Stop Wasting Time. 50 Reminders From One of History’s Most Powerful Figures

There’s an inconsistency that sneaks into our relationship with time. There never seems to be enough of it in the day. We’ll get to it later, we say. Maybe we say yes to too many things, maybe there’s comfort in pushing things to later, or maybe we’re just unaware that our priorities are misplaced. The Stoics talk about deciding what’s essential. They all do. Marcus Aurelius is relentless about it though.

Not born into the royal lineage, Marcus Aurelius was chosen for the throne. At a time when Rome was dealing with horrible plagues and foreign attacks, Marcus likely would have rathered the time to pursue his intellectual interests in subjects like Greek and Latin, but mostly, Stoicism. Still, he became Rome’s greatest leader.

Every night, Marcus Aurelius sat down to write. He decompressed, reviewed the day and decided how he could improve. Those writings survive to us today published as Meditations. He wrote incessantly about brevity, living presently, and identifying then removing nonessentials—reminders to live a good and full life.

We waste time, we busy ourselves, we prioritize trivialities. Marcus Aurelius weighed every sentence he spoke and every action he took with a question: “is this necessary?” When the answer to that question is exclusively, “yes,” you will have enough time in the day.

Below are 50 quotes from Meditations. They’re all reminders, originally to self, but now to us to make the most of this life, to expend time on only what is essential, to stop wasting time.

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[*] “Human life. Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “If you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Some things are rushing into existence, others out of it. Some of what now exists is already gone. Change and flux constantly remake the world, just as the incessant progression of time remakes eternity. We find ourselves in a river. Which of the things around us should we value when none of them can offer a firm foothold?” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Like an attachment to a sparrow: we glimpse it and it’s gone. And life itself: like the decoction of blood, the drawing in of air. We expel the power of breathing we drew in at birth (just yesterday or the day before), breathing it out like the air we exhale at each moment.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Concentrate every minute like a Roman–like a man–on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was–what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint. Like an olive that ripens and falls. Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Our lifetime is so brief. And to live it out in these circumstances, among these people, in this body? Nothing to get excited about. Consider the abyss of time past, the infinite future. Three days of life or three generations: what’s the difference?”

[*] “As for life, it is a battle and a sojourning in a strange land; but the fame that comes after is oblivion.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential–what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people–unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now–and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt. That to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “All that you see will soon have vanished, and those who see it vanish themselves, and the ones who reached old age have no advantage over the untimely dead.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Stop wandering about! You aren’t likely to read your own notebooks, or ancient histories, or the anthologies you’ve collected to enjoy in your old age. Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue-if you care for yourself at all-and do it while you can.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your thoughts, don’t wander. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive. In your life, don’t be all about business.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present‚thoughtfully, justly.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “That the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Remember how long you’ve been putting this off…that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Remember: Matter – How tiny your share of it. Time – how brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate – How small a role you play in it.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone–those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “The infinity of past and future gapes before us–a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share. Think about the expanse of time and how brief — almost momentary — the part marked for you. Think of the workings of fate and how infinitesimal your role.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’

— But it’s nicer in here…

So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

— But we have to sleep sometime …

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that — as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.”

[*] “Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Don’t let anything deter you…If it isn’t ceasing to live that you’re afraid of, but never beginning to live properly…then you’ll be worthy of the world that made you.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Concentrate on what can be lived (which means the present)…then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Were you to live three thousand years, or even a countless multiple of that, keep in mind that no one ever loses a life other than the one they are living, and no one ever lives a life other than the one they are losing.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Make time for yourself…stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time – even when hard at work.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “You are a little soul carrying about a corpse, as Epictetus used to say.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Remember how brief is the attentiveness required. And then our lives will end…None of us is forbidden to pursue our own good” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “When you lose your temper, or even feel irritated: that human life is very short. Before long all of us will be laid side by side.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “The fraction of infinity, of that vast abyss of time, allotted to each of us. Absorbed in an instant into eternity. The fraction of all substance, and all spirit. The fraction of the whole earth you crawl about on. Keep all that in mind.”

[*] “Constantly run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend…And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “That if you were suddenly lifted up and could see life and its variety from a vast height, and at the same time all the things around you, in the sky and beyond it, you’d see how pointless it is. And no matter how often you saw it, it would be the same life forms, the same life span.”

[*] “People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us–how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place…How many people there will be to admire you, and who they are.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a mortal…That everything you see will soon alter and cease to exist.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Stop drifting…Sprint to the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your own savior while you can.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.” Marcus Aurelius

[*] “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Marcus Aurelius