De Brevitate Vitae: Effective Time Expenditure | Day 13 of 100

7min read

I have recently been thinking about what is best to do with my time. As have most of us I think during 2020 with various lockdowns and limitations on how we can possibly spend what should be considered as our most valuable asset. I am by no means the world's most efficient spender of time, in fact far from it. I think I probably have traits or habits which inhibit optimised time expenditure. Reading the stoic philosopher Seneca's writings “De Brevitate Vitae” or “The Brevity of life” there is the below quote regarding effective use of time;

“Even if all the bright intellects who ever lived were to agree to ponder this one theme, they would never sufficiently express their surprise at this fog in the human mind. Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives – why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives. You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”


Which probably sums up my thoughts on the matter quite well, though I will unpack this and add an extension.

The first sentence talks about the great thinker's 'surprise at this fog in the mind'. Some other translations replace surprise with confusion or wonder, all of which have fairly different meanings but have a common thread of; not anticipating humans to be sub-optimal in this way, as it's counter-intuitive. Regardless of the interpretation here, for me when considering 'why I spend my time in the way that I do' it is a fog or a darkness in my mind. A clouded judgement that results in the present being a state of limbo between what I perhaps should be doing and what I am actually doing. Objectively it is a simple equation; choose your desired outcome, only spend time on things that move you toward that outcome. In practice this is more difficult to spend every waking minute completely focussed, and any thinker (including Seneca) must realise this.

The subsequent sentences consider human's contradictory decisions with regards to monetary currency or assets. On the one hand we are protective and careful with our money and wealth, created by time and effort. But on the other hand we are willing to provide, or perhaps unknowingly provide, one of those two components of wealth (and something more that should be considered more valuable than monetary wealth) completely freely.

There are two themes with the expenditure of time that Seneca highlights. The first being the demand that others put on our time; whether we have chosen to give them that time, or whether they are encroaching on our time. To this there is a simple solution, choose wisely and be wary of to whom you are giving your time. The second theme I thought about here is the division of your time. If spread too thinly across people or goals, is your time really as effective as it could be? For me, I think this second point it the most practically poignant. Even if we're only spending a proportion of our day pedalling towards our ideal identities or outcomes, then we should divide this time by less facets. Have a few core objectives, and focus on those. The concentrated effort during this time will yield the best return. Less is more. I also believe that by doing this, the proportion of your whole time that is 'useful time' will increase, because the rewards from your work will start to become realised more quickly fuelling you to do more.

This all sounds quite productivity/goal/achievement orientated, but this applies to all walks of life (akin to time). If you want to be a better partner in a relationship, spend time improving that relationship. If you want to become a sushi chef, spend time cutting fish. Etc.

My slight worry with the interpretation of some of Seneca's thoughts throughout De Brevitate Vitae is that the type As among us may be over-aggressive with their time discipline after reading it. I am yet to finish reading these writings, but I do not think we should forget the balance of time expenditure. Is it impossible to be completely focussed on your goals all of the time? If so, should we not spend some of the troughs in effective time expenditure on rejuvenating ourselves in order to maximise the output at the peaks?

During the course of this year we have all had more time for ourselves, and a choice of how to spend it. For the young professionals like me, there has probably been significant battle between productivity and Netflix. Though for the more family orientated this has been a prime opportunity to catch up on lost time. Working from home and having limited travel has dilated our potential wasted time, but also our potential useful time. I don't think it's possible to entirely switch to 100% utilistation of useful time, and I probably would not encourage trying. But being more mindful of the ways we spend our time, potentially saying 'no' to time wasting activities or people, can help cultivate (probably through quite passive baby steps that are difficult to observe in the present) a more effective and fulfilling journey to our outcomes.

More to come on effective expenditure. I have written a bit about time expenditure in a previous post (sort of).

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