(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?
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。