“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep on going back to it.” — Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius wasn’t perfect.
With so many responsibilities competing for his time and attention, he was guilty, as we all have been, of letting a good habit slide.
Why would he remind himself to keep returning to philosophy if he didn’t occasionally find himself reverting to old ways and bad habits. Needing to remind himself to return to a simple diet because he caught himself overdoing it a little. To get up early and to get a move on his obligations after sleeping away one too many mornings. Why would he remind himself over and over again that he was made to work with other people, that a world without irritating and shameless people is impossible, that anger is never the answer if he didn’t lose his temper on his fellow man?
Of course he needed reminders to re-engage with those good habits he let slack. All humans do. Despite our better judgment and best intentions, life has a nasty habit of getting in the way and sending us on accidental hiatuses from our hobbies, our (good) habits, and our resolutions.
Think back to this time last year. You were aiming to kick off 2020 with a number of goals and resolutions. 2020 was the year. You were going to learn spanish. You were going to quit smoking. You joined that crossfit gym. You were going to shed 5 pounds. You were going to read a book a week. You were going to pick up the guitar too.
This went well right up until the middle of March. Your gym closed. Work got extra busy. Your home got extra hectic. Your free time got extra limited. And now, well, here we are, almost ten months into a pandemic. You put on 5 pounds. You got through dozens of shows but not a single book. You haven’t picked up the guitar, you haven’t put down the cigarettes, y no habla espanol.
So before we get ahead of ourselves this year with more goals and resolutions, we’re going to go back, see what went wrong, and pick up where we left off. We stopped getting up early enough to get a workout in before work. We cut practicing that instrument or learning that language to concentrate our time and energy elsewhere. We lost motivation to read before bed and opted instead for Netflix. We missed a few days of journaling or running or eating the way we’d like and get better and better at making excuses to miss another and another and another.
Maybe we start to feel guilty or even ashamed about it. Maybe we say it’s proof that we can’t stick to that diet or that workout routine or that guitar practice schedule. Maybe we reach a point where we think we might as well just hang it up for good, abandon it entirely.
What we should do is what Marcus said,
“Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”
Today, after you celebrate behaving like a human, pick one of those habits you have let fall to the wayside–it could be from this past year, it could be from many years past–and commit to returning to it.
Try what Marcus liked to do. He didn’t just pick something at random. He chose something meaningful, then reminded himself why he should practice it, why it was important to him and the person he aspired to be.
He reminded himself that he was a better leader, father, husband, human when he made time for reading philosophy and attending lectures. He reminded himself how his mentor and role model Antoninus kept a simple diet so he could serve his people better and for longer. He reminded himself that getting out of bed early and into his duties was the defining characteristic of productive human beings and the necessary antecedent to living the good life.
One of the purposes of studying philosophy, the Stoics said, is to become more aware of what you want to do and why you want to do it. Seneca, for instance, liked to say that philosophy isn’t a parlor trick. If one’s motivation is wanting to sound smarter at this bar or that party, he said, it won’t take long for them to abandon their studies. The motivation has to be rooted more deeply.
It’s important in this moment, however, not to get lost in over-thinking, in self-evaluation and self-flagellation. Analysis paralysis is the last place you want to be when you are reckoning with a good habit that you know you’ve let slide and all you want is simply to get back on the right track with it. To re-engage with the person we know we can be, to make progress in that positive direction, simply requires that we act.
Action. Action is something we decide. Action, we can control. Action, when repeated day in and day out, is what turns hope into habit, and makes that habit part of us. The best version of us.
Dr. Clare Carlisle Tresch, author of the award-winning book On Habit, talked about this when we interviewed her a little while back. The habit—whatever it is—has to become a part of you, she said. “The Stoics were so important not only because they recognized the force of habit,” she said, “but because they devised practical techniques, or exercises, for living well with habits. And they approached philosophy as a way of life, not just a theoretical discipline, and that’s a conception of philosophy I really value.”
We talked about it yesterday—the Stoic works to optimize that which is in our control. The backslide—that is in the past. It’s out of your control. But recovering, getting back on track—that is in your control. Last September, the actor Dax Shepard opened up on his podcast about relapsing sixteen years of sobriety. He admitted that he did consider not going public with it, that his ego really liked hearing and really wanted to keep saying, ‘I’m sixteen years sober.’ He titled the episode “Day 7”—he was celebrating that “today, I have seven days.”
The path to self-improvement is rocky—tripping and sliding are inevitable. You’ll forget to do the push-ups, you’ll cheat on your diet, you’ll get sucked into the rabbit hole of Twitter, or you’ll give in to the urge after sixteen years of resisting it. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. The Stoics would have liked this advice from Oprah: If you catch yourself eating an Oreo, don’t beat yourself up; just try to stop before you eat the whole sleeve. Don’t turn a slip into a catastrophic fall. And a couple of centuries before her, Marcus Aurelius said something similar:
When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.
In other words, when you mess up, get back on track as soon as you can. Don’t quit or beat yourself up just because you’re not perfect. Instead, celebrate having behaved like a human. Celebrate day 1 and day 7 and day 700.
- These Were The Habits Marcus Aurelius Practiced Every Day
- The Daily Stoic, May 13 — Fueling The Habit Bonfire
- The Daily Stoic, May 21 — What Kind Of Boxer Are You?
- We Are What We Repeatedly Do
- You Become What You Practice
- The Power Of Consistency: An Interview With Behavior Change Expert And Bestselling Author Stephen Guise
- Tracing The Force Of Habit Through The History Of Philosophy: An Interview With Dr Clare Carlisle Tresch
- Forming And Breaking Habits Isn’t As Hard As You Think
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits by Gretchen Rubin
- Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise
- Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by BJ Fogg
*CHALLENGE CALENDAR. Download first 7 days here.
**Day 2 audio commentary from Ryan Holiday. Listen here.
***TODAY at 2pm CST a live Zoom kick-off with Ryan Holiday. Click here to join at that time.