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(For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text.)

(For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River near the Three Gorges Dam.)

As we begin to design a New Normal – necessitated by the pandemic – we can benefit by reviewing events from the past. Recently, I was released from the stay-at-home mode because my city (in China) has – hopefully – passed the peak and is beginning the return to normal. But it will definitely be a New Normal.

I choose to look at this tragic, world-changing pandemic – there is no other adequate term to describe it – as also containing the seeds for greatness. After the crisis phase ends, there will not simply be a resumption of old patterns and old thinking; there will also be a rebirth. For some people, the changes will be the impetus for a complete reinvention of their lives.

Accordingly, I have been thinking of what to do and what values and priorities should govern my choices when I can choose again from a wider range of activities than I have at present. In doing so, I recalled something I published from the past, an article about the Stoic philosopher Seneca in Ancient Rome. This article was originally published in August of 2018. We live in a different world today but some of the truths are eternal.

What Would Seneca Do?

We live today in an era where being busy is a lifestyle. With very few exceptions, the people I know are busy every day. “Crazy busy” is a widely recognized and, alas, all too common description of our days.

In an attempt to get organized and be more productive, we use many kinds of apps on our phones and computers, daily planners on paper, digital archives and backups to allow us to store, locate, and retrieve information, and other means of helping us to choose our activities. Their purpose is to keep the number of our choices from completely overwhelming us.

For many years, I have used the method of creating a short list of six items to work on for a particular block of time, either a couple of hours or the whole morning, afternoon, or evening. Sometimes, my lists of urgent tasks, daily and weekly activities, time-sensitive promises and commitments, early morning routines, and calendar events get so lengthy that selecting only six items as the most valuable (or most urgent) becomes quite a challenge in itself. Precious time is spent merely in deciding which six activities win my attention for that block of time.

Does all this sound familiar? Perhaps you have a different method of dealing with the madness of being too busy but most of you reading this would agree that you are indeed too busy. And all this personal stress and inefficiency comes even before we get into the world surrounding us… which means other people creating interruptions and distractions to divert our attention and dilute our efforts. Plus, don’t forget our digital devices (computer, phone, and other things with screens) which seldom work entirely as claimed. (Sometimes the magic works; sometimes it don’t.)

It all makes me crazy. I stay so busy but complete so little. Sometimes, I feel like a dog chasing its own tail. Busy, busy, busy – but getting few things actually completed.

Recently, I became aware of a book by Seneca from back in the early days of the Roman Empire. He was a member of the group of philosophers known as the Stoics. As an old man, Seneca wrote a series of 124 letters which make thoughtful reading even in our technology-based lifestyles of today. Seneca composed those 124 letters to identify the fundamentals of the Stoic outlook. I began reading those letters and found them to be wonderfully refreshing and instructional, and easy to understand. (Seneca was concerned with daily living, not splitting metaphysical hairs.)

Working long before the creation of computers and their word processors, he wrote his letters the old-fashioned way. Thus, writing 124 letters was very time-consuming and inefficient by our modern standards. Yet Seneca did it, and we can still benefit from his efforts today.

However, in addition to the interesting ideas in those letters, I was struck with the thought that Seneca had managed to make time to compose those 124 letters and save his ideas for posterity. He wrote them because it was important to him. He made time for writing them. It made me think of my own busy days and my lists of the six most important/urgent activities. I began an interesting experiment.

All of my lists for a relatively short block of time are just a temporary means of getting organized. Sadly, instead of doing the really important things, I usually work on the most urgent; often that means dealing with whatever person is yelling loudest or most recently. I spend far too much time dealing with my little problems, the little problems of other people, and waiting for other people to complete something so I can move forward.

But, as soon as the time block is ended, I throw away my list and start a new one for the new block of time.

With the vision of Seneca and how he allocated his time to writing those 124 letters, I began an interesting experiment. Grabbing an unused paper notebook, I began making my lists of the six actions for each time block on the pages of that notebook. However, when the time was up, I didn’t throw away that list; I saved that list in the notebook and began a new list on a new page.

After a week, I took a little time to review all of my lists in that notebook – and I was appalled. When I looked at the big picture of how I spent my time for a week, the days were filled with routine and largely forgettable tasks. I won’t embarrass myself by disclosing here just how much of my time was spent on completely trivial things, how much was spent on routine maintenance tasks, how much was spent on dealing with minor problems, and how much was spent in communicating with other people about what I wanted them to do… then frequently checking to see that it was done the way I wanted.

In reviewing my week from those notebook pages, I found any activities even remotely equivalent to Seneca’s 124 letters were almost completely absent. Sad. I had been considering my own inefficiency or assigning blame to my devices or the people around me but the simple truth is that I had been so busy with little things that I wasn’t doing anything important. If Seneca had spent his days in dealing with the minor and repetitive activities that filled my days, we never would have the benefits of his thoughts saved forever in those 124 letters.

I am beginning a new way of looking at the world and at selecting my activities. As I make up my to-do lists, I ask myself, “What would Seneca do?” If someone reads through my notebook in a few years, would they be struck by how much of my time is being spent on relatively unimportant activities? Would I want them to see how much time was devoted to shopping, laundry, and other daily routine activities? Yes, all those things have to be completed, but are they so important that they should take up almost my entire day? Are the weekly and monthly maintenance activities more important than anything else? I was reminded of an equivalent statement made by the Chinese scholar and writer, Dr. Lin Yutang, who wrote, “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”

When I ask, “What would Seneca do?” before I make up my next list, I am reminded of those 124 letters. What is the “most important” and gets on that next list? They should be activities that will have the most lasting impact or make the greatest contribution.

At this moment, in the middle of the night, everyone else in the family is sleeping peacefully. I am asking myself, “What would Seneca do?” I will type these words and prepare to return to my bed.

In the morning, though, I will ask what I can do that is more meaningful than the daily and weekly maintenance activities. I will think about how to insulate myself from the constant harassment of interruptions and distractions. What, in short, can I do with my day that will be equivalent to Seneca making time to write those 124 letters?

It is now the middle of the month of August. We have about two weeks before kindergarten opens and I can resume a somewhat regular routine. It is only a short time before the hot, hot days of the Chongqing summer begin the annual transition to cooler temperatures brought on by the longer nights. It is always amazing to me how September can begin as full summer but end by slipping into the distinctly cooler, shorter days of October.

What would Seneca do if he were in my situation? After I get this blog post ready to publish and get a little more sleep, I will arrange my day. There are some important things – valuable, lasting things – that I can do. But I will include taking my son swimming this afternoon. We have only a couple of weeks before the pool closes for the season. I should take advantage of the waning days of summer to enjoy some father-son time at the neighborhood pool.

I think Seneca would approve.

So, dear readers, what do you do in your life that is equivalent to Seneca writing those 124 letters? You may protest that you have only a limited amount of free time, but what do you do with it?

塞内卡会怎么做?

疫情发生后的优先考虑

当我们开始设计一个新常态—-由于这场大流行病的需要—-我们可以通过回顾过去的事件来受益。最近,我从宅在家里的模式中解脱出来,因为我的城市(在中国)已经–希望–过了高峰期,开始恢复正常。但这肯定会是一个新常态。

我选择将这一悲惨的、改变世界的大流行病—-没有其他适当的词汇来形容它—-视为也包含着伟大的种子。在危机阶段结束后,将不仅仅是旧的模式和旧的思维方式的恢复,还将有一次重生。对一些人来说,这些变化将成为彻底重塑人生的动力。

相应地,我一直在思考,当我可以从比现在更广泛的活动中重新选择时,应该做什么,应该以什么样的价值观和优先级来支配我的选择。在这样做的时候,我想起了我过去发表过的一些东西,是一篇关于古罗马的斯多葛哲学家塞涅卡的文章。这篇文章最初发表于2018年8月。我们今天生活在一个不同的世界,但其中的一些真理是永恒的。

*************************************

塞内卡会怎么做?

我们今天生活在这样一个时代,忙碌是一种生活方式。除了极少数例外,我所认识的人每天都很忙。”疯狂的忙碌 “是人们对我们的日子的一个普遍的描述,但可惜的是,这也是对我们日子的一种普遍描述。

为了让自己的生活更有条理、更有成效,我们在手机和电脑上使用了很多种类的APP,纸质的每日计划书,数字档案和备份让我们存储、定位和检索信息,以及其他帮助我们选择活动的方式。它们的目的是为了让我们的选择数量不至于完全淹没在我们的选择中。

许多年来,我一直在用这种方法,在某一特定的时间段内,用一两个小时或整个上午、下午或晚上的整个上午、下午或晚上的时间,创建一个由六个项目组成的简短清单,来完成任务。有时,我的紧急任务、每天和每周的活动、有时间限制的承诺和承诺、清晨的例行公事和日历上的事件的清单会变得很长,以至于只选择六个项目作为最有价值的(或最紧急的),这本身就成了一个相当大的挑战。珍贵的时间只花在决定哪六项活动最能吸引我的注意力。

这一切听起来是不是很熟悉?也许你有不同的方法来处理太忙的疯狂,但大多数读到这篇文章的人都会同意,你确实是太忙了。而所有这些个人的压力和低效率,甚至在我们还没有进入到我们周围的世界之前就已经到来了………..这意味着其他人制造的干扰和分散我们的注意力,冲淡了我们的努力。另外,别忘了我们的数码设备(电脑、手机和其他带屏幕的东西),这些设备很少会完全像我们所说的那样工作。(有时候,魔法会起作用,有时候却不起作用)。

这一切都让我疯狂。我一直很忙,但完成的事情却很少。有时候,我觉得自己就像一只追着自己尾巴的狗。忙,忙,忙,忙,忙–但真正完成的事情却少之又少。

最近,我注意到了一本书,是塞内卡写的,这本书是早在罗马帝国早期的时候写的。他是被称为斯多葛派的哲学家中的一员。作为一个老人,塞内加写了一系列的124封信,即使在我们今天的科技生活方式中,这些信也是值得深思的。塞内加写这124封信,是为了确定斯多葛观的基本原理。我开始读这些信,发现它们令人耳目一新,具有很好的启发性和指导性,而且通俗易懂。(塞内加关注的是日常生活,而不是形而上学的分裂)。

在电脑和文字处理机出现之前,他很早就开始工作,他用老式的方式写信。因此,以我们现代的标准来看,写124封信是非常耗时和低效的。然而塞内卡却做到了,今天我们仍然可以从他的努力中受益。

然而,除了这些信中的有趣的想法之外,我还想到塞内卡能够抽出时间来编纂这124封书信,并将他的想法保存下来,留给后人。他之所以写这些信,是因为这对他来说很重要。他抽出时间来写这些信。这让我想到了我自己忙碌的日子和我的六项最重要/最紧急的活动清单。我开始了一个有趣的实验。

我所有的清单在相对较短的时间段内,都只是暂时性的整理方法。可悲的是,我通常不会去做真正重要的事情,而是在最紧急的事情上下功夫;往往这意味着处理什么人喊得最大声,或者说是最近最忙的事情。我花了太多的时间来处理自己的小问题,处理别人的小问题,等待别人完成一些事情,这样我就可以继续前进。

但是,只要时间块一结束,我就会扔掉我的清单,为新的时间块开始一个新的清单。

带着塞内卡的眼光,以及他如何分配时间写下那124封信,我开始了一个有趣的实验。拿起一个未用过的纸质笔记本,我开始在那本笔记本的页面上列出每个时间块的六个动作的清单。然而,当时间到了,我并没有把那张清单扔掉,而是把那张清单保存在笔记本里,在新的一页上开始新的清单。

 当我从大的方面看我一周的时间是如何度过的,那些日子都是被例行公事,基本上都是被遗忘的任务填满了。我不会在这里透露我有多少时间花在完全琐碎的事情上,有多少时间花在日常的维护任务上,有多少时间花在处理小问题上,有多少时间花在和别人沟通我想让他们做的事情上………然后经常检查,看看是否按照我的想法去做。

在回顾我的一周,从那些笔记本的页面中,我发现任何活动,哪怕是与塞内卡的124封信相当的活动几乎都没有。可悲的是。我一直在考虑自己的效率低下,或者把责任归咎于我的设备或周围的人,但简单的事实是,我一直忙于小事,以至于没有做重要的事情。如果塞内卡把时间都用在处理那些琐碎而又重复的活动上,让我的日子充满了琐碎而又重复的活动,那么我们永远也不会在那124封信中永远保存着他的思想的好处。

我开始用一种新的方式来看待世界,选择自己的活动。当我制定待办事项清单时,我问自己:”塞内卡会怎么做?” 如果几年后有人翻看我的笔记本,会不会被我的多少时间被花在相对不重要的活动上所打动?我是否会想让他们看到我有多少时间花在购物、洗衣服和其他日常的日常活动上?是的,这些事情都是必须要完成的,但它们是否重要到几乎要占用我一整天的时间?每周和每月的维护活动是否比其他的事情更重要?这让我想起了中国学者、作家林语堂博士的一句话,他写道:”人生的智慧,就在于消除非必要的东西。”

当我在制定下一个清单前问 “塞内卡会怎么做?”的时候,我就会想起那124个字母。什么是 “最重要的 “并被列入下一个清单?它们应该是影响最持久或贡献最大的活动。

此刻,半夜里,家里的其他人都在安然入睡。我在问自己:”塞内卡会怎么做?” 我打完这些字,就准备回到自己的床上。

不过在早上,我会问自己能做什么事,比起每天和每周的保养活动更有意义。我会想一想,怎样才能让自己隔绝不断的干扰和分心的骚扰?总而言之,我一天能做什么事,相当于塞内卡抽出时间来写那124封信?

现在已经是8月中旬了。离幼儿园开学还有两个星期左右的时间,我可以恢复一些规律的作息时间。距离重庆夏天的炎热酷热的日子开始一年一度的过渡到夜晚较长的夜晚所带来的凉爽的温度,时间不长。我总是觉得很奇怪,九月开始的时候是盛夏,到了十月却又滑入了明显的凉爽、短促的日子,这让我很惊讶。

如果塞内卡是我的情况,他会怎么做?等我把这篇博文准备好发表,多睡一会儿,再安排一下我的一天。有一些重要的事情–有价值的、持久的事情–我可以做。但我将包括今天下午带儿子去游泳。我们只有几个星期的时间了,离游泳池的季节性关闭只有几个星期了。我应该趁着夏日渐渐消逝的日子,在附近的游泳池里享受一下父子时光。

我想塞内卡会同意的

所以,亲爱的读者们,你们在生活中都做了些什么,相当于塞内卡写的那124封信?你可能会抗议说你的空闲时间有限,但你是怎么做的呢?

One Reply to “What Would Seneca Do? Prioritizing After the Pandemic”

  1. Haha, glad to read your new blog.
    I find that you often discuss about the topic of busy, yes, my life is busy and tired. If I am free, I’d like to read some books, or watch movies and hang out with my friends. Free time is the energy of my life, if I work everyday I will lose myself.
    Actually, busy life causes rapid development of society and technology.
    Maybe when your are in college as a teacher, the life would be much slower.
    Best wishes.
    Bonnie

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