece’s most influential thinkers.

1. Don’t Be Overly Ambitious

From a young age, we’re taught to be the best version of ourselves. We strive to reach our full potential. We chase our dreams. Some of us dedicate our lives to achieving them, and we don’t stop until we get there.

Most of us assume working hard, staying focused, and persevering will help us attain the things we desire. But, while that is true in some cases, ambition should be taken in moderation.

Seeing this ambition-driven trait in his peers, Seneca learned that over-ambition is detrimental to our goals and well-being. This is because it sucks up and wastes our valuable time:

  • We spend our time planning, chasing, and thinking about the end results. And that leaves little room to enjoy the present.
  • We get caught in a vicious cycle of constantly searching for more power and status. Once we’ve achieved our current goal, we raise the benchmark and choose another. The end result is never achieved, and we waste our life working to the bone.
  • Whenever we do achieve something, we waste our time anxiously trying to protect and keep hold of it.

In the words of Seneca himself:

“It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it”

Rather than wasting our time on such artificial pursuits, Stoicism teaches us to follow our ambitions in moderation. To utilize our passions and drives, but not be consumed by power and greed. It also teaches us to stop and appreciate the things we do have and reflect on the things already achieved.

Unfortunately, Seneca didn’t always practice what he preached. On one interpretation, it was his love for power and money (and perhaps lack of principles) that led him to become Nero’s advisor (known as a tyrannical emperor inflicting a reign of terror). It was this choice that enabled him to acquire immense wealth, but also lead to his downfall and death.

We face similar vices and temptations today as Seneca did thousands of years ago. In a consumerist society, it can be quite easy to fall into working long, hard hours, acquiring things we don’t really want, to impress people we don’t even like.

Learn from Seneca’s teachings and experiences. Don’t waste your life chasing pointless pursuits. Be selective with your time. Let your principles guide you. Remember: ignoring your values in pursuit of power and money could be your downfall.

2. Protect Your Time, Not Possessions

Despite acquiring large amounts of wealth, some believe Seneca was completely indifferent to it. At times, he seemed to deliberately deprive himself of his luxuries, to help cultivate peace of mind separate from them.

Sadly, those around him didn’t carry the same attitude toward their possessions. In The Shortness of Life, he wrote:

“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.”

Time is the one thing that, once gone, we can never get back. The average person spends 28,835 days on Earth. The clock is ticking, and every moment that passes takes you one step closer to your death bed.

Yet we waste our time on the things that don’t matter. We will happily spend hours bickering trying to prove a point to someone who isn’t listening. Yet we viciously protect our money and possessions. Why? When they can easily be replaced.

Stop worrying about possessions, and concern yourself with the irreplaceable. Make the most of your time. Guard it with your life. Pursue only the actions and choices that you truly desire.

By stripping away all external distractions, Seneca was able to make the most of his time — focusing on the things that really mattered: like self-reflection, and bonding with friends and loved ones.

Maybe you should take a leaf out of his book. Stop scrimping and saving, so you can afford the latest tech. Instead, invest your time into the things you actually care about beyond a surface level.

3. Stop Existing, Start Living

To quote Seneca:

“So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, but existed for a long time.” — (The Shortness of Life)

Each of us carries our own set of desires. We can picture our ideal job, our dream relationship, or our perfect home destination. But most of us don’t get there: not because we don’t have the ability to get there, but because we’re too busy working a job we don’t like, in order to pay the bills. Or we marry someone we don’t really love because we’re scared of being alone.

We tell ourselves that we’re too busy to pursue meaningful tasks, because we spend our days ticking off pointless tasks we don’t care about, to sustain a life we don’t really want.

For Seneca, this is an example of existing, not living. Rather than taking control of our lives, we allow ourselves to fall victim to the busywork of daily life: things we don’t really care about, but feel like we must pursue.

Stop coasting through your life; completing your obligations, and neglecting your true desires. Instead, invest your time into shaping a life you want to live.

If you had more time, what would you do with it? If you could change one thing about your life, what would you change? Use the answers to these questions, to guide your desires and choices.

Don’t confuse “existing” for “living,” and “doing” with “being.” No man who coasts through life neglecting his desires will feel truly fulfilled on his death bed.

Memento Mori

One of the main reasons we’re happy to coast through life is because we can’t comprehend just how short it is. Rather than valuing every second, we let time slip by.

Knowing just how precious our life on earth is, Stoic philosophy teaches us to face death head-on. They teach us to embrace Memento Mori (“remember that you will die”).

A lot of us shy away from our impending death. It sparks fear and panic in us. When we experience death close to us, we rarely acknowledge that one day people will be attending our funeral.

Stoicism tells us to embrace the uncontrollable. We are mortal beings, but we have been blessed with time on Earth. Memento Mori is a reminder that any day on Earth could be our last — so we should stop putting things off, and start living for today.

Death is inescapable. Compared to the history of the Universe, our time here is incredibly short. Remembering puts things into perspective — and puts a greater weight on each second that passes us by.

The Takeaway

Despite a life of controversy, Seneca’s teachings are still widely taught today. After years of neglect, his words played a vital role in rejuvenating the Stoic school of thought.

How did one man make such a large impact in just one lifetime? In part, Seneca owes it to his views on time:

  1. Don’t be overly ambitious. Stop working to the bone for things that you don’t truly desire. Avoid the vicious cycle of chasing the unattainable. Instead, aim your time at the things you value, appreciate the present moment, and enjoy the journey to your destination.
  2. Protect your time, not possessions. Stop putting so much emphasis on things that are replaceable, and instead put more emphasis on your time. Stop giving out such a valuable resource for free.
  3. Stop existing and start living. Stop drifting through life, dedicating it to a job you don’t like all to maintain a life you can’t stand. Instead, set as much time aside to work on attaining the things you truly desire.

Rather than being controlled by your environment, following these steps will enable you to create a meaningful life guided by your values and your desires — just as Seneca strived to.

In his own words:

“Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.”

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.

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