Putting things off is the biggest waste of life

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Seneca said that.

Here is the complete quote:

“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. You are arranging what lies in fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”


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Putting things off — not the productivity-related kind, but the existential kind — pursuing what truly matters to us and living our best lives, is one of the greatest obstacles to a meaningful life.

The reminder by Seneca to live immediately is thought-provoking. It’s one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books, On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. It’s uncomfortably relatable.

If you live up to 75 years, and you’re just 30, you only have about 16,425 days still left. We don’t have all the time in the world, but many people live as if they do. They are frugal with money, but not with time.

The insidious wasting of life takes place with the many seemingly small, harmless habits and decisions. The process is slow but the results are devastating.

Most people tend to focus on the past we can’t control, and the future we can’t predict. They often don’t realise how much time they are wasting until it’s too late. They are caught up in the same loop to even notice they are wasting life/time in the process.

They show up for their work obligations but they are truly absent from themselves, mistaking the doing for the being. And they always have a reason not to take the actions that help them make the most of life.

These urgent life concerns are more important now than ever — and they are hardly unique to our age. In fact, they go as far back as the record of human existence. In his insightful 2,000-year-old book, On the Shortness of Life, Seneca reminds us of what we already know but so easily forget:

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. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. 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.

Only a few people consciously live in the present every day. What you exchange even an hour of your day for matters in life.

Find clarity in life and live intentionally. In her collection of short essays, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard explains:

Are you intentional about how you spend your time? Do you postpone rich experiences because of a busy schedule?

You could do a billion things with your life. But if you’re unclear about the precise things you want in life, you’ll do a lot of unessential things and look back with regret.

Seneca wrote his 20-sections On the Shortness of Life in 49 CE, the year he returned to Rome from his exile in Corsica, as a moral essay addressed to his friend Paulinus. On living a busy life, he writes:

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile, death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.

The philosopher declares that we shackle ourselves to our labors, our professions. He shares a lot on how to appreciate life — and how to use it.

If you haven’t read it yet, go get it now.

It’s one of the most important books you will ever read about using the limited time you have on earth and living a meaningful life.

It’s the most definite call to action to live life now!
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately,” he says.

The only reality is now

Carpe diem! or ‘seize the day,’ in everything you choose to do.

The phrase was first uttered by the Roman poet Horace over 2,000 years ago. The message of carpe diem matters more than ever today.

Stop worrying about the future because you’re missing the best time of your life in the here and now. We can’t change the past and we certainly can’t predict the future. The only thing within your control is today.

The only important moment is the present moment. It’s natural to spend moments of thought in the past or in daydreams of the future.

The danger is getting caught in both worlds.

“We’re living in a world that contributes in a major way to mental fragmentation, disintegration, distraction, decoherence,” says B. Alan Wallace.

When your life is dictated by thoughts of the past and potential future outcomes, staying rooted in the present becomes increasingly rare. For anyone who is deeply worried about the future, here is Seneca’s piece of advice:

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… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. 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. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

In any situation in life you will find happiness if you are prepared to make light of your troubles and not let them distress you.

Consistently needing a reason to live your best life means you’re forever putting your life on hold, forever delaying the chance to live fully.

Closing thoughts

Don’t hustle your life along. The longing for the future and the weariness of the present is stopping you from living now.

Busy is a decision. Choose to live your best life now. Presence is more rewarding than busyness — the greatest distraction from living.

By choosing to not put things off in life — you are making a deliberate choice to show up for life, and open yourself to new opportunities.

This article first appeared on Medium