Apotheosis episode 33: Sine qua non. "Life is long if you know how to use it." ~Seneca

Episode 33: Sine qua non

Ryan D Thompson Leadership, Modern, Skills, Values, Vision

Key ideas

“Life is long if you know how to use it,” declared Seneca 2000 years ago. The years can pass in a blink if you squander your days on pointless pursuits. Find your sine qua non and focus on that above all else.

  • Each of us can easily identify activities that take up a lot of time but that contribute very little to our success, mission, or wellbeing. The days can fly past, caught up in a whirlwind of busy-ness and distraction.
  • We can instead choose to focus on important things, whatever those might be for each of us. Spending our precious days focused on our sine qua non will lead to a more fulfilling life.
  • But of course, we have carefully engineered distractions buzzing in our pockets, 25-mile priority lists, and a culture that prizes being hyper-busy and stretched thin like too little butter on too much bread.
  • While it’s clearly not easy to break free of the pull of cultural gravity driving us to distraction, it is achievable. If we use our time well, our life can be filled with the things we love.


You’re walking past a building site, dozens of people busy laboring away like a hive of bees. Some workers carry materials, others hammer away on framing the walls, and another group digs trenches for pipes. Off in the corner, a man toils with a stack of bricks. He moves quickly and intentionally, sweat pouring off his forehead as he drags a massive pile of bricks from one corner to another. He sets them down, takes a quick breath, and then moves the stack again. The longer you watch, though, something becomes apparent. While he’s undoubtedly working hard moving this stack of bricks, that’s all he’s doing. Just moving bricks around from one place to another with no rhyme or reason. If he continues like this, he might get pretty fit – but he won’t have contributed anything to constructing the building. 

Okay, so this is a ridiculous and contrived example. But I’d bet most of us can find some form of pointless brick moving in our day if we’re honest with ourselves. Whether it’s responding to every email, excessive planning, obsessive doom scrolling, or whatever your brick may be, we can all fall into similar time traps. Convincing ourselves that since we’re hyper-busy, we’re on the path to accomplishment. But unless we choose important tasks that contribute to a bigger goal, we’re just shifting bricks around.

This episode is the second in a series on leading with values. The value of interest this week is focusing on the essential. Perhaps most eloquently described in the Latin phrase sine qua non, which translates as “without which, not.” In other words, something so important that nothing else matters. It’s about finding and focusing on what is most essential in your life and work. We could easily fritter away days, months, or years doing all the wrong stuff. Or we can spend our precious days building something great.

There are many ways I could take this exploration of sine qua non. But for me, the first essential thing that comes to mind is family. As a father of three young kids (one being a newborn), my heart, mind, and of course, most of my time go into caring for my family. And being a parent has also taught me a lot about the importance of using time wisely. Every moment of the day seems filled with activity. Wake up, get kids up, get kids ready. Work all day. Then kids’ activities, playtime, reading, dinner, and finally, the bedtime tornado. The day can fly by. I never know when I will have 10 minutes of free time. So when I’m able to carve out some time, I don’t want to squander it. 

This concern about not squandering our days goes back millennia. The Stoics spoke extensively on the preciousness of each moment. As Seneca said in On the Shortness of Life, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” He goes on to say, “Life is long if you know how to use it.”

I certainly wasted plenty of my days earlier in life. I pursued activities that could, at best, be described as pointless, at worst, as damn near self-destructive.

Age, experience, and the aforementioned kids have taught me to use my days wisely. I want to infuse meaning and purpose into my life. I simply don’t have time for stuff that isn’t part of my core interests and goals.

Unfortunately, it ain’t so easy.

For one, we have a flurry of distractions shouting for our attention every day. Many of us have our phones glued to our hands. Notifications ding and buzz like a pocket full of slot machines. Many of those blips and beeps could easily be classified as meaningless junk.

And second, we have things that are jockeying for our attention that presume to be very important. As author Greg McKeown describes in his book Essentialism, many of us and the organizations we work for have lists of 25 plus priorities. But when we have that many priorities, we are effectively prioritizing nothing. Our double-digit priority lists spread us way too thin, like too little butter on too much bread. The word “priority” originally meant choosing one thing. It refers to the “prior” or first thing – what is done before everything else. 

Instead of prioritizing that one most important thing, we end up “majoring in minor things,” as the saying goes. We divide our energy instead of concentrating it. 

It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to learn this lesson. I spent many years dividing myself between 100 different activities. Some of these diversions and experiments were valuable, like dabbling in various artistic pursuits or studying diverse subjects. But many of the diversions were pointless detours that devoured my time without adding much value to my life. I often found myself task-switching, chasing after the next shiny thing that popped up.

There is no magic bullet to true prioritization, in the original sense of the word – to selecting the one prior thing that you do before all else. But some approaches can help cut through the noise.

One is a variation of the Five Whys technique I mentioned in the last episode on kaizen. We can ask ourselves, What is the “why” behind this thing? Why should I do it? Keep asking yourself why. Dig progressively deeper to discover a good reason – or a lack thereof. Is the answer compelling enough to move forward? Sometimes I’ve realized that I’m only doing something because I think I’m, quote, supposed to be doing this or out of some sense of obligation. For example, I don’t waste time on books, movies, or TV shows that haven’t grabbed me within the first 15 pages or 10 minutes. While I used to feel obligated to finish what I started, I no longer waste my time.

Another approach is to reflect on how a possible activity connects to your values, personal or organizational mission, or otherwise provides real value. One spin on this would be the minimalist or Marie Condo approach: does it bring you joy? If it’s not a “hard yes” but rather a “squishy maybe,” then say heck no.

And then, we could apply a more formal method like developing a theory of change. We can map out how a task might progress from point A to B and then C and how that could ultimately achieve a goal. What are all the necessary steps along the way? How do we know these actions might be effective? What evidence do we have? Reflecting on the reality of the situation helps us to avoid magical thinking. This process can eliminate ineffective actions and focus on those that will lead toward our goal.

However we manage to resist the tides of distraction, choosing to live and work with intention leads us toward a more fulfilling experience on this planet.

If we use our time well, our life can be filled with the things we love. Likewise, our work can be impactful as we concentrate on realizing the one big thing rather than majoring in minor things. Remember Seneca’s words: “Life is long if you know how to use it.” So let’s use it well.

That’s all for this week. Join me again next time as I continue this series on values. I’ll look at the value of integration. In the meantime, I have a favor to ask. If you can leave a review or a rating for this podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, that would really help me reach more people with these ideas. Connect with me on LinkedIn or check the Project Indra website for more info. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License