9 life lessons from Seneca on how to manage your time effectively

Photo: Kevin Ku

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, better known as Seneca (or Seneca the Younger), was a Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman, who became one of the most influential figures of the Roman Imperial Period.

Like most of us, Seneca’s life had its ups and downs, as he lived through drama, controversy, pain and sorrow.

In AD 54, when Nero became Roman Emperor, Seneca became his close advisor and enjoyed prosperity.

However, in AD 65, their relationship was severed.

Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide for his alleged involvement in a failed assassination attempt of the Emperor, even though he was likely to have been innocent.

Yet, even in the face of death, Seneca practiced his simple and elegant philosophy of stoicism.

He was said to be extremely calm whilst following the Ancient Roman suicide protocol: severing veins in order to bleed to death, and ingesting poison.

Today, over 2,000 years later, Seneca’s writings remain highly influential in Stoic philosophy.

Whilst Seneca tackled most key areas of life, including happiness, wealth, death and relationships, he is most quoted on his thoughts on making the most out of time in his essay, On The Shortness of Life.

Here are 9 key lessons we can learn from Seneca on how to manage time effectively.

Seneca on Time Management

1. Time is only short if you waste it

Whilst Seneca writes about the finite nature of time, he argues that it’s our wastefulness of time that makes it short:

“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’s thoughts run contrary to popular thinking that “time is short.” We have enough time to accomplish our goals and live an extraordinary life, as long as we treat time as our most precious resource.

As Seneca 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.”

Unlike money which can be squandered and regained, time is a precious resource we can never get back.

2. Create immediate rewards for long-term goals

In On the Shortness of Life (Audiobook), Seneca writes:

“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.”

Research has shown that procrastination is a by-product of the constant tension between our need for short-term gratification and plans for long-term goals. This phenomenon is described as “Present Bias.” [1]

In a nutshell, your brain imagines two versions of yourself: your present self and future self.

Whenever you create goals and envision a better future, you’re actually planning for your future self, who values discipline and long term rewards.

But when it comes time to take action, your present self—who values short term gratification—fights with your future self. And more times than not, it wins.

One of the best ways to counter this problem is to make the rewards from your long-term goals immediate.

For example, if you’d like to exercise more regularly, but you also enjoy socializing, you could sign up for gym classes or participate in team sports to immediately benefit from social rewards.

As another example, if you’d like to send write more, but you also enjoy browsing the web, you could create a plan to reward yourself with browsing the web, only after you write a fixed amount of words each day.

3. Contemplate Death

According to Seneca, the real reason why we waste so much of our time isn’t poor time management. It’s that we often forget that we are going to die:

“You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.”

Seneca argues that our perception of death affects how we live our lives.

The further away we perceive our death to be, the more likely we’ll take today for granted and waste valuable time.

4. Recognize that busyness is the ultimate distraction

Contrary to popular opinion, Seneca argues that busyness is an illusion of productivity that actually steals our valuable time:

“No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied…Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man, yet there is nothing which is harder to learn.”

We often blame external triggers—people, social media, emails—for our inability to stay focused and avoid distractions.

But in reality, it’s our internal state of emotions that influences our productivity.

Busyness is simply a symptom of a negative internal state of emotions. It’s the avoidance of much-needed solitude, and an escape from reality.

As Pascal also wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

5. Avoid wasting time planning for the future

Seneca argues that we waste too much time planning for the future, instead of living in the present.

He writes:

“Everyone hustles his life along and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who… organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.”

Often we postpone our happiness until the future, but Seneca argues that ironically this “future” we obsess about doesn’t exist—only the present does.

If instead, we plan and live each day as if it were our last, we can better enjoy today and prepare for tomorrow.

6. Don’t be overambitious

Seneca argues that obsessive pursuit of goals and achievement, will not only create a miserable life but also significantly shorten its length:

“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.”

This is the vice of the consumerist culture we live in today. We strive to work harder and longer, to acquire and achieve more things.

Yet, we experience more anxiety, burnout, stress and unhappiness, than previous generations before us.

We are victims of the trap of consumerism. The embodiment of materialism, as described by Chuck Palahniuk in his book, Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.”

7. Spend time reflecting on your past.

Most time management experts recommend that we focus on the present and plan for the future. But Seneca takes a different approach. He recommends that we focus on the past:

“But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”

Seneca argues that reflecting on events and lessons from your past will not only prevent time-wasting mistakes in the future, but also provide clarity on how to live a better life.

8. Prepare for the worst-case scenario

Whilst sharing his thoughts on the vice of procrastination, Seneca writes:

“While wasting our time hesitating and procrastinating, life goes on…”

Seneca suggests that one of the best ways to overcome procrastination is to practice what Stoics refer to as Premaditatio Malorum.

In layman’s terms, it’s simply visualizing what could go wrong in the future.

By planning ahead of the day for all possible worst case scenarios, you’re more likely to stay focused on your most important tasks and avoid time-wasting distractions.

9. Be true to yourself

Seneca argues that a life lived for others, isn’t a life lived at all:

“So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.”

When we’re young, we tend to settle for mediocre jobs, relationships, finances and so on, because we fear failure and worry about what others will think about us.

And when we’re old, we realize the folly of this thinking, but it’s too late to go back in time and live fully.

It’s no coincidence that the biggest regret of the dying is living the life others expect of us, instead of living a life true to ourselves.

Takeaway

Seneca’s words of wisdom are a powerful reminder to treat time as our most valuable, non-renewable resource.

They reveal a puzzling paradox in human life: we know that our time is limited, yet we live like it’s not. In a world of constant busyness, Seneca urges us to get off the hamster wheel of life and live each day like it’s our last.

As he wrote in On the Shortness of Life, “A whole lifetime is needed to learn how to live, and—perhaps you’ll find this more surprising—a whole lifetime is needed to learn how to die.”

This article first appeared on MayoOshin.com.

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares well-researched ideas for better habits, better decision-making and a better life. To get these ideas, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.
 His work has been featured in Business Insider, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, Quartz, Thrive Global and more.

Footnotes

1. O’Donoghue T, Rabin M (2015). “Present Bias: Lessons Learned and To Be Learned.” American Economic Review.

2. Laibson, D. (2015). Why Don’t Present-Biased Agents Make Commitments? American Economic Review.