How to Carpe Diem

In Education, Essays, Philosophy, Self Improvement

The phrase Carpe Diem comes from a Latin poem by Horace. It’s generally translated as Seize The Day.

The Phrase is actually part of the longer “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero” which translates into “Seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in the next (day)“

If you take the time to think about it, it’s quite obvious that life is just a series of days. So what you do on a daily basis defines your life and so I think it’s important to consider how you spend your days and, consequently, your life.

The whole Carpe Diem concept has two sides, the philosophical and the practical. Of course, the philosophical aspect is also practical, otherwise it’s just mental masturbation. The difference is that the philosophical aspect of the Carpe Diem concept is all about getting you to think about the way you spend your day, the practical aspect is all about what physical actions you should take each day. There is little point in jumping into action before carefully thinking about what you are going to do.

As I’m sure you’re aware, I am a big fan of actually doing things. The society we live in provides with ample distractions which stop us thinking about our own mortality. Face up to the fact that you are not going to live forever and realise that each day is a gift.

The funny thing is that most people overestimate the amount of things they can get done in a day and underestimate the amount they can do in a year. You might find that as you start to Carpe Diem you actually end up with less results on a daily basis. Don’t be discouraged by this, your life is a long term project, not a weekend seminar.

I think everyone can reap real benefits from trying to experience each day as much as possible.

Disclaimer

Before I give you some practical tips on how to Carpe your Diem you need to be aware that you cannot “Seize” every single day of your life. You cannot, will not and should not seize each and every single day of your life. Not even close. If you can really fully capture and truly “live” just one day of each week, that already puts you way ahead of 99% of the people out there.

Just remember that life doesn’t last forever and you don’t have the certainty of tomorrow. The reason that a lot of things don’t get done is because people don’t realise that they are rushed for time. I’ve spoke at length about this in a previous essay.

That said, you need to accept the reality of things. There are distractions, there are unforeseen circumstances and there are plenty of things to get annoyed about. This is the noise of life. The trick is not to let that get you down. I think that the art of making the most of your day is inherently linked to being selective with what you choose to do. You can find more information about this idea about being selective in my essays on the 80/20 rule.

You need to pick your battles, so to speak. Take weekends off, or one week off a month or whatever works for you. Trying to work 100% every single day is a sure-fire way to burn yourself out and not actually accomplish anything.

You may find it difficult to Carpe Diem if you aren’t doing something you enjoy. If you’re working a dead end job you hate my advice is to plan to quit as soon as possible and find something you actually want to do.

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

~ Confucius

The Key Point

Don’t fall into the trap of the believing in the world of tomorrow!

Remember, things only actually get done in the now.

Living in the Moment

I guess a better motto would by “Seize the moment”. After all, that’s all life is: a series of moments. There is nothing of the past but memories and memorabilia and the future is unpredictable to say the least. . Life is quite strange in the fact that you can’t grasp the present, it’s gone as soon as you try. The famous quote by Heraclitus about how “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” definitely nudges us towards the correct viewpoint, but perhaps the point is that no man can ever step into the same river once?

I think what we can take away from this is that when you are doing something, focus 100% on that and don’t think about the past or the future. More on this point later.

Face Death

While everyone is aware that they are mortal, few people bother to contemplate what that actually signifies. It’s easy to take the day for granted if we just assume that we will live to see tomorrow. You should live each day is if it were your last day. This doesn’t mean what you might imagine it to mean.I’m not advocating unrestrained hedonism on a daily basis. What I am advocating is doing what really matters. The kind of stuff that you might be inclined to do if you wanted to finish your life’s work and you knew you only had a short time left.

By periodically reflecting on the fact that we will someday not be alive we can actually increase our appreciation of today, after all, it could be our last day! The real goal here is not to change your actions as much as to change the thinking behind your actions. Obviously this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan anything for tomorrow just because there is a slim possibility that you will be dead by then. The point is to remember to live and appreciate today while planning for the future.

You’re not Entitled to Tomorrow

You’re not entitled to anything, for that matter. There is no natural law that says you should be comfortable or that anything should stay the way it is. Remember how lucky you are, but at the same time realise that everything is temporary and so it’s worth making the most of the time you have now. Your situation might change in the future.

There is very little difference between you and a starving African child who will die in the next few months from some horrible disease. The difference is that you were born somewhere else. That’s it. Reflect on that and remember how lucky you are. You are far more fortunate than you realise and so you have a duty to make the most of each and everyday. Tomorrow might not bring good news!

Remember: life doesn’t owe you anything.

Practical Advice for Everyday Life

1.Wake up Early

First things first. You need to wake up early. This much is obvious, after all if you wake up at lunchtime, there is not much diem left to carpe.

Think about it: by the time your competition wakes up (and yes, you have competition, welcome to the real™ world) you can already be well on your way to seizing the day. While they are still stumbling out of bed, you will have already exercised, showered, enjoyed a healthy breakfast, read part of a good book and then made coffee or green tea for your loved ones. Your competition stands no chance. It’s a known fact that productive people wake up early.

From a practical perspective, you need to get a system in place that guarantees you wake up. A good way is to have two simultaneous alarms. After a while, you won’t have problems waking up early. Hint: it requires going to bed earlier.

2. Put the Big Things First

Let me tell you a short story:

A philosophy professor stood before his class with some items in front of him. When class began, he wordlessly picked up a large empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks about two inches in diameter. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles, poured them into the jar and lightly shook it. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks. The students laughed. He asked his students again if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else.

“Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this is your life. The rocks are the important things—your family, your partner, your health, your children—anything that is so important to you that if it were lost, you would be nearly destroyed. The pebbles are the other things in life that matter, but on a smaller scale. The pebbles represent things like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else—the small stuff.

“If you put the sand or the pebbles into the jar first, there is no room for the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your energy and time on the small stuff, material things, you will never have room for the things that are truly most important. Pay attention to the things that are critical in your life. Play with your children. Take your partner out dancing. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal.”

I don’t think there is anything to add really. Focus on the important stuff, after all you won’t remember all the silly petty issues in ten year’s time.

3. Develop the “Just Do It” Mentality.

While Nike is not the greatest company in the world considering their terrible track record with sweatshops, they’ve run what is, in my opinion, one of the best marketing campaigns ever. Just Do It. The old saying “you can’t win a race without entering” rings a bell. To accomplish anything, you need to start, don’t worry if everything is not perfect, you can polish things up later on.

The first draft of anything is shit.

~ Ernest Hemingway

This is perhaps one of the best way to instantly increase your productivity. Once you start, you might just surprise yourself with the amount you get done.

4.Educate Yourself Everyday

Every day is lost in which we do not learn something useful. Man has no nobler or more valuable possession than time; therefore never put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today.

~ Ludwig Van Beethoven

I’ve spoken about this at length in my aptly named essay How to Educate Yourself Everyday. I think the first sentence of the above quote from Beethoven sums up the way I think about education. Real education is about improving the self and improving the world. If you take even the smallest of steps forward each day, you might just surprise where you end up in the long term. A good way to think of this is to imagine that you have a solid block of marble and you have an image of a statue in your head. Each day you live is a small chisel in the marble and that slowly brings the statue into being. Whether that statue looks like the Statue of David or a gargoyle is up to you.

5. Make Sure You Never Fail

The Stoics have a really interesting viewpoint on how to set goals and desires. They say that you should never enter a competition where you stand a chance of losing. While at first this may appear to be a great strategy to become a hermit, it does actually make sense when you dig a little deeper.

What they mean is that the goals (or “competitions”) you set should be internal goals, not external ones. For instance, you might take part in a race. Your goal should not be to win the race, after all, that is completely out of your control. There may be runners who are far more genetically gifted than you are. Your goal should be to run the race in the fastest time you can and that’s it. So as long as you can man up, (i.e. grit your teeth and stand the pain of lactic acid buildup in your legs) you cannot fail. Granted, you may well lose the race but that’s irrelevant, you ran to the best of your abilities.

Applied to everything, this can almost instantaneously turn your life around so make sure that when you are busy seizing your day that you remember to strive for internal goals, which are under your control, not external goals that are outside of your control.

Take a read at my essay How to Never Fail for a more indepth discussion on this topic.

6. Be Here, Now

I touched on this subject in the living in the moment section earlier on. So how do you go about living in the moment? I think it’s all about changing the perception of what you can and cannot control. This links up with point number 6, about never failing. If you choose to only act on the things we can actually control, you will never fail.

As a species, we fool ourselves into thinking that we can know and control far more that we actually can. Think about the 2007 financial crash, most of the industry would have called you a madman only a year or two beforehand if you tried to call it out but they were, on the whole, caught with their pants down. The same people who couldn’t see the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression are still working on predicting oil and currency prices for the next fifty years. It’s would be quite funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

Everything falls into three categories:

  1. Things we can fully control
  2. Things we can partially control
  3. Things we cannot control.

The things we can fully control are our actions and our thoughts. While it may appear that we can only partially control our actions, this is not actually the case. We have full control of our actions, and therefore we also have full responsibility. The majority of people have such a low level of self control that it appears that their actions are something that they cannot control but this is just a choice they make. It may not be a conscious choice, but it’s a choice nevertheless. I think that most people prefer to claim not to be control so they don’t have to take responsibility for when things go wrong.

I am going to take the ridiculous habit I have of quoting myself (modestly, of course) to new heights by quoting from this very essays about the things we can partially control:

For instance, you might take part in a race. Your goal should not be to win the race, after all, that is completely out of your control. There may be runners who are far more genetically gifted than you are. Your goal should be to run the race in the fastest time you can and that’s it. So as long as you can man up, (i.e. grit your teeth and stand the pain of lactic acid buildup in your legs) you cannot fail. Granted, you may well lose the race but that’s irrelevant, you ran to the best of your abilities.

Everything else falls into the third category of things that we cannot control. This includes other people’s thoughts and actions, death, external events, nature and, most importantly, the past.

So how does this help us to “Be here, now“? We often worry about the things that we cannot control. This is actually ridiculous if you think about it. How can it possibly help us. What is strange is that we hardly worry about what we can control. I mean, you hardly see anyone being nervous about how they are going to behave in the future, they just assume they will fine.

So my advice is this: Focus on the present by understanding that you cannot change the past and that almost everything is not within your control. If something bad is going to happen anyway and you can’t control it, what’s the point worrying about it? You are letting something that hasn’t happened yet ruin your present, and then it’s going to happen and affect you in your future present state. So you are doubling the amount of worrying and negative feelings related to that situation!

You can find a larger discussion on control in my aptly-named essay On control

7. Be Bold

No great achievements were made by people being conventional and playing by the rules. Be bold. Break the rules. Make sure that everyday you question the assumptions that everyone makes. Push the envelope, see what you can get away with. Even if you happen to “fail”, just think of the failure as a discovery of something that doesn’t work.

If you live a comfortable, boring and unadventurous daily existence then that’s exactly what your life will become. Moderate amounts of external stress is what makes us stronger.

8. Take one step forward each day

By making a conscious decision to improve each day you are putting yourself on the right path towards the good things in life. Just make sure you don’t stagnate. Each day push yourself that little bit further, that little bit harder. You might notice much difference day in day out but when you look back over a timespan of months or years you will see huge positive changes. I had a goal of being able to do 100 pushups. When I started training I could do 18 pushups, badly. After just a month of training I was doing five sets of 20, something unimaginable for me only 30 days before.

A good way to approach this is to break down your goals into such small easy steps that you cannot possibly fail to accomplish a step each day. Of course, your goals should be internal goals so you should not be able to fail.

Conclusion

So my challenge to you is to start taking action today. Remember this is your life we talking about, it’s not game. So stop watching TV, stop surfing the web aimlessly, stop watching porn, throw away the Xbox and actually do something with your life, today.

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