The Philosophy of Time: Revisited

“We must act with all urgency, then, not only because we are drawing closer to death at every moment, but also because our power to understand things and pay close attention to them gives out before the end.” -Marcus Aurelius

Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “tyranny of the urgent.” Made popular by the book of the same name, it’s the descriptor for what happens when the emergence of some immediate need (commonly referred to in the corporate world as a “fire”) monopolizes our attention and temporarily supersedes our larger, potentially more important pursuits. It’s called tyranny because of the sense of helplessness that often accompanies these tasks, convincing us we've no other choice but to tend to them. A similar sensation occurs when we’re approaching any sort of deadline. Wrought with anxiety over the consequences of not meeting it, we rally our best efforts and resources to see the project through within the established timeline. As such, the result is astounding: the task gets completed. 

There are few things more powerful, more focused, than a person who has to do something, be it for their career, survival, or otherwise. When called to operate at a specific level within specific time bounds to achieve a specific task, we become near-unstoppable.

In his insightful book Deep Work, author Cal Newport captures this point in referencing the following quote from Basecamp cofounder Jason Fried:

“Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing.”

Deadlines require us to be stingy with our time. They force us to focus on the effective and the efficient, calling forth a resourceful creativity that tends to only manifest in deadline-driven situations. When we’re on a deadline, the "shallow tasks" (i.e. distractions masked as productivity), as Cal Newport refers to them, dissipate. It becomes easy to ignore the insignificant.

Unsurprisingly, externally-imposed deadlines force us to be painstakingly disciplined with our time. The often overlooked benefit of being disciplined with our time is that it creates more time, i.e. the precise thing that many spend the end of their lives clamoring after. Parkinson’s Law may capture this best, stating that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In short: little time, efficient work; a lot of time, slower work. If you had a week to study for a test, you’d likely study much less aggressively than if you had a day.

And so quite simply, the key to maximizing your time is acting as if you have less of it, or in other words, simulating urgency. This shouldn’t be difficult, as we do have less time than we’re convinced we do. Writer and blogger Tim Urban animates this concept brilliantly in his illustration of time and how much of it we actually have left, particularly capturing the dwindling amount of time we have remaining with our loved ones.

We’d be remiss to limit the power of a deadline-driven environment to the contexts of work or school. Rather, we’re to take these examples as poignant reminders of the following: Life itself is on a deadline, and death is its due date. The urgency with which we approach a presentation the CEO expects by end-of-day should be a fraction of the urgency we bring to our life as a whole. Maximizing our time (in however this is uniquely defined for us) requires, again, that we simulate urgency. We manufacture our own deadlines, knowing that the ultimate deadline is one we can't predict. As the CEO of your own life, it’s up to you to decide what your work is and when it’s due. [Acceptable cheese-factor: Exceeded.]

And so how do we live life as if we’re on a deadline? First and foremost, we identify what’s important to us. If you don’t know what’s important to you, you’ll fall victim to any passing stimulus that’s fighting for your attention. Once our priorities are identified, we’re able to perceive lesser pursuits as exactly that—lesser, and respond accordingly.

Going back to our initial work example, the urgent is only “tyrannical" when it doesn’t align with our priorities. The problem isn’t focusing on urgent tasks (or immediate stimulus); the problem is not making the right tasks urgent.

Equally as important as knowing what’s important to you is holding yourself accountable to it. Enter the tactical part of living on a deadline. Stoicism is the system of thought that bridges the seemingly opposing realms of the philosophical and the tactical. It’s a way of thinking and living that requires both reflection and action. As philosopher Seneca says in Letters From A Stoic, we know that a person’s words are their own when they put them into practice. The concept of living urgently is powerless if not applied. 

Allow me to be clear in that living urgently does not mean rushing. “Urgent," in this context, means placing emphasis on the aspects of life you’ve chosen to prioritize and pursuing them with intention. This means we set goals around our personal projects, acknowledging that our leisure time represents just as much of an opportunity for growth as our working time. It means we spend time regularly connecting with the people we’d be crushed to live without. It means we amass life-giving experiences while we have the capacities to enjoy and appreciate them.

“When the force of circumstances causes you, in some sense, to lose your equilibrium, return to yourself with all speed, and never lose the rhythm for any longer than you must; for you will be more in control of the measure if you return to it again and again.” -Marcus Aurelius

Now of course, we’re human. There will be days, months, seasons in which we’re not living as purposefully as we’d like to be. Our fault does not lie in the inevitable occurrence of these periods, but rather, in not returning to ourselves as soon we’ve become aware. The more quickly we course-correct, the less time we lose.

So what hinders us from living with such pointed urgency? Among many things, the most powerful of which may be social pressure. Prioritizing our own agenda inevitably means the de-prioritization of another’s, often in the form of saying “no." In an age where the fear of seeming impolite can reign supreme over progressing toward one’s goals, personal success belongs to those who are unafraid to be brutally assertive with their time. It belongs to those who are palpably aware of the shortness of life, and can’t bear the notion of not allocating theirs wisely.

“It’s only when you’re breathing your last that the way you’ve spent your time will become apparent.” -Seneca