The Stoic’s guide to time

One of the hallmarks of our work future is time. As we offload more mundane and repeatable tasks to machines, we’ll be rewarded with more time to focus on the things that we do best as humans. But how should we spend that time? What should we do to make sure we don’t squander the defining gift of the AI era?

We can find some answers in the teachings of the Stoics, a group of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who were concerned with how best to live life. Their writings have experienced a resurgence over the past few years, especially in entrepreneurial circles, in part due to author Ryan Holiday, who has written a handful of best-selling books on applying stoicism to modern life. It turns out that the Stoics have a fair amount to say about time and how to use it.

Though Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, one of the leaders of the Stoic movement, lived 2,000 years ago, his writings have a lot of relevance for our Millennial problems. The world Seneca knew lacked mobile phones and email, office buildings and conference calls, but his teachings can nonetheless help us navigate the future of work.

Guard your time

“We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” — Seneca

Seneca recognized that time is one thing no one can replace. Even now, when we no longer have to endure tedious tasks like updating spreadsheets and scheduling meetings, we still waste time. We take on commitments that we can’t sustain, we say yes to projects that don’t move the needle, we let others distract us (something that big tech companies have baked into their business models). But time is something you can’t ever get back. Seneca advises that we should treat our time with the same reverence we treat our material things. You wouldn’t give away your money without careful consideration, so don’t give away your time.

The Stoics were also a rather morbid bunch. They ruminated about death often, though they did so as a way of driving home the value of life. As Seneca wrote in his essay On the Shortness of Life: “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.”

Here again, Seneca is pointing out the priceless nature of time. We only get a limited amount. Since finitude is a tough concept to internalize, Seneca makes an example of his friends who hurry through life, hoping to reach a future time when they’ll finally attend to their passions. “Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present,” he observed. But what guarantee of the future exists? Why reserve your plans for what Seneca called a future “remnant of life” when you have time now? Treat all your time with equal regard.

Use your time well

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” — Seneca

This one may feel obvious, but it’s an important lesson. Guarding your time is only half the battle: you need to spend what you have wisely. But how? Another Stoic master, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, offers some thoughts.

“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,” he wrote in Meditations. Aurelius advises us to stay focused on the big picture. Don’t get caught up by small things and minutiae at the expense of moving toward your goals. On a practical level, that means evaluating commitments through the lens of how they impact your long term plans.

Aurelius also counsels that we should try to stay positive. “The happiness of your life,” he wrote, “depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” That echoes another line of his: “A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, ‘And why were such things made in the world?’”

In other words: shit happens, but don’t let that derail your plans and eat away at your precious time.

Much of Stoic philosophy is concerned with conscious perception. Time, like our emotions, is perceived within in our minds, and that perception is within our control. Aurelius is keying in on that point: if time doesn’t exist outside our perception of reality, then we are fully able to seize control of our time and make of it what we want. Time and mind are one, so a positive mind will lead to constructively used time.

Avoid procrastination

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca

There’s that Stoic morbidity again, but here Seneca is saying: Life’s too short to put things off. If the gift of the future of work is more time to focus on the things that make us human, then the worst way we could spend that extra time is by avoiding things we should be doing.

Procrastination is an enemy of using your time well. Once you’ve figured out what those things are that keep you moving toward your goal, you should act on them. As Seneca says, you won’t regret the time you put into doing your life’s work, but you will certainly lament the time you wasted avoiding it.

Keep in mind that procrastination isn’t the same as planned delay, which can be good for creativity. Though many people believe they work best under pressure, just as a deadline approaches, the research doesn’t support this. As procrastination researcher Dr. Timothy Pychyl notes, while all procrastination is delay, not all delay is procrastination. Taking a break, or giving yourself some distance in the middle of a project can create the space necessary for better incubation of ideas and lead to better results, even if it causes you to bump up against a deadline.

“Many kinds of delay in our lives are strategic and beneficial, and many others are inevitable and benign,” writes Pychyl. “In contrast, procrastination is that particular form of delay which captures our self-regulatory failure, where we fail to act as intended even though we are aware that this delay will probably come at a cost.” It is the willful self-sabotage of procrastination that Seneca warns against.

Keep your mind fresh

“The mind must be given relaxation; it will arise better and keener after resting. As rich fields must not be forced—for their productiveness, if they have no rest, will quickly exhaust them—so constant labor will break the vigor of the mind, but if it is released and relaxed a little while, it will recover its powers.” — Seneca

Seneca was a big believer in the idea that your mind must be nurtured. One of the things he prescribed was rest and relaxation. While that might seem to run contrary to the idea of using your time well—if you have extra time to work, isn’t relaxing a waste of it?—that’s not actually true.

It turns out that Seneca was about a millennia ahead of his time, because recent studies have shown that frequent breaks keep your brain agile and creative (and they also make you more productive). If you take all the time afforded to you by AI and automation and cram it full of work without end, you likely won’t end up with good results. That’s just not how the human mind is built.

Instead, follow Seneca’s advice and take some time to rest and reflect. Build regular breaks into your work day, and maybe even go for a walk, another thing Seneca recommends: “We ought to take outdoor walks in order that the mind may be strengthened and refreshed by the open air and much breathing.” (He was right about this one, too!)


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