You’re alive right now. In front of you sits just a handful of hours before the day is through. What tomorrow has in store, you cannot know. Piles of problems could be dumped on you. A surprise call from the doctor could change everything. You could wake up with the flu and spend the next week in bed. You could not wake up at all.
This leaves you with a few options for today: You can muddle through, you can worry about all the things that might happen, or you can seize the day—here and now. The right choice is obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The famous Latin phrase carpe diem, or “seize the day,” has stared at us from coffee cups and motivational posters for as long as we’ve been alive. Longer, in fact; it’s from a poem written in 23 B.C. We’ve been struggling to follow this simple anodyne command basically since the beginning of time. It was hard for the ancients, and it’s hard for us.
What is cool, however, is that since right around Horace’s time, smart people—especially the ancient Stoics—have been developing strategies for how to seize the day. They’re not magical solutions, but they do help. They work if you work them. So let’s get to it.
Get up early
I was 19 years old and in college when I first read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. As an underclassman, I found myself stuck in an early class I could never seem to get motivated for. The opening passage of Book V struck me as particularly appropriate:
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
—But it’s nicer in here…
So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? …
—But we have to sleep sometime… Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit.
It’s just so lovely. The most powerful man in the world chiding himself for wanting to stay in bed. A guy reluctant to get out from under the blankets and put his feet on the cold floor—just like the rest of us. But he knows you can’t seize the day lying down. Dante had a similar line: “Beneath the blanket is no way to fame.” You have to get up. And, ideally, you have to get up early.
Getting up early gives you a win before you actually have to do anything. It also allows you to start working before the distractions and interruptions start. I get up around 6:30 a.m., and by 9 or 10, I’ve already gone for a walk, had breakfast with my family, and written enough that I can count the rest of the day as a bonus.
Do it now
There is procrastination—the habit of putting things off until the last minute—and then there is what most of us do. We tell ourselves, “Oh, I’m definitely going to do it, but not right this second.” “I’ve got time later in the week,” we insist. Or we kick the can in the name of efficiency and tell ourselves we’ll do it when we’re doing some other thing. As Steven Pressfield writes, “We don’t tell ourselves, ‘I’m never going to write my symphony.’ Instead we say, ‘I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.’” We might even think it’s better to postpone because we’ll be better rested or more prepared. But waiting just increases the chance we don’t do it at all. Life always intervenes, and we might not be lucky enough to have a tomorrow.
As Seneca writes in The Shortness of Life, “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, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: Live immediately.”
You can’t predict later, so the present moment is your best opportunity to answer those emails, read that book, get in that workout. Don’t waste it.
Put devices away
Seneca wrote constantly about time. One of his most compelling observations is that people are protective of their money, their property, and their possessions, yet careless with the one thing they can’t get back: time.
“It’s not that we have a short time to live,” he said, “but that we waste a lot of it.” Can you imagine what he would say about the fact that today people spend, on average, more than five hours per day on their mobile devices? That’s 76 days a year—nearly 11 weeks—staring into an abyss of distraction.
In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport explains that the people who design devices and social media platforms are not your friends, and you are not their customer. Instead, you are the product they are selling to advertisers, apps, and data providers.
The average user engages with their mobile device more than 2,600 times a day. What if, even just a dozen of those times, we reached for a journal and a pen instead? Or a book? Or our work? Or a loved one? There are few problems we couldn’t solve, few things we couldn’t do, if we spent those five hours being productive instead of addicted and distracted.
Don’t try to be perfect
One of the reasons we have trouble getting stuff done (or getting started) is we expect perfect conditions or hold ourselves to impossible standards. As Churchill said, perfection may also be spelled P-A-R-A-L-Y-S-I-S. If you want to seize today, you’re going to have to be content taking it as it is, as you are. “Don’t go around expecting Plato’s Republic” was Marcus Aurelius’ line. And when you come across brambles in the path, he said, go around. If your food tastes bitter, throw it out. The point is to keep moving, to start making progress.
Productive writers know that a rule of four crappy pages a day is how you create momentum and get through writer’s block. Don’t expect or demand flawless work from yourself — just demand work, period. The dancer Twyla Tharp’s morning ritual is about getting out onto the street and into the taxi — the rest (the time at the gym, the practice, the inspiration) takes care of itself.
“Some lack the fickleness to live as they wish,” Seneca wrote, “and just live as they have begun.” It’s so easy to get stuck in patterns. To feel terrible because we’ve had a bad couple of days. To mope about our failures and mistakes. To live in our daydreams instead of reality.
Life is too short not to change, not to try, not to take risks. It’s also too short to keep doing things the way you’ve always done them if those methods are no longer working.
My wife and I live on a little farm in Texas, and it’s always interesting to hear people’s reactions. They say stuff like, “I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” or mention that it’s their dream to live in the country. My wife and I did not win a special license from the government that exempts us from living in town. No one gave us permission. We just moved.
If you want to have a different life, if you want to realize your dreams, you’re going to have to take action and accept change. If you want to travel, that means selling some of your stuff and hitting the road. If you want to own your own business, you have to quit your job. Not in the future. Not when someone takes care of all the details. Now.
Don’t leave things hanging
Wellington’s rule for himself was to do the business of the day in the day. He didn’t leave things hanging or half done. He finished what he started. He didn’t have 13 projects in various stages of completion.
Marcus Aurelius and Seneca talk about balancing the book of life each day, or living today as if it was a complete life in and of itself. Knowing that you have to complete things, that you can’t just start and stop, helps you prioritize. It helps you decide if each action is important. It makes you say, If I am going to do this, I am going to do it right.
Following this rule keeps my to-do list short. I include only things I am likely to do, and I derive great satisfaction from tearing up a completed list at the end of the day. It also help me manage my bigger endeavors. To me, a book is not an enormous project, but a series of smaller ones. Technically my next book won’t be done at the end of each day, but I will have finished writing the individual chapter or section I sat down to tackle. And it will be the absolute best I could do.
Eleanor Roosevelt had a great rule: We must do the thing we cannot do. And if you look at her life, she more or less followed it. She conquered her shyness and became a leading public figure. She overcame sexism and preconceptions about the role of a First Lady — a job she never wanted — to turn it into a powerful pulpit for good. She was an embodiment of that famous line from her husband about how the only thing to fear is fear itself.
You can’t seize the day if you are scared all the time. You can’t get the most out of life if you are afraid of taking risks. All the good stuff you want in life — or today — is on the other side of the reservations and fears that have been holding you back.
The Stoics wanted us to know that we are capable of far more than we know. We can do far more than anyone else thinks. We have great strength and power within us, if only we choose to seize it and ignore that can’t/don’t/won’t/shouldn’t voice in our heads. Whether you look at the life of Marcus Aurelius (which was marked by countless betrayals and setbacks) or the tortuous ordeal of James Stockdale (which was a nearly inhuman trial), you see men and women doing things no one thought they could do. Things that, at the outset, even they probably didn’t think they could do. The same is true for you today.
Don’t defer your happiness
Even in ancient times, people fell for the mirage of retirement, the idea of some far-off future where suddenly they would have what they desired and finally live the way they wanted. As Seneca wrote:
You will hear many people saying: “When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties.” And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it? Aren’t you ashamed to keep for yourself just the remnants of your life, and to devote to wisdom only that time which cannot be spent on any business? How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end!
Now is now. If you can’t be happy with who you are or what you have (or the time you have), it’s not going to happen. The things you want are attainable. More money or fame or power is not the answer. Living in this moment is. Working yourself to the bone so you can buy a speedboat and a lake house when you’re older is crazy.
That’s not to say you should be reckless or irresponsible. But don’t trade your today for the hope of a tomorrow that moves further away the harder you chase it.
Demand the best of (and for) yourself
My favorite expression is “How you do anything is how you do everything.” I love it because it dispenses with the lie that the task in front of us doesn’t matter, or that certain things are beneath us. If we’re doing something, it’s important. And if we’re going to do it, we should do it right. The person who says, “I don’t care about this job,” “I don’t care about this phone call,” or “None of this says anything about me” is not living in the moment, but in their head or ego.
The better approach is to be present and do your best at everything. If you’re not going to try hard right now, in the moment, when will you?
I love this call to arms from Epictetus, a philosopher who survived slavery to become influential enough to teach emperors. Even so, he was still pushing himself to be better and live up to his principles:
How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary. From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside.
The most powerful exercise in Stoicism is the most intimidating because it requires us to focus on the most unpleasant thought: our own death. That might seem morbid or even counterproductive. If we’re going to die, why does today even matter?
Existence matters because it’s finite. Once the sand goes through the hourglass, we can’t put it back. Death gives our time on this planet meaning and urgency.
In my pocket, I carry this Memento Mori medallion. On the front, it has a skull flanked by a flower and an hourglass. Life. Time. Death. On the back, it has this quote from Marcus Aurelius:
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.
I never leave home without the medallion. It inspires me. It challenges me to be better and not to take tomorrow for granted, because it isn’t a given. It reminds me to put away my devices. It reminds me to take the task in front of me seriously, because it might be the last time I get to do it. It reminds me to demand the best of and for myself. Because if not now, when?
Today could be the last day of my life. It could be the last day of your life. It could also be the best day of our lives.