Let’s face it: we’re all busy. Even a philosophy as simple as Stoicism can seem complicated and confusing. It’s easy to find reasons why tomorrow is a much better day to dig in and get serious about it. But as the saying goes “It works if you work it.” So below we have some very realistic and very practical exercises from from modern students of Stoicism like Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, Alain de Botton, Eric Barker, Kevin Rose, and Arianna Huffington. They were kind enough to share the Stoic “lifehacks” they find themselves doing everyday to improve their habits, their mindset and their ability to solve problems.
And just in case you think this is a simplification remember that Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were just that, meditations. He was practicing the philosophy, reviewing his day, working through the exercises. Epictetus, for his part, talks over and over again about habit formation. It wasn’t enough to nod your head to his teachings, he wanted you to turn them into habits. And Seneca’s writing was full of all sorts of practical tricks for living the philosophy on a daily basis.
So, let’s get to it!
Tim Ferriss: Practice Poverty
We asked Tim what tactical advice or practices he’d recommend to our readers who want to cultivate resilience:
“The first would be practicing poverty, or other types of worst case scenarios. This comes directly from one of the Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 18, On Festivals and Fasting, which I refer to all the time. This letter stuck out to me because of one paragraph, that I think of all the time, and it is the following,
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”
That is what I repeat to myself over and over again.
Back to Seneca,
“It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil.”
This is very important to me, and imminently applicable to real life. For instance, I will regularly, three continuous days per month minimum, practice fasting. I will do that from early Thursday dinner to an early Sunday dinner to simply expose myself to the rather, often unfamiliar, sensation of real hunger.
If I wanted to extend that as one of my friends has done, a very successful CEO and author, he will schedule periods of time each quarter, say for a week, when he will effectively camp out in his living room, in a sleeping bag, and he will survive on cheap instant coffee and instant oatmeal (perhaps at a cost of $15 per week maximum). This is so that he is better able to make decisions that are proactive and big picture, and less out of obligation, or guilt, or fear of missing out because he knows that even if he misses a particular deal, even if a cutting edge project or experiment, or his pushing the envelope fails, that he can make do and in fact, often thrive with next to nothing. Perhaps unexpectedly at the end of such an experiment, people will very often be in a better mental state, feel more content than they did beforehand. It’s very freeing.
Practicing poverty or practicing rehearsing your worst case scenario in real life, not just journaling, not just in your head, I find very, very important. Certainly I expose myself to a lot of duress and pain in say, the form of ice baths and cold exposure simply to develop my tolerance for the then unavoidable pain and disruption that comes to all of us.
The more you schedule and practice discomfort deliberately, the less unplanned discomfort will throw off your life and control your life.”
Robert Greene: Meditate on Your Mortality
Robert Greene has been reading and studying Stoic philosophy for over 30 years. The principles of stoicism are seen in his bestselling books including The 48 Laws of Power , The 50th Law and Mastery. Robert enjoys the practical aspects of stoicism and one of his favorite practices is as follows:
“I take Seneca’s advice to heart: thinking often of my mortality, actively imagining the end of my life, and how I will accept it. This is not morbid but a way to make a person appreciate every moment of life and not have such a wretched fear of death that makes people refuse to think of it. That is a major impact Seneca has had on my daily life and I would be a lot poorer without it.”
Alain de Botton: Learn to Disappoint Yourself
Philosopher Alain de Botton has written about Stoicism in his books but we get the sense that he sees it as a somewhat flawed or incomplete philosophy. We asked him: Is there something you do admire about the Stoics?
“I especially admire Seneca and his quote: What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears. I love the Stoic approach to anger. We start to reduce the danger of anger through the insight that not everything that makes sad makes us angry. We may be irritated that it is raining, but we are unlikely ever to respond to a shower by screaming. We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are frustrated; we are sent into a rage only when we first allowed ourselves to believe in a hopeful scenario which was then dashed suddenly and apparently without warning. Our greatest furies spring from unfortunate events which we had not factored into our vision of reality.
We typically think of anger as a dark and pessimistic state of mind. But behind anger lies a surprising emotion: optimism. The angry are, beneath their ranting, possessed of some recklessly optimistic notions of how life might go. They are not merely in a destructive fury, they are in the grip of hope.
The person who shouts every time they encounter a traffic jam betrays a faith, at once touching and demented, that roads must always be (mysteriously) traffic-free. The person who loses their temper with every new employee or partner evinces a curious belief that perfection is an option for the human animal.
Serenity therefore begins with pessimism. We must learn to disappoint ourselves at leisure before the world ever has a chance to slap us by surprise at a time of its own choosing. The angry must learn to check their fury via a systematic, patient surrender of their more fervent hopes. They need to be carefully inducted to the darkest realities of life, to the stupidities of others, to the ineluctable failings of technology, to the necessary flaws of infrastructure. They should start each day with a short yet thorough premeditation on the many humiliations and insults to which the coming hours risk subsequently subjecting them.
One of the goals of civilisation is to instruct us in how to be sad rather than angry. Sadness may not sound very appealing. But it carries—in this context—ia huge advantage. It is what allows us to detach our emotional energies from fruitless fury around things that (however bad) we cannot change and that are the fault of no-one in particular and—after a period of mourning—to refocus our efforts in places where our few remaining legitimate hopes and expectations have a realistic chance of success.”
Arianna Huffington: Retreat, Reconnect, Renew
Most people know Arianna Huffington as the founder of the Huffington Post and Thrive Global, but they probably don’t know that she is also a student and admirer of philosophy. We asked her for some of her favorite takeaways from stoicism:
“I have this quote from Marcus Aurelius laminated in my wallet, on my desk, and on my nightstand:
“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind…So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”
It perfectly illustrates the current moment—right now that first retreat he’s talking about is mostly digital. That’s how we get away from ourselves—by retreating into technology and social media. But the only way to find peace and thrive is to take breaks from the world and make time to regularly renew ourselves by reconnecting with ourselves.”
Eric Barker: Use Premeditation
Bestselling author Eric Barker has written more than a few popular articles on the benefits of stoicism for his website Barking Up The Wrong Tree. We asked him for some of his insights into Stoic philosophy
“I’m always reminding myself that “events don’t upset me, beliefs do.” Realizing that there is no sense getting bothered about things out of my control—and that most things are out of my control—is another huge one. I also frequently use a version of the “premeditation.” When I get worried or concerned I’ll ask myself, “Do I have to have this in order to live a happy life?” The answer is always no.”
Kevin Rose: Surrender
Kevin Rose is one of the most prominent and prolific technologists in Silicon Valley. Kevin has also shown a deep fascination with philosophy—especially Eastern—here is a bit more of Kevin’s favorite daily practices.
“One thing I practice daily is surrender. I try to surrender to the earth as everything unfolds around me, not judging it, but accepting things as they are. This, of course, is easier said than done. One of my favorite quotes is from philosopher Alan Watts: “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim, you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do, you will sink and drown. Instead, you relax and float.””