Tag Archives: Stoicism

The plague that is social media

It might take a moment of clarity or an absolute meltdown, but the realization is the same — we are being bombarded with so much distraction and insignificant ranting that social media becomes a troublesome burden rather than some harmless pass time.

Social media is designed to be addictive. Like almost any domain you want to look at, there is no escaping the corporate imperative of having your brain diverted from it’s course and firmly entranced by some new piece of novelty. Cat videos are usually cited here, but the plethora of friends meals, kid photos and their precious opinion about the election infiltrate your retinas and ultimately take up space in your frontal lobes.

So social media is nothing but candy — junk food that ought only be consumed occasionally but often becomes an addiction.

It turns out addiction isn’t an extreme choice of words in this case either. Author and computer scientist Cal Newport says social media is like having a slot machine in your pocket. It’s inherently addictive to seek out novel stimuli and to doubly get the social proof that comes from getting positive feedback in the form of likes and comments on your own posts.

In this way, social media provides a steady stream of dopamine ‘hits’ throughout the day — little pleasurable snacks that keep boredom at bay.

Seen this way, social media hits can be likened to avoidance strategies. With all the responsibilities and problems on one’s plate, what harm could a little mental detour have?

Therein lies the problem. One needs to see one’s addictive behaviour as a problem in order for it to register as something they need to change. One or two short viewings or interactions isn’t the problem — it’s the compulsion to repeatedly disengage from reality and dive into the online world that is the real cost.

To that end, may I suggest going without all forms of social media for 7 days. Go ahead, try it. You will learn a great deal about your habit, your compulsion to use it and you might find, as I have, that there is a tremendously peaceful mental space that opens up.

That mental space is precious to me now and I have to fight hard for it. So many things are banging on the window of my consciousness wanting in. If I’m not proactively setting boundaries for those distractions, my day will be swayed this way and that with little of my conscious input.

Cal Newport, in his Tedx talk Quit Social Media makes the point that social media companies are in the entertainment business and not a savoury one at that. He says that they hire “attention engineers” who borrow principles from casino gambling to make them as addictive as possible.

Yes, your attention is valued that much by media and social media so why aren’t we waking up and valuing our attention enough to limit our consumption of these apps?

The bigger picture

In Deep Work, Cal Newport outlines what is truly valuable in today’s economy (indeed in any economy ever): “The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Cal calls this “Deep Work” as contrasted by the most common type mode of approaching life — scattered, distracted and fragmented attention. Cal argues, successfully in my opinion, that Deep Work is a rare commodity and that anything truly valuable that is being created today is coming from a deep work approach.

On the other hand, what the market does not value is tasks that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. He says social media is the epitome of low value work (after all, a 16 year old with smartphone can do it!)

This gels nicely with the idea of craftsmanship, a seemingly antiquated idea that dedication by a craftsperson with exceptional skill and expertise leads to inherently valuable and meaningful products. However, that’s a rant for another day.

For the time being, I encourage you to examine the impact social media is having on your life and take the 7 day challenge. I’m betting you’ll learn a lot about the impact of social media and some things about yourself in the process.

I can’t tell you how much freer my life seems without constant detours off into some meaningless piece of fluff content or rage filled hate post.

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Stoic Week 2015 — Hitting the ‘reset’ button

Stoic Week 2015
Stoic Week 2015 commences on 2 November. What is Stoic Week? In a nutshell, it is a chance for anyone who wants to understand what the Stoic perspective and daily practice entails, and to experience some of the benefits that comes with developing a Stoic approach to life and all its complexities.

This will be my second Stoic week, so to make sure I get the most out of the experience I’m starting to get momentum the week prior by really taking seriously the central tenets of Stoicism, including:

  • Virtue is the only true good worth pursuing
  • Living a frugal lifestyle with a reduced focus on the acquisition of external ‘goods’ and the cultivation of a contentment for the internal life and qualities
  • Developing a mindful moment-to-moment approach to “impressions” and learning to use my power of judgement to nip unhealthy desires and fears in the bud
  • Recognising what is in my power and focusing my efforts in those areas
  • Accepting what is not within my power
  • Practising Stoic exercises such as the morning and evening meditations and reading Stoic texts.

If you are new to Stoicism, then I suggest you check out the Stoicism Today site for a complete run down on what Stoicism is and how to take part in Stoic Week.

One of the things I struggled with after Stoic Week 2014 was keeping the momentum going following that 7 days of intense focus on Stoic principles. It is too easy to fall back into patterns of indulgence in excessive irrational pleasure, including food and drink, wanton consumerism and wasting time on the internet.

I’ve found myself focusing too much on things I can’t control and feeling anxious because of this. Modern Western cultures prize insecurity and excessive hedonism, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us or that we should continue to participate.

Pushing the reset bUTTON

Stoic Week 2015, for me, will therefore be a reset of sorts. By taking a flying start and beginning my Stoic intensive the week before Stoic Week, I believe I’ll be able to better adopt Stoicism as an “operating system” for making better decisions in life.

Stoic Week is a great opportunity to reflect on your life, examine it through a Stoic lens and gain valuable insights on how your life could be better by taking on a more Stoic attitude to life.

A practical philosophy

The success of Stoicism in recent years is in part due to its practicality — it is philosophy you can use to lead a better life.

With that in mind, here are some of the things I’ll personally be doing to put Stoic principles into practice. This is in addition to the Stoic techniques that will be outlined in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook:

  • Eat only a simple meat-free and dairy-free diet
  • Manage cravings, hedonism with proper use of impressions
  • Cultivate simplicity in all things
  • Perform simple bodyweight only workouts with full presence
  • Be a producer: Make good use of my time in service of producing work rather than consuming (i.e. Being a creator of web content that helps others rather than consuming content on the web).
  • Act from my highest values and virtues, not emotions
  • Cultivate a disciplined mind: Minimise distractions by applying the Pomodoro Technique to ensure sustained attention on the task I am doing
  • Sleep well
  • (New addition) Cold showers

*For an idea of what Stoic Week entails, check out the 2014 Stoic Week Handbook (pdf).

Just do it!

Stoicism has already had a profound effect in my life and the lives of thousands of others. If you’re religious, it will make you a better believer. If you’re not religious, Stoicism will give you an operating system and code of virtue ethics that will make you a better person, family member, friend and citizen of Earth.

Stoic Week also serves as a research project, based at the University of Exeter in the UK so by participating, you can help add vital data in to the mix.

Rethinking the role of pleasures in life

Many people don’t even consider the role of pleasure in creating a ‘good’ and ‘flourishing’ life.

In fact the word flourishing probably doesn’t factor in to any one person’s philosophy of life.

This is primarily a cultural thing — very few of us are ever presented with the idea of questioning the cultural norms and attitudes we are inculcated in. You’re a consumer, you consume and thereby participate in the great cultural experiment of no-limits capitalism.

It is my contention that life truly worth living requires some critical reflection on the relationship we have with pleasure and the external objects and events that we rely on for fulfillment.

To some, the idea that pleasure isn’t somehow connected to a valuable and worthwhile life is dumbfounding. This was certainly my realisation when I first discovered Stoicism and virtue ethics as a way of developing a personal code for living.

In fact, the pursuit of pleasure, despite being a tremendously self-centred preoccupation, often leads to discontentment or worse, addictions.

“It is self-discipline, above all, that causes pleasure.”
— Socrates

As it turns out, philosophers have been debating ideas around what constitutes a good life for at least 2500 years. Only in the last few centuries has philosophy been preoccupied with areas that are academically interesting, but bare little relevance to practical living.

Epicurus and the “pleasure garden”

Of the Hellenistic schools, the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans held that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In fact, the Cyrenaic school only lasted a century — their project essentially carried on by the Epicureans.

Like most words pertaining to Greek philosophy that survive in modern English, ‘Epicurean’ distorts the original meaning of the word.

Epicurus did expound a hedonistic philosophy, but his take on pleasure was vastly different to that of the modern standard. His hedonistic ethics were aimed at the attainment of ataraxia — freedom from unnecessary pain while being content with simple pleasures.

Epicureans were not rampant pleasure seekers at all costs. Food, drink and sex were not objects of unusual desire for them. Instead, Epicurus and his ardent followers did all they could do maintain this blissful state including:

  • Withdrawing from politics and, to a large extent, public life
  • Retiring to a plush garden to practice philosophy and live the good life among friends
  • Enjoy pleasures in moderation while abstaining from unhealthy pleasurable pursuits
  • Avoiding superstitious beliefs that cause undue existential harm (e.g. Gods that punish us in an afterlife).

The latter point to me is the most interesting as a modern skeptic. Epicurus’ theory of atomism stemmed from his insistence that beliefs should be proportioned to the empirical evidence. Epicurus thought it unnecessary to worry about the gods and to fear the consequences of judgement from the gods. This was a bold departure from the beliefs of the populous at the time.

So Epicureans pursued a state of tranquility through the taming of desire, because they knew that wantonly fulfilling desires is an unending pursuit that leads to discontentment.

Staunch Stoics

The Stoics went one further than the Epicureans — pleasure is not a good at all, in fact virtue (those actions that perfect one’s character) is the only good. The Stoics were unimpressed with pleasure and craving after desires. They thought these to be the cause of much human unhappiness.

The way to combat perturbations or “unnatural movements of the soul” is to live apatheia (without passions). To achieve this state, one must pursue only those things that are within one’s control. Any ‘passion’ in Stoicism is inappropriate because the presence of such intense emotions can only arise in a person if they mistakenly place value in an external object, sensation or event (which are only indifferents with respect to a flourishing life).

That is Stoicism in a nutshell — quell passions like desire by judging only internal things within our control to be good. Value those things and be indifferent to everything else (in fact we should love whatever befalls us because that is what nature has willed).

Stoic practice is therefore training to hone one’s wisdom about what is truly good and what is truly bad and to act in accordance with nature.

As with much of the Stoic canon, Epictetus is bang on when he says: “It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”

The mental disposition of yearning, craving or lusting after something external is the very definition of discontentment. However, this way of thinking, puts us squarely at odds with the frantic, never satisfied life we’ve landed ourselves in.

What that means for us today

Many people from all walks of life are waking up to the fact that there is more to life than just fulfilling every desire that enters their consciousness.

In rich countries, we’re sold on the idea from multiple sources — the media, big business, governments… That the goal in life is to have the house, the car the toys, the holidays and everything in between. We’re supposed to work ourselves into the ground to pay for these things and when we can’t we can just sign on the dotted line and go in to debt.

The above narrative is not only faulty it is the also the cause of a great amount of human unhappiness, environmental degradation and social problems. The lie persists, however, because so much is at stake for those who profit from us buying into it.

Socrates said that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. Perhaps the most insightful and life changing aspect of my study in Hellenistic philosophy stems from challenging the role desire plays in my life. For me, preoccupation with pleasure has reduced dramatically and the positive results as well as increased sense of well-being has flowed into all aspects of my life.

Your path might be different to mine — I have principally studied Stoicism, but it really doesn’t matter. Eastern philosophies and religions have also much to say about how desires and aversions rule our lives. The point is: examine your life, don’t just sleepwalk through it. And evaluating the effect of pleasure and desire in your life is about as fundamental an examination as you can get.

Even if you come out of your study of practical philosophy as a full blown consumerist hedonist, at least you’ll know why and be able to recognise the limitations of that philosophy of life and be prepared for any challenges that you may face.

Stoic week 2014 and the necessity of philosophy

Philosophy has been a source of strength and wisdom throughout the ages — two things sadly missing from our modern world.

Next week is Stoic Week 2014 — an event organised by researchers and Stoicism enthusiasts from the University of Exeter in the UK. In its third year, Stoic Week is both an experiment and a chance for people to “try on” a different philosophy of life.

If you don’t do anything for Stoic week but get the Stoic Week Handbook, you will still receive tremendous value from the event.

Ancient philosophy is important today because our modern cultural ideas have a lot to answer for. For one, we’re taught to worship our emotions. We’re told we should have that new pair of shoes, eat that cake and basically reward ourselves for getting up in the morning.

We are also taught that everything should basically go our way and if it doesn’t this is cause for disappointment. Having ones plans disintegrate right in front of their eyes will unhinge many people, leading to frustration, anger and despair.

Philosophy, particularly the Stoic School informs us that we’re misguided in valuing pleasure too highly and for shielding ourselves from discomfort. The remedy? Start by assessing your expectations.

Expectations — the tranquility destroyers

Recently, I heard an interview with Tony Robbins where he said “If you want a better life trade expectations for appreciations”. Expectations are simply delusions we have about how things ought to go. Expectations set us up for frustration and disappointment.

For one, having expectations relies heavily on our ability to (a) sum up the reality of a situation in order to (b) make realistic predictions about how things will turn out. Human minds are unreliable in both these instances. Sure we can use experience to come up with reasonable estimates about how reality will work out but the universe is far more complex and chaotic than we could ever account for.

The point that Stoic philosophers repeatedly asserted the importance of knowing what is within our power to control and what isn’t.

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” – Epictetus

A key Stoic maxim is that to have a good life, one must “live according to nature”. In other words, things that happen and the things we have in our life come from providence and can just as easily be taken away. Fretting over things that happen is contrary to nature. Trying to control what is outside ourselves is the source of human suffering.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius asserts often in his Meditations that our concern and despair for things that happen as a matter of natural course of the universe is misguided and pointless. He often mentions that we’ll soon be dead so what’s the point of suffering for no reason.

“… But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.” – Aurelius, Meditations.

Freedom comes from within

If we allow ourselves to be swept away by the impressions (thoughts/appearances) then we have given away our freedom.

Epictetus was the most forceful in this respect. He repeatedly reminds us in his Discourses of the need to be on guard from ‘impressions’ or appearances. In fact the opening lines of Epictetus’ Enchiridion (The Handbook) proceed as follows:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This is where ancient philosophy meets modern therapeutic practices such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Freedom, Epictetus says, flows from the ability to step in between impressions and not be bold over by passions that flow from those impressions. Epictetus wants us to realise that we have control to step in and judge impressions, delay judgement, exert self-control and gain freedom from being swept away by external things and events.

“Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” – Epictetus

A prescription for a better life

How then do we put expectations aside and not be swept away by external events and circumstances? The Stoics devised a number of practices to fully integrate philosophy into the fibre of your being.

Realign your perceptions with reality

Firstly, do a thorough analysis of what is in your power to control and what isn’t. Then discard all concern for those things you can’t control. This practice is connected with the Stoic conception of values. Truly good things are not conditional — they are intrinsically good. These are the virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance (self control).

Realign your expectations

In Western society we are sheltered from the world in many ways. We find innovative ways to avoid thinking about death, we expect things to go well and we constantly seek comfort. It seems somewhat strange then to question these societal norms.

But keeping ourselves in a suspended state of comfort and ignorance just means when things go wrong in life, and they will, we are more likely to not have the courage, strength and wherewithal to navigate through the difficulty and emerge victorious on the other side.

Enter the most prized (in my opinion) Stoic exercise: Praemeditatio futurorum malorum — Anticipation of future difficulties (literally: future evils).

Spend time occasionally contemplating misfortune, including losing the people and things we love. Imagine losing these things in a sort of detached way, not in a way that causes anxiety. The goal is to make sure you are fully aware that these things can and do happen in life and to be prepared should they happen.

This one exercise will recalibrate your expectations and help you develop a deeper sense of gratitude for everyone and everything in your life. By contemplating what life is like having lost the things and people in your life, you are more fully able to feel joy and gratitude in the present. Positivity through negative thinking… I like it!

Both Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Marcus Aurelius devised negative thinking practices to handle the rudeness, annoyances and challenges that arise in everyday life.

Aurelius, who was embroiled in the turbulent political life of Roman Court, used exercise below to keep an even keel.

Aurelius morning exercise

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

Seneca On Anger

Seneca speaks quite timelessly in his essay On Anger about the need to accept the fact that things don’t always go our way in order that we be at peace with them. Seneca’s rather insightful observation is that anger not only had dire consequences if not controlled, it also resulted when we were shocked by events that happen.

Here is a good exercise to demonstrate the power of Seneca’s insight. For most of us living in cities, this will be of particular benefit.

Spend a few minutes every morning thinking about and even expecting people to cut you off in traffic, being stuck in traffic, being late for a meeting… Expecting people to be in a rush and inconsiderate on the road.

Expecting people to let you down, be rude, greedy, impatient and obnoxious inoculates you against these things. They are after all, to be expected as the natural course of things.

Practical philosophy to overcome modern ills

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” – Epictetus

My wife is often the source of both inspiration and incisive comments. While this can be tough to handle sometimes (no one likes hearing the truth all the time!) my life is immeasurably better because of her honest appraisals of my conduct (a euphemism if ever there was one).

Anyhow, she made a comment a while ago that really rocked me. After reading a couple of articles on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Blog, I expressed an interest Stoic philosophy as guidance for how to live a better life. She laughed and said that I already had a philosophy of life — hedonism! In that moment I had keen insight into why I needed to pursue a philosophy of life. Hedonism, while not inherently a bad philosophy of life, is the default approach to life most of us in industrialised nations take.

Hedonism: The satisfaction of desires is the highest good and proper aim of human life.

Hedonism is, at least for many, leads to an unrewarding way of life. The ancients in many schools of thought observed that the pursuit of pleasures for their own sake was not only easy to do (no special character development needed) it also had a cost associated with it.

This explains the popularity today of Buddhist retreats, Zen Buddhism and mindfulness in the modern world. The way many of us live today — in large industrial cities — is a relatively new state of affairs for the human animal to be dealing with. Couple this with the need to fulfill the numerous roles in the many relationships we have and it really is a perfect storm for burn out.

What people need are practical approaches to decompress and deal with the world, other than mindless shopping/consuming in the vain hope at the end of it we feel fulfilled and content.

Ancient philosophy as an operating system for your life

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.”
– Henry David Thoreau

The phrase “what’s your philosophy of life” might not be the most common dinner party question. In fact it probably isn’t something many people consciously think about. We tend to take on the attitudes, beliefs and approaches of those around us without much questioning.

Philosophy is also a word with baggage. To most people, philosophy is a purely academic exercise, and the joy of learning the wisdom of the philosophers is lost sometime between assignment one and the end of term exam.

This is unfortunate — philosophy  in the ancient Greek and Roman sense was practical philosophy. A student of one of the many schools in Athens and Rome would have as there goal the attainment of certain virtues in life through philosophical contemplation and the practice of key tenets.

I like Tim Ferriss’ take on philosophy — that it should be an operating system for making better decisions.

Any philosophy of life must address a few key questions:

  • What is our true nature as humans?
  • What should we value?
  • How should we act given our values/nature?
  • How does one go about dealing with problems, obstacles and misfortune?
  • What is our role in society?

Stoicism, self-control and virtue

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” – Epictetus

Any philosophy of life, other than hedonism, will require self-control. While maximising our opportunities for pleasure seems logical, pleasure for pleasure’s sake ultimately isn’t a rewarding way to live for many people, and requires little or no self-control at all.

Hollywood offers the best examples of this — people who seemingly have it all are constantly destroying themselves and the lives of others through sexual excess, drugs, alcohol, aggression and a host of other destructive practices. According to hedonism, these people should be maximally happy, but we know for a fact that many of them aren’t. Fame and riches own them, and sadly it costs lives.

Failing to put our circumstances into proper perspective is part of the problem. The Stoics, for example, advocated forgoing pleasure and in some cases advise us to actively seek out discomfort so that we may have the proper appreciation of our circumstances.

With appreciation for what we have now we can abandon the suffering that stem from our desires, making it possible to live a life of durable happiness — a life that remains on a positive path despite what is going on externally.

The happiness conundrum

The Stoics were principally concerned with Eudaimonia — the Greek word that roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’. Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca stated that such a condition can only be achieved by one who has a tranquil mind. This, to me, seems a much more worthy goal in life than the vague and undefined ‘happiness’ which can mean different things to different people. Tranquility, on the other hand, is a state of mind and we can then reason backwards and find ways of achieving this state.

The Stoics devised many practical ways to achieve a tranquil mind and the attainment of virtue (in the classical sense). This is good news for the modern man or woman trying to deal with life’s stresses, temptations, problems and challenges.

Because of this, stoicism is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. After Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism withered on the vine for centuries, only to emerge at several times throughout the past 1000 years.

Zen Buddhism has many cross overs with Stoicism but have different approaches to the same end. Stoic practices tend to be more about reflection and analysis of our lives whereas Zen focuses on meditation and mindfulness. As mentioned earlier, these are increasingly popular as people find them useful for achieving some inner peace in a mad world.

Simple stoic exercises can help you:

  • Develop an operating system for better decision making
  • Deal with stress and eliminate needless suffering
  • Tame pleasures rather than be owned by pleasures
  • Put the value of the people and things in your life in proper perspective
  • Increase your joy in the life you have right now (without trying to fill the void by consuming or chasing ‘external things’).

**Check out the online resources below for specifics on Stoic exercises and practice.

Concluding thoughts

I have lived my entire life to this point taking the easy road. After all, if I didn’t have to exert myself, why should I? Why would I wake up earlier? Why shouldn’t I eat that chocolate bar? The only problem with this style of living is that I ended up coasting through life never really achieving much of anything and infuriating people when I didn’t follow through in my role, whatever that was (husband, co-worker, friend…)

The Stoics were very astute in their observation that relying on external events of objects to create within us the positive emotions is a losing battle.

One of the more profoundly life-changing aspects of stoic principles is in extinguishing stress and eliminating anger. Epictetus probably said it better than anyone:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This quote is a central tenet in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The notion that between an event and our response is a judgment we make. Change the judgment, change the response.

At the end of the day, the philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome had tremendous insights into human nature and how we can flourish, despite the travails of life. Can we gain from their works? Absolutely. Given that these philosophers lived in sophisticated societies at times of war, political turmoil and upheaval, their insights about how to live a good life are as relevant today as they ever were.

Philosophy of life and Stoicism online resources:

The real cost of the distraction epidemic

Every day we waste two of our most precious resources but most people won’t realise what it costs them until it’s too late.

In your typical day, how many distractions do you encounter? Chances are you probably don’t know the answer and you also probably don’t know how much it’s costing you. We tend not to notice how much time we waste in a typical day delighting our minds with minutiae and other trivialities but the cost of such distractions is more than just a unit of time. It’s also costing us quality of life.

On another level, a war is being raged to capture your attention and hold it. Modern culture is geared around consumption, to the point where governments regard us as consumers first and citizens second.

Western societies particularly have never been as unbalanced as they are now. Because consumption is king, everywhere around us are things screaming to grab our attention. Billboards, TV, mobile apps, news, the internet in general, everyone wants a piece of your two most precious resources: time and attention.

Time and attention

Distraction is just a way of life for most of us. We wake up and check our emails, Facebook, Twitter, maybe a cute YouTube vid of some cat somewhere doing something somewhat cute. We get to work and probably read something in transit that piqued our curiosity.

Throughout the day we’ll check sports results, news and other things that amount to attention leakage.

Why is attention important? We can never get time back, that we all know. What is sometimes forgotten is that what you do with your time is crucial to living a good life.

JOMO

The movement affectionately known as JOMO — the Joy of Missing Out — is the antisthesis of something that has become known as FOMO — the Fear of Missing Out. Think about that for a minute. Fear of missing out on what? Kim Kardashian’s latest belfie? (Yes, a picture of her ass). The latest fashion, what Rhianna is wearing, is she back with Chris Brown again? Why the fascination? Are famous people really worth looking up to when you look at many of the lives they lead and the fact they cannot get a moments peace from the paparazzi?

JOMO is the exact opposite of what marketers and the big businesses they represent want. They need you glued to social media, TV, the internet and following famous people on Twitter (as an example — I’m not picking on Twitter here!) In order to reclaim your life back from the obsession of checking our phones every 10 minutes we need to realise how a constant bombardment information is affecting us.

Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca warns against such obsessions in his must-read letter, On the Shortness of Life:

“Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust.

“Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides.” – Lucius Seneca

*The full text of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life can be found on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week Blog.

Distracted from what?

In order to be distracted you have be distracted from something. Now, if the purpose of your life as defined by you consciously or unconsciously is to indulge your attention in everything that comes your way then distraction isn’t really distraction for you. For those who want more from life, better quality relationships, a healthy state of mind and body, a degree of security and options… Distraction is our enemy.

How you use your time determines the quality of your life. It also contributes to a regret-free way of living. No one wants to wake up 20 years in the future only to realise that they’ve wasted their lives going from link to link on trashy news websites the internet, reading gossip magazines, playing video games constantly or watching endless reruns on TV.

Now, if you like these doing these things it isn’t a judgement on my part to tell you what you can and can’t read, do or watch. My main point is a Socratic one: that the unexamined life is an impoverished one.

If you key in on what you really value in life and operate everyday in accordance with those values, distractions are the enemy. All becomes clear when you realise what is truly worth valuing in life.

As Seneca warns, vice is the enemy of the good life. Anything external that captures your attention regularly and distracts you from truly important things in life is vice. Modern society seems fixated on the next novel piece of news, but honestly, how is that working out for you?

Chances are it’s not working out for you because multitude of messages dangled in front of you everyday aren’t designed to benefit you — they are designed to make it easier for you to hand over your attention and therefore your behaviour to suit others’ needs and desires.

Feather in the wind or iron fortress?

The bottom line is thus: you can either go through your day blown around in different directions by the external stimuli bombarding your senses or you can take reasonable steps to wall yourself off from the mortar fire ‘out there’ designed to capture your attention.

With a solid understanding of your values, and a goal-oriented approach to life, you can take control back of your attention and intentionally direct it to that which creates real meaning for you.

With that criteria in place, you can then ask yourself throughout the day: “Is this for who I am and what I want from life or isn’t it?”

Create an inner fortress — know who you are and what is really important to you in life. Living purposefully like this guards against the hounds gnashing their teeth at your attention and provides the motivation to seek out more good stuff and less mind-deadening crap so common in our modern world.

Next post: A philosophical approach that cures many of the ills of modern life.