How to Manage Time: The Wisdom of the Stoics
“Time is the currency of life” is a popular quote that emphasizes time’s importance. However, so few of us know how to manage time. American poet and biographer Carl Sandburg put it this way, “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent”. Author, podcaster, and modern stoic Ryan Holiday says, “The amount of time we have is completely and utterly out of our control — but the way we spend our time remains ours.”
Unarguably, time is our most precious resource. Many people use the phrase ‘life is short.’ I prefer to say that life is finite. Either way, most of us fail to scrutinize this limited resource, manage time effectively, and use it in the most profound ways we can.
Time management is not a new topic. Many self-help gurus, researchers, authors, and performance coaches have addressed it. Much of their advice emphasizes techniques to manage our time. Many of these techniques have included using to-do lists, making use of planners, waking up and going to bed on a set schedule, and so on. But even with all these suggestions, the vast majority of us don’t manage time effectively. For example, the Development Academy published a 2021 study on time management statistics and facts that showed that 82% of people don’t have a time management system. They use a list, email, or simply nothing at all.
Researcher, author, and world-renowned time expert Dr. Cassie Mogilner Holmes and her colleagues wrote in a 2012 paper, “With waking hours largely consumed by work, precious minutes remain for the daily list of to-dos, including exercise, cleaning, and socializing with friends and family.” They use this statement to highlight how we often get so busy that we have little time left to do other things that make our lives wholesome.
In this article (which is based on the Passion Struck podcast episode I did on this topic), I will address the issue of how to manage time on a more fundamental level — through the lens of intentional living and the wisdom of the stoics.
Members of the Passion Struck community have asked questions like, “Why do I always feel there isn’t enough time in the day to do the things I need to do?”, “Why do I wait till deadlines stare me right in the face before I take action?”, “Why am I constantly dissatisfied with my state of living and how I use my life?” and many other similar questions. Today’s article is dedicated to answering them.
I will be providing deep insight and enlightening you on how to put your available time to the best use by following the wisdom of the stoics and working on your mindset.
What do you want to do with your time?
Before I delve into the points on managing time, I want to first draw your attention to the fact that the importance of time is entirely relative. If you consciously decide that all you want to do with your time is procrastinate, gossip, watch TV, play games, read the news, and scroll through social media, that’s up to you. But understand that you can’t buy your way out of the consequences of living like that, which could lead to a feeling of emptiness and, most damagingly, a life without any significant impact.
In like manner, if you choose to manage time wisely to grow, develop and do the things that really matter, you will reap the benefits, and your life will leave an indelible mark.
So, before you begin to find ways to use your time optimally, you must ask yourself, “What do I want to spend my time doing?”
As I frequently talk about on the Passion Struck podcast and my blog, our days are made of endless choices. Having the willpower or self-control to make the choices towards improving ourselves and maximizing our time takes daily intention. It starts with understanding the value of time and why we often fail to make the best use of our time.
The value of time
To explain how important every moment in time is, I will simply share a famous quote attributed to French Novelist Marc Levy. It goes:
“If you want to know the value of one year, just ask a student who failed a course.
If you want to know the value of one month, ask a mother who gave birth to a premature baby.
If you want to know the value of one hour, ask the lovers waiting to meet.
If you want to know the value of one minute, ask the person who just missed the bus.
If you want to know the value of one second, ask the person who just escaped death in a car accident.
And if you want to know the value of one-hundredth of a second, ask the athlete who won a silver medal in the Olympics.”
Those words, there, explain just how every single moment can have a massive impact on the life we live. Time is truly the essence of life.
Why do we fail to manage time wisely?
The starting point of all inability to manage time wisely is the failure to realize how important every single moment in time is. When you fail to recognize the value of time, you are less inclined to prioritize the things that matter most and tend to waste them. You give in to distractions and indulge in things that do not contribute to your meaningful goals.
Roman stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca said, “It’s not that we don’t have enough time. But that we waste most of it.”
Life is ticking by, and we can’t get back each moment that passes by. The importance you attribute to your time determines how well you’ll prioritize the things you need to do to live a meaningful life. It is also possible to be very busy but not get anything worthwhile done. Because one is doing a lot more doesn’t necessarily mean they are getting a lot more done. Seeming busy isn’t the same as being effective.
Even as I was writing this article, I fell short of the several targets I set earlier to complete it because I kept getting distracted by the nuisance of obtaining proof of health insurance for my daughter’s college. The difficulty it takes to manage time is indeed a challenge we all can relate to in some way, but it doesn’t have to remain like that. You can constantly strive to be better.
The ten keys for how to manage time
You are the master of how you spend your time, and all you do, every moment, is a choice. As Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
As has been stated before, we all, in some way, struggle with managing our time effectively. How, then, do we manage our time? What steps can we take to see that we live our best lives and prioritize how we spend our time?
The answer lies in having the proper perspective about time. I interviewed time management expert Abigail Barnes on how to turn your time into productivity. She told me, “When you understand what you’re doing with your time, and you track it, and you audit it, then it gives you the power to start to make decisions and choices.”
To emphasize our personal responsibility in living the kind of life we want, Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.”
Having established this power of choice that we all have, let us now look at 10 keys the stoics suggest we make the best use of our available time:
Treat time as a tangible resource
Seneca said, “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.”
Imagine someone who constantly threw their money around, knowing they couldn’t recover it and unaware of how much of it they had. One would think that person was not in their right state of mind. In like manner, when we fail to treat time as a valuable resource, we become prone to squandering it like a person wastes money.
Time is our most precious and least renewable resource. The amount of it that we get is uncertain but indeed limited. So, we need to treat it as a tangible commodity to be more conscious of its value and quickly recognize and stop it from diminishing without any profitable use.
Focus on doing less well
Marcus Aurelius said, “If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential. Do less, better. Because most of what we do or say is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more tranquility. But to eliminate the necessary actions, we also need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions.”
In a world filled with so many things calling for our attention, distractions are inevitable. You pick up your phone to check your mail and end up watching random videos on Instagram for over an hour, and so many scenarios where we get distracted. The fact is that no matter how much time you’re given, if you don’t learn to prioritize and focus, it’ll never be enough to do the things you need to do.
Today, we’re so overcome with distractions that we lose sight of what’s really important. What’s worse is that we try to chase everything — which is unrealistic — and end up not focusing on the most important things. Our to-dos list becomes so big that we can never strike everything off.
In effectively managing your time, you need to define your priorities. What matters most to you? What contributes to the achievement of your set goals? Once you’ve truthfully answered these, then learn to concentrate your attention on those things to the exclusion of everything else. Focus by turning a blind eye to things that don’t serve your immediate and long-term goals.
Also, acknowledge distractions beforehand and plan how you’ll deal with them. Ask yourself, “What can hinder or distract me from reaching my goals?” Once you recognize those things, take up necessary measures to stop them.
Marcus Aurelius said, “You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible–and no one can keep you from this. But there will be some external obstacle! Perhaps, but no obstacle to acting with justice, self-control, and wisdom. But what if some other area of my action is thwarted? Well, gladly accept the obstacle for what it is and shift your attention to what is given, and another action will immediately take its place, one that better fits the life you are building.”
I realize Benjamin Franklin is technically not a stoic, but much of his teachings align with the stoics. He once said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” His words and those of Marcus Aurelius emphasize the need to take action as soon as possible. When we put things off until later, it turns into a cycle of regrets because we deny ourselves of being present in the moments that matter today. It also makes us succumb to the promise of the future without any guarantees.
Failure to act promptly is often a result of procrastination which occurs when you defer taking action on important things until later for no arguable reason. While wasting your time hesitating and procrastinating, you forget that time is ticking away.
‘Carpe Diem,’ which translates to ‘seize the day,’ was our class motto at the Naval Academy. Put this phrase into action. Whenever you’re tempted to defer action until later, remind yourself, “I have time now, and I don’t know if I will have it later. So I must use the time I have right here and now.” Always remember this and take the necessary actions towards your goals as quickly as possible.
A great episode to refer to on this topic was my interview with astronaut Wendy Lawrence, who’s been, my long-term mentor. She discusses the keys to permitting yourself to dream your dream, which starts by taking action towards it.
Find purpose and fulfillment in what you do.
Epictetus said, “Stick with your purpose. This alone will strengthen your will and give your life coherence.”
Spending time and using it rightly are two different things. It is possible to merely consume your time doing things that don’t really mean anything to you, causing you to simply exist through time and not truly live.
We all have our purpose in this world, and we must live each day with this in mind. We must love our life and consciously seek things that truly fulfill us. I often ask myself, “Is this important to me?” “Will my life and that of others improve because of what I am doing?” When we answer these questions in the affirmative, we can be sure we make the best use of our time.
It is not just about work. Invest your time creating new memories. Travel, explore, gladly share your time with someone in need, and do everything that makes you enjoy life better. Remember, it’s just one life, and you must live each moment in the most meaningful ways.
Manage time by setting micro time frames
Seneca said, “Everyone has time if he likes. Busyness runs after nobody: people cling to it of their own free will and think that to be busy is a proof of happiness.”
There is a concept known as Parkinson’s Law which states that work will expand to fill the time allotted for its completion. This explains why a task usually requiring 5 minutes to complete can take an entire day.
The general idea is that the longer something takes to complete, the better quality it must inherently be. But this isn’t necessarily true in all cases. Many people give tasks longer than they really need, allowing them to leave the work to the very last minute because they lack momentum.
By assigning the right amount of time to a task, you gain back more time and prevent the task from becoming unnecessarily complex. However, be reasonable and practical with the timeframe for the deadline. If you know a task will need a week to complete, don’t set the deadline for two days.
Setting time frames helps to maximize available time and use the power of the present. Setting micro time frames will narrow your focus and allow you to concentrate on what you can do within the shortest period of time.
Intentionally manage time.
We, humans, are complicated beings with emotions, relationships, and factors beyond us that could impact our capacity for achievement. Being efficient with one’s time would have been much easier if we were programmed machines that simply execute exact instructions. But you are not. You are a thinking and feeling being, so you must frequently pause to reflect and ensure you are spending your best time on what matters most to you and be conscious of the choices you make every day, so you can avoid making the ones that waste your time.
As stoic philosopher Seneca says, “…nothing, however outstanding and however helpful, will ever give me any pleasure if the knowledge is to be for my benefit alone.”
This quote emphasizes that you shouldn’t live carelessly and for only yourself. Remember, speed doesn’t always equal progress, and doing a lot doesn’t mean you are doing important things. So frequently slow down your pace and consciously choose what to do with each moment.
Make long-term rewards immediate.
Epictetus said, “Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”
Often times it is difficult for us to let things progress as Epictetus advised, and starting can be the hardest part of the journey. I find our need to procrastinate is more powerful at the start of work. Even if you’ve removed all distractions and you’re ready to get to work at a particular time, as you planned, to your brain, the allure of finding an excuse to do something easier is still very strong.
The hardest challenge is finding a way to make that starting effort seem less unpleasant. If we bundle our work with the expectancy of an immediate reward, we give ourselves a good reason to work. For example, you can promise yourself 5 minutes of internet time for every hour you spend working or studying. This will allow your brain to focus on using the current time for that task in hopes of getting an immediate reward afterward.
However, for this to be effective, you need to be very disciplined and ensure you’re not spending more than the time allotted to enjoy the reward.
Understand the domains of time
Seneca said, “Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”
Time is divided into past, present, and future, and these three-time domains are directly connected. The past is unalterable, the present is transitory, and the future is uncertain.
When you understand that you can’t change the past, you can avoid wasting your time on regrets and instead take the lessons from it. Also, reflecting on the past will help you gain insight into what previously worked and what didn’t in your aim to manage time better.
When you understand the transition of the present, you will be able to take immediate action and optimize each moment you have. Our constructive thinking, planning, and taking action can only be done in the present because it is the only time domain we have immediate control over.
When you understand the uncertainty of the future, you can free yourself of limitations and make the most of your time. Also, if you find yourself in unpleasant situations, you can draw hope from the expectation that the future will be much better and brighter.
Cherish and guard the use of your time
In a past episode on living a healthy and more balanced life, I highlighted the point Stephen Covey made in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People about the need to spend time doing things that are not urgent but important. Stephen calls this the heart of effective personal management and emphasizes how these activities provide us with vision, perspective, control, and balance. By finding the proper urgency vs. importance equation, we can take charge of our lives instead of letting activities control us.
“The things that matter most must never be at the mercy of the things that matter least,” says poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
If you lived each day knowing that your time could come tomorrow, you will be much less willing to spend so much on frivolities. You will spend little or no time scrolling aimlessly through social media, randomly switching from one TV channel to the next, playing video games for hours, and other trivialities.
Learn to say NO to the things that will waste your time, for it is your most precious resource. Be stingy with your time because you’re palpably aware that it’s finite. Also, do the same with your thoughts, leaving no room in your mind for things over which you have no control.
As Epictetus said, “As for what is not in my power, in that I take no interest.” So, focus on the time you have and consciously use it wisely.
Manage your health well
As Seneca said, “you spend so much of your life not aware of what you are losing. And when the time comes to tally up how you spent it, you will be able to see how little some things mattered.”
Our bodies are the only vessels we have through which we will live out our times in this world. Without a healthy one, we simply will be unable to make any practical use of that time. Thus, ensure that you make your health a top priority as you go through each day. Refrain from harmful activities such as junk eating, excessive drinking, smoking, and intense stress. Go for consistent medical check-ups to detect any health challenge early enough and tackle it.
In my Passion Struck podcast interview with Dr. Katy Milkman, a behavior scientist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, we discussed this at length. Her research showed that 40% of chronic conditions are caused by lifestyle choices. And in my interview with Dr. Kara Fitzgerald, a leading Doctor in the science of epigenetics, she also emphasized how by making better lifestyle choices, we can reverse aging and extend our lifespans.
In like manner, concentrate on making your lifestyle the best that it can be by engaging in exercise, healthy eating, and every other activity that can maintain your body in its optimal state. In like manner, ensure you get adequate rest and sleep. Your body and mind need these necessary breaks and rest to function at your best. With these in place, you’ll be in the best bodily state to make the best use of your time.
Don’t squander your time.
In a beautifully articulated passage, Seneca said, “It’s not that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is — we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.”
I agree with Seneca. Your time is finite, and you can choose it to create something extraordinary, tackle something on your bucket list, help someone in need, solve a novel problem the world needs solving, nourish your family, or savor a moment of awe. But don’t waste your hours. Don’t wonder, “What have I been doing with my time?”
You have to make your effective use of time a consistent habit and leave no room for its wastage. Before spending time on any activity, ask yourself, “what is my time worth?” And as you recognize its value, start letting it guide your daily choices.
When you do only the needful essential things, it appears time expands to accommodate more profitable and remarkable doings. And so, you can maximize your abilities and focus on what fulfills you and brings you self-realization.
Remember, time keeps moving on and on, regardless of what you do with it. So, start making intentional choices every moment to spend your time wisely. When you consistently do this, you will not only have lived well while you’re in this world, but even after your exit, you will have left your footprints on the eternal sands of time.
This article is based on an episode of Passion Struck with John R. Miles. Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or your favorite podcast platform.
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