Last week I began discussing the seven Stoic methods of inner-discipline (what’s popularly called spiritual practice).
Number one is “Write and Reflect in the Morning.” The list continues:
2. Focus on Your Goals
3. Take the Long and the High View
4. Visualize Catastrophe and Practice Letting Go
5. Practice Self Control
6. Go on Retreat in your Own Mind
7. Reflect on your Actions in the Evening
Today I want to look at the second, “Focus on Your Goals.”
2. Focus on Your Goals
I assume it’s no accident that we have the best advice concerning sticking to goals from Marcus Aurelius, one of the few effective Roman emperors. Even without email and bulletins on smart phones, Marcus knew that the latest news is a distraction:
Do all the problems of the world distract you? Give yourself time to learn something new and good. Stop being whirled around. Shallow people tire themselves by doing, doing, and yet have no goal toward which to direct their movements or their thoughts. II. 7
“Stop being whirled around.” Not bad advice, especially now that studies have shown that multi-tasking is an illusion. The fact is, we do only one thing at a time. The question is the duration—how long we stick on one thing. In our day, with news constantly streaming in, we do well to keep this advice from Epictetus close to hand: “Keep this in mind: events don’t care about you, so you can’t care about events” (Handbook, 32).
Seneca the Younger also knew about the dangers of busyness. In “On the Shortness of Life” he says,
Think back on times when you have had a fixed goal. How many days have gone exactly as you had planned, when you had all the time you needed, when you never frowned, when your mind was never troubled? Think about how many times you have been robbed of time without even noticing. Think of the time used up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the attractions of society. Think of how little of yourself has been yours . . .
Epictetus offered this handy bit of advice:
If you wish to improve yourself, accept being thought a bit simple and foolish when it comes to things of this world. Don’t try to look smart. If you look smart, you’re doing something wrong. Here’s the truth: it’s not easy keeping in harmony with nature if you’re out to collect the things of this world—as you grab one thing, another escapes. (Handbook, 13)
That’s summarizes a good deal of the problem, doesn’t it: when we pick up one thing, we drop another.
Seneca perhaps put it most succinctly: “Those who wish to arrive at the goal must follow a single road and not wander on many paths.” (Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 45).
It’s easy to think that people in other times had it easier. I lived in the era before smartphones and computers. People didn’t get around to doing difficult things in those days either. Bad news arrived, even when there were no bulletins on smartphones. Procrastination, distractedness, and lack of focus are human traits, no matter the era or the popular inventions of the day. If we are to focus, each of us must firmly decide not to be whirled around.