Seneca’s Guide to Overcome Distraction

With the internet and smartphones so intimately tied to our lives, they can both be a source of unending distraction. If you get into a seemingly unbreakable habit of procrastination, you may start to doubt whether you can actually achieve your career development goals. Don’t fall into this trap. There are many ways you can beat procrastination. However, perhaps the most effective way to overcome distraction is to remind yourself of a basic fact: we have a limited amount of time to spend. It’s important to internalise this truth – we need to make it such an ingrained part of our philosophical outlook that we are no longer swayed by the temptation of distraction.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote a brilliant essay on this subject entitled On the Shortness of Life

Seneca simply and eloquently puts the brevity of our lives into perspective, and by doing so, provides us with an invaluable source of motivation. For those who are truly dedicated to developing oneself fully, there are many nuggets of wisdom in this essay that are worth remembering.

Wasting time makes life short

Interestingly, while our lifespan is infinitesimally short in the grand scheme of things, Seneca actually believes nature has provided us with enough time to use in our various endeavours. He says:

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”

So when it comes to achieving our career development goals – whether that’s creating the right kind of work-life balance or learning a new skill – there is enough time at our disposal. Nevertheless, Seneca argues that we waste so much of our time, which is precious and non-renewable, on meaningless pursuits. He believes we must learn to overcome distraction.

Of course, it may be up for debate as to which activities we do are meaningless. If we get distracted by a funny video on YouTube, is it meaningless if we enjoy and it makes us laugh?

The problem may not be that we are constantly distracted by meaningless content (although there is plenty of it), but that we do not properly prioritise what we do. An interesting podcast could be extremely meaningful; yet it still may not be as important as the book you are trying to write.

Seneca stresses that we can all live long, rich and fulfilling lives, if we get our priorities straight, overcome distraction and focus on the most meaningful activities. If we don’t, then before we know it, we may looking back on our lives with a deep sense of regret, desperately wanting to start over and use our time wisely, but being unable to do so. However, we can all avoid this painful scenario; as Seneca says, “life is long, if you know how to use it.” This involves living immediately, in the present moment, and not waiting for tomorrow in order to get things done.

Putting procrastination into perspective

The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has also tackled the problem of procrastination. In one of his lectures he highlights how undergraduates have told him that they waste 4 to 6 hours of time every day. This might not be representative of every student, let alone the general population, but let’s assume that you do waste this amount of time. And many of us do, through inefficient working, social media, YouTube, TV, etc.

This means that you’re wasting 25+ hours a week, which is 100+ hours a month and 1,200+ hours a year (which is at least 75 full days, excluding the time you spend asleep). Let this sink in. Procrastination can cost you 75 days of your life every year. You can do, earn and achieve so much with that kind of time. Yet we flush it down the drain. Peterson underscores that if we stopped wasting all of the opportunities in front of us, then we would be remarkably more efficient than we currently are.

We don’t have inexhaustible time at our disposal. We’re not immortal. By always putting things off until tomorrow, we just increase the likelihood that many of our desires and goals will be left unfulfilled. If you are serious about developing your talents and maximising your career success, then don’t lose sight of the value of time. Make sure you know how to overcome distraction.



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