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Time Management: 6 Techniques From The Stoic Philosopher Seneca


“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”

― Seneca

Locked in prison by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) in Shakespeare’s Richard II, Richard II gives a haunting speech about his hopeless fate. One line stands out, as it captures perfectly, the reality of nearly every human being—indeed, it sounds like it was cribbed from Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life. 

“I wasted time,” Richard II says, “and now doth time waste me.”

We think that time is ours to waste. We even say, “We have two hours to kill” or speak of dead time between projects. The irony! Because time is the one that’s killing us. Each minute that passes is not just dead to us, it brings us closer to being dead. That’s what Richard II realizes in that prison cell. Only now is he realizing that each second that ticks by is a beat of his heart that he won’t get back, each ringing bell that marks the hour falls upon him like a blow. 

Seneca writes that we think life is short, when in reality we just waste it. The present moment—it is the most valuable thing you own. It is the only thing you have. Don’t waste it. Seize it. Live it. Below are some of the time techniques Seneca used to make the most of his time. Meditate on them. Come back to them often. But most importantly, apply them.

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Memento Mori: Remember That You Will Die

“This is our big mistake: to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.” – Seneca

Deep down, we all know we’re not going to live forever. But when that thought of our own death creeps to the surface, sparked by a news article or the death of someone close to us, we do everything possible to shut it out. We can’t wrap our brains around the fact that we will cease to exist and that, ultimately, the world will continue to move forward just as it was before we were born. The thought of this inspires so much panic and fear into our hearts that most of us resort to petty distractions. We binge-watch series after series, all in an effort to shut the thought of our own mortality out. Which is also, paradoxically, more wasting of the precious minutes we do have left.

The Stoics, however, made a practice of doing just the opposite. Rather than run from the thought of their own death, they actively confronted it every day. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” As a reminder that his time was running out and that he shouldn’t put off being a good person, or doing the things he needed to get done. It’s why we created our Memento Mori medallion. So we could have a physical reminder that death is inescapable and a way to constantly keep the scope of our lives in perspective. And to let the thought of our death inspire and energize us to seize every moment as it comes.

Value Your Time More Than Your Possessions

“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.” — Seneca

What’s ironic about this quote is that Seneca was one of the wealthiest men in Rome during his lifetime. What’s not ironic is that, despite his fabulous wealth, Seneca seemed to be mostly indifferent to it. In “On the Shortness of Life” he wrote “So 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.” And he also made a point of periodically depriving himself of the luxuries he had available (more on that below) so that his peace of mind would never come to depend on possessing them. By stripping away all the externals as often as he could, he made sure that he most valued the only thing he could truly lose and would never return, his time. Because Seneca knew that if he spent his time on the things that truly mattered; like reflection, bonding with friends and loved ones, important work, then the rest of his life would fall into place.

The clinical psychologist and professor Jordan Peterson encourages his students to look at their time in monetary terms. How much is your time worth to you? $25 an hour? $50 dollars an hour? Now how many of those hours a day do you waste? Peterson says that the majority of his students reported wasting between 4 and 6 hours a day. Most of them from improper study habits, mindless social-media scrolling, a youtube video here and there, and so forth. If you add this up, by the end of the year that’s between $25,000 and $100,000 a year in lost wages, depending on the number you chose.

If a stranger came up to you and asked you to borrow ten thousand dollars, you would almost certainly say no. The same goes for somebody asking to borrow your car or your laptop. When it comes to reading the tweets of complete strangers for five minutes, ten times a day? We think it’s perfectly fine, we can spare the time. But we forget, under the reign of our impulses, that time is the one thing we can never get back. And the ease with which it can be taken from us is precisely why we have to guard it so fiercely. It’s also why we need to give ourselves “time to learn something good and new, and cease to be whirled around,” in the words of Marcus Aurelius. Because it’s only by giving our time to the things that truly matter, by doing the deep work, that we can truly improve and be at peace.

Be Ruthless To The Things That Don’t Matter

“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements—how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” — Seneca

One of the hardest things to do in life is to say “No.” To invitations, to requests, to obligations, to the stuff that everyone else is doing. Even harder is saying no to certain time-consuming emotions: anger, excitement, distraction, obsession, lust. None of these impulses feels like a big deal by itself, but run amok, they become a commitment like anything else. If you’re not careful, these are precisely the impositions that will overwhelm and consume your life. Do you ever wonder how you can get some of your time back, how you can feel less busy? Start by learning the power of “No!”—as in “No, thank you,” and “No, I’m not going to get caught up in that,” and “No, I just can’t right now.” It may hurt some feelings. It may turn people off. It may take some hard work. But the more you say no to the things that don’t matter, the more you can say yes to the things that do. This will let you live and enjoy your life—the life that you want.

Put Your Day Up For Review

“Of all the people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live.”-Seneca

The common thread among Seneca and almost every other great thinker in history was the habit of reflection and a constant scrutinization of one’s character. The key word here is reflection. Because if we don’t make the time, even if it’s just ten minutes a day, to examine ourselves in as honest a way as possible, then we are doomed to continue repeating the same mistakes over and over again. There are many ways to do this but the one preferred by Seneca was journaling late at night. He wrote: “When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” finding that “the sleep which follows this self-examination” was particularly sweet. But he wasn’t the only one that adopted this practice.

Despite having the weight of an empire on his shoulders, Marcus Aurelius still managed to set apart some time for himself to reflect quietly and write in his journal, which is still read by and guiding people today. In it, he prepared for the day ahead of him and reflected on it in the evening. All in an effort to become better, more Stoic, and more resilient with each passing day. 

An added benefit of journaling is that you can use it for anything you like. If you’d like to get better at managing your time, for instance, then you can start keeping a log of what you do every day at the end of the day. Paying attention, particularly, to the moments where you’re more prone to waste time or get emotional and to the moments where you fell short on the promises that you made to yourself. In this way, you’ll learn from your mistakes, know exactly where you need to improve, and it’ll be much easier to chart your course towards the person that you want to be. And if you need some help getting started, feel free to check out our article on journaling, it provides a guide for everything you need to know to make journaling one of the best things you do for yourself.

Do It Now

“Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” — Seneca, Moral Letters, 1.2

There is laziness and then there is procrastination. The lazy never do what they’re supposed to do, for a multitude of reasons. It’s too hard, it takes too long, they don’t feel like it. Those prone to procrastination merely put things off. They tell themselves, “Oh, I’m definitely going to do it, but not right this second.” “I’ve got time later in the week.” This is most of us. We care about getting the important stuff done. Often we care so much it eats at us in the form of anxiety. Except we don’t want to do it right now (which only adds to the anxiety, of course), so we rationalize our procrastination and concoct perfect scenarios in our head about our future selves definitely doing it.

Seneca said we should always remember “fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.” Waiting not only increases the chance we don’t do it at all with life’s vagaries tendency to intervene, but we might not be so lucky as to have a tomorrow to postpone to. As Seneca wrote in The Shortness of Life, “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…The whole future lies in uncertainty: Live immediately.” If you want to make the most of your time, eliminate the sentence, “I’ll get to that later” from your lexicon. DO IT NOW.

What Time Off Is For

“Leisure without study is death—a tomb for the living person.” — Seneca

You deserve a vacation. You work hard. You sacrifice. You push yourself. It’s time for a break. Hop a plane, check into your hotel, and head to the beach—but tuck a book under your arm (and not a trashy beach read). Make sure you enjoy your relaxation like a poet—not idly but actively , observing the world around you, taking it all in, better understanding your place in the universe. Take a day off from work every now and then, but not a day off from learning.

Maybe your goal is to make enough money so that you can retire early. Good for you! But the purpose of retirement is not to live a life of indolence or to run out the clock, as easy as that might be to do. Rather, it’s to allow for the pursuit of your real calling now that a big distraction is out of the way. To sit around all day and do nothing? To watch endless amounts of television or simply travel from place to place so that you might cross locations off a checklist? That is not life. It’s not freedom either.



“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.” — Seneca

“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.” — Seneca

“Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all, – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.” – Seneca

“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

“Even though you seize the day, it still will flee; therefore, you must vie with time’s swiftness in the speed of using it, and, as from a torrent that rushes by and will not always flow, you must drink quickly.” — Seneca