Shortness of Life

“It’s not that we have little time, but more that we waste a good deal of it.”


Do you get anxious about time and goal setting? I think most of us do…I do, I am not someone who easily gets stressed or anxious. However, now and then I get it, anxiety about time and working towards goals that I have set up for myself.

When I have experienced bereavement, as I have recently, it makes me reflect on my own life and how I am spending my time. It ignites my anxiety about time and goal setting. After having read passages in the past, I thought this was the right time to read Seneca’s Shortness of Life completely. Although I wish I had read this 5 years ago, it will definitely be something I will re-read on a regular basis. It is one of the best works that I have read on life and how to deal with time. People always complain how little time they have and how fast life is passing be. Is that so? Or are we just not making the best use of our time?

This is what Seneca, a Stoic philosopher, wrote in ‘On the Shortness of Life’ a letter to his friend, Paulinus, about time:

“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.”
Seneca. On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas) (pp. 1-2). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Printing press

Seneca wrote this almost 2000 years, before the industrial revolution and invention of the printing press. In today’s society we have more distractions than ever before. Technology firms use algorithms to give their users personal recommendations, which in return leads them to spend more time on their platform. To quote from The Economist special report on mass entertainment:”Technology has turned human distraction into its metrics of profit”*.

With the ease of use of online services like Netflix, binge watching has become a normal activity…Nobody really looks confused when you mention that you spent the weekend binge watching the new season of House of Cards. Just think about that for a second.. we complain about not having enough time, that we are too busy, and here we are spending 1 hour a day on Facebook and watching Netflix** for 2 hours a day, that accounts for 21(!) hours a week.

How much time do you spend on Netflix or Youtube? Try to track for a week how you spend your time, from commuting to work/school, exercise, social media, video games, internet, Netflix, etc.

Once you gain insight into how you spend your time, you can limit the time wasted. You will be surprised how much time you actually have.

“But among the worst offenders I count those who spend all their time in drinking and lust, for these are the worst preoccupations of all.”
Seneca. On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas) (p. 9). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Traces of alcohol have been found on a drinking cup from China that could be traced back 9,000 years.(National Geographic February 2017 issue cover story is about ’The birth of Booze, Our 9,000-year love affair with alcohol’) Alcohol has become part of our social life, whether you have glass of wine during dinner with family or go out for drinks with friends. There is not much wrong with drinking a glass or two of wine during dinner. Unfortunately most people don’t stick to just that. They can be in a situation where they feel pressure from friends/ colleagues to go out and drink alcohol  because it’s simply what is expected of them.. which then leads to drinking more than necessary. Who ever really sticks to just one or two drinks a night, or none at all? More than likely we drink more than planned and regret it the morning or day after. The negative health effects  of alcohol (over) consumption are well known, from sleep deprivation  to lack of energy, poor coordination, inability to focus etc. Still want that drink?

Recently I heard somebody reporting which Roman general first did this or that: Duilius first won a naval battle; Curius Dentatus first included elephants in a triumph. So far these facts, even if they do not contribute to real glory, at least are concerned with exemplary services to the state: such knowledge will not do us any good, but it interests us because of the appeal of these pointless facts. We can also excuse those who investigate who first persuaded the Romans to embark on a ship. That was Claudius, who for this reason was called Caudex because a structure linking several wooden planks was called in antiquity a caudex. Hence too the Law Tables are called codices, and even today the boats which carry provisions up the Tiber are called by the old-fashioned name codicariae. Doubtless too it is of some importance to know that Valerius Corvinus first conquered Messana, and was the first of the family of the Valerii to be surnamed Messana from the name of the captured city – the spelling of which was gradually corrupted in everyday speech to Messalla. Perhaps you will also allow someone to take seriously the fact that Lucius Sulla first exhibited lions loose in the Circus, though at other times they were shown in fetters, and that javelin-throwers were sent by King Bocchus to kill them. This too may be excused – but does it serve any good purpose? – to know that Pompey first exhibited in the Circus a fight involving eighteen elephants, pitting innocent men against them in a staged battle.
Seneca. On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas) (pp. 20-21). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Have you ever scrolled through your facebook news feed and clicked on articles with intriguing headers? Looking up useless facts, reading articles on news websites that are pure speculation, recycling old articles and rephrasing new ones from other sources with some added facts to get more clicks/readers. Websites like Buzzfeed and Business Insider get millions of visitors a month. If you look at the content you notice that most articles are just clickbait, even news sources such as Bloomberg have recommended articles at the end of their news articles:

You are intrigued by the headers, friends on facebook are sharing it, liking it, you get triggered, the source is questionable and you have your doubts about the articles reliability, however you curiosity wins over and you click on the link.

After reading the previous passage from Seneca it really struck me, I spend too much accumulating useless facts. I won’t be able to remember or recall what was in this article, it’s not important. Being able to distinguishing between reading to accumulate knowledge or useless facts is key.

Knowing how to read a book is important to get the most out of your books or articles that you read.
Before reading/buying a book: Glance over the title, go through the content page/index, read the introduction, scan through the chapters and read some passages.
What is the author trying to say?
What of it?
This is not only applicable for books, use it for video, audio (podcasts), magazines, etc. Ask yourself: Is this worth my valuable time?

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.
Seneca. On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas) (p. 13). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Life is divided into three periods, past, present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.
Seneca. On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas) (p. 15). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Still curious?

How do you avoid wasting time? Below are some  tricks to make better use of your time:

  • Set a reminder if you fall into the trap of distraction. For example: Trick yourself into remembering to focus on your goals when you’re about to get into your old habit, put the item that is important for you to get closer to your goals next to the TV (or on a prominent spot in your house), my ‘to read books’ are next to my TV, just in case…
  • Wake up earlier to get something done without having to worry about being disturbed. Keep in mind that if you get up earlier you should go to bed earlier as well.
  • Keep a daily journal on the most important tasks you want to accomplish that day and review them before going to bed, Benjamin Franklin used to ask himself two questions:
    • The morning question: “What good shall I do this day?”
    • The evening question: “What good have I done today?”

Here are some more links:  


Shortness of life book
Seneca  The Younger Literature – Free
How to be a Stoic – New Yorker
Tim Ferriss
Daily Stoic
Farnam Street – Seneca on The Shortness of Life

Time hacks: Wait But Why? 100 Blocks a day
Farnam Street – Seneca on saving time

Don’t Say ‘Maybe’ If You Want To Say ‘No’
The importance of saying NO:


Brain Pickings – Daniel Gilbert Happiness Future Self

Ted Talks – Dan Gilbert you are always changing

Farnam Street – On Shallowness

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, The suicide of Seneca (1871), Museo del Prado

*The Economist Feb 11-17 2017 The Attention Economy – Mass Entertainment special report

**The Economist Feb 11-17 2017 TV and Video – Mass Entertainment special report.