Life Isn’t Short, We Make It So

So often do men deplore the time which so hastily slips through their fingers; “ars longa, vita brevis,” writes Hippocrates, the ancient physician. Chaucer, the late-medieval author, echoes such woes: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” Why did you cease to study that language, why did you abandon that project?–– “Oh, I just didn’t have the time.” And yet, we are all endowed with the same 1,440 minutes a day.

“No one values time: all use it more than lavishly, as if it costs nothing,” writes Seneca in On the Shortness of Life. “But if mortal danger threatens them,” he continues, “you’ll see the same people clasping their doctors’ knees; if they fear a capital charge, you’ll see them ready to spend all they have to stay alive. So great is the conflict in their feelings.”

We fail to properly value time because it is not material; yet, this failure has been the cause of deep, deep regret among many in their final hours. Learn from the errors of those who came before you, so that when death comes, you may say that you have lived.

Look back and recall when you were ever sure of your purpose; how few days turned out as you’d intended; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face showed its own expression; when your mind was free from disturbance; what accomplishment you can claim in such a long life; how many have plundered your existence without your being aware of what you were losing; how much time has been lost to groundless anguish, foolish pleasure, greedy desire, the charms of society; how little is left to you from your own store of time. You’ll come to realize that you’re dying before your time.

Even those holding the highest offices, praised by the masses, do so dearly yearn for a day to themselves. Augustus, the great and powerful Roman emperor, persistently longed for a few moments of piece and quiet, of veritable leisure. The years that slip by are thus worth more than the billions, the crowds chanting your name, or the momentary rushes of lust. We must realize that time really is our greatest asset, and we must adjust our sails to treat it so.

That is not to say: shun the respect of others, shun all fortune, and shun all fun. The freedom and peace of mind brought about by abundance allow us to maximize our time, and a hearty laugh among friends enriches the enjoyment of our time. But be very clear and honest about the goals you are spending your time to perhaps one day achieve; for you are spending your greatest asset. Understand, furthermore, that every effort should come down to maximizing our time and the quality thereof.

Though, travelers beware. Don’t fall into the trapped of living for the future, for one day your present will end and with it the future. Or, perhaps, after decades of living for the future, you have only a few years to enjoy the fruits of your labor; and you can only enjoy it in old age, not your fiery youth.

Note well the snare which lays on the path ahead.

They are too busily preoccupied with efforts to live better; they plan out their lives at the expense of life itself. They form their purposes with the distant future in mind. Yet the greatest waste of life lies in postponement: it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future. The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies on tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune’s hand but let slip what’s in your own hand. What are you aiming at? What’s your goal? All that’s to come lies in uncertainty: live right now.

“If you don’t seize the day it slips away,” writes an unnamed poet mentioned by Seneca. The free man, the man who governs himself, will “always enjoy complete and unalloyed liberty. Not subject to any constraints, he will be his own master and tower above all others.” This is the man who uses his time wisely to live a long life in the same amount of hours others live a short one.

Everyone sends his life racing headlong and suffers from a longing for the future, a loathing of the present. But the person who devotes every second of his time to his own needs and who organizes each day as if it were a complete life neither longs for nor is afraid of the next day. For what new kind of pleasure is there that any hour can now bring? Everything has been experienced, everything enjoyed to the full. For the rest, fortune may make arrangements as it wishes; his life has already reached safety. Addition can be made to this life, but nothing taken away from it-and addition made in the way that a man who is already satisfied and full takes a portion of food which he doesn’t crave and yet has room for.

Therefore, schedule your days like you’d schedule a life. A happy life is merely a sequence of happy days, and a fulfilling life is merely a sequences of fulfilling days. Your truest values are reflected in how you spend each passing how. Work is necessary to sustain ourselves, and we should live in abundance past our means –– but, those means need not be very demanding! Seneca believes very strongly in entrepreneurship; he shows great disdain for those allowing others to regulate their time for them. These people are whores of the divine endowment, and they must escape the cycle and find fulfilling, self-directed work as soon as possible. Easier said than done, but if a man wants to live a life of his own, this is what he must do.

For what can there be above the man who rises above fortune?

It is very easy to read philosophy or self-improvement material like this, shrug your shoulders and say, “that’s a nice concept, now back to real life.” “Nothing will change unless you change,” as Jim Rohn loved to say.

What are some actionable steps we can take right now to start moving in the direction of a life which does not slip through our fingers and which does not pass tiredly like a deep and steady slumber?

Follow these steps to apply the aforementioned wisdom. Being exposed to such wisdom and not properly using it is an insult to those who have gone before us.


1. Awake from your Slumber

Examine your life and present arrangements to determine whether or not you are letting life pass you by. More often than not, there question is not whether or not, but to what degree.

Use a notebook or the notes app on your phone to record each passing hour of your day. If you’re tech-savvy enough you can set a notification to alert you at the start of each our to record how you spent the past 60 minutes of your life. Do this for several days. This will be a very irritating chore, but it opens your eyes to how poorly you’ve been spending your time.

I was amazed when I first did this. I found that I was spending over three hours on my phone every day, in ten to fifteen minute segments throughout tasks. Subconsciously I would justify it, “I’m reading the news,” I would tell myself. I broke the habit by asking myself how much value spending three-plus hours on my phone added to my life, and what I could do with those three hours. Imagine what some departed souls would give for just three hours a day in our world today!

I also found a significant amount of my day was spent fulfilling obligations and completing tasks for others; little promises to show up to an event, or to do a “quick” favor, which like a covert agent sabotaged my day. I finally mustered up the courage to start saying “no,” and I am using the newfound time for leisure and personal development.

2. Command your Day

Step two involves planning your day and organizing your time. I used to wake up and just “see where the day takes me.” I’d coast by, but it was no way to live. I’d hectically jump from task to task and stay up late completing essential work. Add in some procrastination, low quality work, and a general lack of enthusiasm, and you’ll come up with a perfectly-average formula for a perfectly-mediocre life. “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” observes Ben Franklin.

As per the advice of Seneca, I started taking command of my life. At first I would plan my entire day the night before. Things would come up, however, and by afternoon I more-or-less threw out my scribbles from the night before.

Try scheduling an entire day and see how it goes. If that doesn’t work, schedule the individual segments of your day (e.g. in the morning tackle waking up – finishing classes, then tackle the evening to bed time). If not, schedule hour-by-hour. I’m at the point where I can schedule and follow-through for most of my day, but as of yet I’m having trouble predicting my moods and what might come up to schedule and complete an entire day.

Eventually, you can schedule your week, and then, loosely, maybe even your month. Schedule in moments of leisure everyday, and often, so as to not overlook the present. Then, savor these moments knowing that your past-self scheduled in relaxation and pursuit of hobbies as well as bread-winning. A little known fact is that history’s greatest of men were meticulous planners. They knew they needed to command life, lest they be commanded by life.

3. Rise Above Fortune

Seneca advises that we become men and women who are abundant in fulfilling their needs and desires. This applies to all areas in life. Whatever fortune gives, then, is merely a bonus.

In pragmatic application, this means, for example, that one should be emotionally secure with himself. He should thoroughly enjoy spending time with himself. Any friends and partners fortune provides is merely a bonus.

Work to create a source of reliable income which takes minimal time, or which you enjoyably maintain. For some this is passive income through affiliate marketing, for some this is freelancing on a laptop while traveling the world, and for others this is clocking in your hours at the office where you get your work done in an hour and spend the rest of your shift secretly at leisure, or working on your next online business.

In short, do not rely on fortune. Independence and freedom has never been easier in the modern world of possibilities, and we would dishonor ourselves, and our ancestors, if we did not seize the day, lest it slip away.