Seneca: How to Overcome Procrastination
In AD 65, Seneca the Younger was forced to take his own life by the Roman Emperor Nero.
The reason for Seneca’s execution was his perceived involvement in a failed assassination attempt of the Emperor. He was made to sever his own veins while ingesting poison.
Today, Nero is remembered as a tyrannical figure in history, and the reality of Seneca’s involvement in such a plot is highly disputed. There is no evidence that he harbored any such plan. He’s most commonly remembered as a teacher of Stoic philosophy.
The reason for his long-standing popularity is the applicability of his work. He said the profound simply and elegantly, and every sentence he wrote still feels vivid and real.
In fact, even in the face of death, it is said that Seneca was calm and intentional. He lived what he preached, and he accepted his reality as best as one can hope in such a situation.
While his work touched on almost every facet of life — from grief and poverty to happiness and wealth — he is perhaps most remembered for his piercing thoughts on the value of time.
This wisdom is especially timely today. In a world dominated by distractions, we are increasingly getting out of touch with our ability to direct ourselves to where it matters most.
Procrastination, in particular, is becoming easier. While it’s subtle in its occurrence, it is one of the biggest sources of dissatisfaction for many of us. Fortunately, Seneca’s wisdom gives us some crucial insight on how to beat it.
Here is what we can learn.
1. Internalize the Cost of Wasted Time
If you live to be 85, you get — give or take — 1,000 months. That’s roughly 4,400 weeks. If you want to break it down into individual days, you have something in the range of 31,000 days.
Depending on how far along you currently are, those numbers are naturally even more finite.
And yet, it’s not exactly a short time. If you think about your ideal year and the amount that you can accomplish and experience in just that time, then it becomes clear that, for most of us that are fortunate enough to live a relatively normal life, time itself is quite abundant.
Seneca brilliantly echoes this in his masterpiece On the Shortness of Life:
“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… 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.”
Another way to think about this is by visualizing two states of being that you occupy with the passage of time. At any given point, as time goes on, you’re either living, or you’re dying.
If in the time that’s passed, you did something that aligns with who you are and what you want to become, then that time has been lived. If in that same time, you procrastinated or otherwise wasted your chance to do something with intent, then you’ve been brought closer to death.
Naturally, not all procrastination is bad. Nor does this mean that you can’t let go for a moment.
It’s just a reminder to pay attention. When time is gone, it doesn’t come back. How you use it either adds something to the memory that you have of life, or it makes your life shorter.
2. Prepare to Fight It Before It Occurs
Keeping mental (or physical) record of your “alive time” and your “dead time” is a good place to start, but it’s worth understanding why procrastination and time wastage is so natural.
There are essentially two parts of you. Your Current Self and your Future Self. Your Current Self is reading this sentence right now, and it cares about maximizing present comfort. Your Future Self, however, is in the back of the mind and has many other responsibilities, too.
Procrastination occurs when the conflict between the short-term gratification of impulses (to lounge around and do nothing, for example) and the long-term commitments you have (like learning a musical instrument or doing meaningful work) is won by the former party.
And the reason that it’s often so easily won is that our brain tends to value short-term rewards far more intimately than longer-term ones. Psychologists call this time inconsistency.
Even though doing meaningful work over the course of years is more important to most of us than lounging around, the human brain has a very dated bias towards what is here and now.
The good news is that there are ways to fight this. In fact, one of the most effective methods is surprisingly simple, and Seneca comes back to this again and again throughout his work.
The Stoics called it Premeditatio Malorum, and the idea is to ask yourself before you do something about what can go wrong. It’s a form of negative visualization, and once you’ve identified the distractions or problems, you can design around them with preparation.
For example, research has consistently found that if you prepare yourself by scheduling ahead whatever it is you want done, you’re two to three times more likely to follow through.
By considering distractions beforehand, and then in response, setting a suitable time, place, and starting point, you can bypass the allure of short-term impulses ahead of time.
3. Make Long-term Rewards Immediate
Preparation and scheduling is far more potent than abstract to-do lists, and it gives you a sense of control. That said, time inconsistency is arguably at its most powerful right at the start.
Even if you’ve removed all distractions, and you’re ready to get to work at 9 AM — as you had planned — to your brain, the allure of finding an excuse to do something easier is still strong.
In fact, starting any work is almost like pushing a boulder up a hill. The initial effort demands an active attempt, and it’s generally not at all pleasant. Nonetheless, the reward kicks in as the boulder gets to the top because at that point it starts to roll down the other side.
Once you’re over the initial hump, the process itself takes over and moves you ahead. As such, the hardest challenge is finding a way to make that starting effort less unpleasant.
Again, Seneca has insight to share about the process that helps fight this:
“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.”
The key word here is expectancy. That’s what we crave when we want to delay something that we know benefits us. That’s the gap between short-term impulses and a long-term reward.
The reason that it’s often hard to start something is that there is no expectation of an immediate reward. It’s not like eating a cookie and getting to enjoy the taste of it right after you’ve eaten. Sometimes, the reward is years away. Fortunately, there is a way around it.
If you bundle a commitment with the expectancy of an immediate reward, you create a large enough incentive to start. For example, if you procrastinate by reading your favorite blog, you can make a pact that you’re not allowed to visit it until a certain amount of work is done.
This way you get rewarded by completing the unpleasant work with something immediate.
All You Need to Know
Time is a currency far more scarce and valuable than something like money. There is no way to get it back. And yet, it’s one that very few people think about preserving and cherishing.
Seneca articulated this thought better than anyone, and hiding in the depth of his wisdom, there is insight on fighting back against the biggest time thief of them all — procrastination.
Fighting procrastination isn’t necessarily about optimizing for productivity and efficiency every second of your day. The occasional day-dream can be surprisingly good for you.
It’s about taking control of your mind when you need it. That’s what leads to a life well lived.