October 30, 2020 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Appropriate action || Mindfulness || Seneca || Stoic Self-help ||

How to live a focused life: Five Stoic Strategies

Time is slipping away from us

Time is fleeting, moving faster than we realize. Listen to Seneca:

Just a moment ago that I sat as a young man in the school of the philosopher Sotion;

just a moment ago that I began to plead in courts;

just a moment ago that I lost the desire to plead; and,

just moment ago that I lost the ability.

The flight of time is infinitely swift, as those see more clearly when looking back.

— Seneca, Epistulae Morales, Letter 49)

Many of us drift through life and postpone living. We realize, when it is perhaps too late, that we have wasted our lives. Listen to Stephen Leacock:

How strange it is, our little procession of life. The child says, ‘when I am a big boy’. But what is that? The big boy says, ‘when I grow up’. And then, grown up, he says, ‘when I get married’. But to be married, what is that after all? The thought changes to, ‘when I retire’. And then when retirement comes, he looks back over the landscape traversed; a cold wind seems to sweep over it; somehow he has missed it all, and it is gone. Life, we learn too late, is in the living, in the tissue of every day and hour.

— Stephen Leacock, Feast of Stephen)

How can we avoid this? How do we participate in the festival of life instead of letting it pass us by? Stoics have some specific answers.

1. Stop wasting time, we don’t have enough of it

We waste our time unintentionally rather than deliberately. We don’t understand that the supply of time is limited. The fact is that when we don’t waste time, we may still not have enough time.

No matter how carefully we guard [time, there] is never quite enough even for necessary things. — Seneca, Epistulae Morales, Letter 49

Therefore, it is important that we make wise use of the time that is given to us.

2. Have a consistent vision and get rid of superfluous things

Bur why do we waste so much time? It’s because we don’t have a consistent vision. When we do not have a clear vision of where we want to go, we are likely to stay where we are. Alternatively, we are likely distracted by every shiny object we come across. Either way, our life goes out of our control.

Many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied … some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn. — Seneca, Epistulae Morales, Letter 49

How do we avoid this? How to have a productive life? According to Seneca, we can avoid inaction and useless activity by having a clear and consistent vision.

See clearly for yourself what is necessary and what is superfluous. — Seneca, Epistulae Morales, Letter 110

Look to your goal in everything you do and then you will get rid of superfluous things.

Having a consistent vision is key. When we have a consistent vision, we will know what to do with our time.

3. Avoid busywork

However, activity for activity’s sake is destructive. It shows that our minds are restless and not at ease. Filling our time with activities that serve no purpose is useless.

A love of ceaseless activity is not diligence. It is just the restlessness of a driven mind. — Seneca, Epistulae Morales, 3)

An agitated mind is not the same as an active mind. We should differentiate useless activities from focused actions. Focused actions are those actions that are consistent with our vision as opposed to ‘activities’ which are done for the sake of keeping ourselves busy.

4. Focus on what needs to be done today

One of the reasons why people are not productive is that they are worried about the future. But if we concentrate on what needs to be done today, we don’t have to worry about what tomorrow might bring.

Devote yourself to what should be done today, and you will not have to depend so much on tomorrow. — Seneca, Epistulae Morales I.13, Tr. Richard Gummere)

If we take care of today, tomorrow will take care of itself. So, the only day we have to be concerned about is today and what needs to be done today.

5. Be flexible

Just because you have a plan doesn’t mean that you should be rigid. You should stand by your plan only if it is a sound one. Otherwise, you should be flexible enough to change it if circumstances change or if you were wrong to begin with.

“We must stick with a decision.”

“That applies only to a sound decision, not to any decision.” — Epictetus, Discourses II.15 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Choices, Ch. 15

At the same, we should not change our minds because we are fickle.

We should not be afraid to change either our purpose or our position — as long as we don’t let that flexibility become fickleness. — Seneca, Moral Essays II.267