The struggle to find and hold on to motivation isn’t new.
Consider the argument the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius has with himself in the opening of book 5 of his Meditations, written over two thousand years ago:
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
To that familiar inner voice protesting, “but it’s nicer here,” Marcus responds:
So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
It’s comforting to think that even that long ago the emperor of Rome was giving himself a pep talk in order to summon up the willpower to throw the blankets off each morning and get out of bed. What makes it more impressive is that Marcus Aurelius didn’t have to do anything. That would have been one of the perks of being Emperor. He could have gotten other people to do everything for him. And he must have been tempted routinely to do so. Because we know that his physical health fluctuated. We know he had insomniatic tendencies. And we know he didn’t want to be Emperor. He wanted to be a philosopher.
Marcus motivated himself to not only do a job he didn’t particularly want to do, but to do it better than anyone had before or since.
How? What can we learn from Marcus and the Stoics he studied to help stoke our own motivation?
This post aims to answer those questions. It is rooted in ancient philosophy and designed to be applied in the modern world.
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“There are three areas in which the person who would be wise and good must be trained. The first has to do with desires and aversions – that a person may never miss the mark nor fall into what repels them. The second has to do with impulses to act and not to act – and more broadly, with duty – that a person may act deliberately for good reasons and not carelessly. The third has to do with freedom from deception and composure and the whole area of judgment, the assent our mind gives to our perceptions.” — Epictetus
The ancient Stoic philosophers used the word hormê. It was the impulse that leads to action. It appears thirty-four times in Epictetus’s Discourses, three times in the Enchiridion, and thirty-five times in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Seneca uses the Latin equivalent impetus seventy-nine times in his letters (see Moral Letters 71.32, where he says virtue resides in our judgment, which gives rise to impulse and clarifies all appearances that give rise to impulse).
Motivation, the Stoics say, is the force that drives action. It is the impulse that compels you to do some.
You may have heard of what Steven Pressfield calls the “Resistance”—that voice that questions your abilities, your worth, your sanity. “Any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity,” Pressfield writes. “Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit Resistance.”
We can think of motivation as anything that helps us battle the Resistance. It is the voice that helps us reject immediate gratification. It reminds us to hold out for long-term growth. It is our ally in the pursuit of our higher nature.
Motivation is the force that drives you to get up at 6 AM when you really want to sleep in. It’s the force that drives you to go for a run after work when you’d really rather lay on the couch. Motivation is the reason you’re reading that book. It’s why you journal every morning. It’s how you somehow do a job you don’t particularly like, follow a diet you don’t particularly enjoy, or get through a class you don’t particularly care about. Motivation is the willingness or desire underlying all of those actions and behaviors.
“Life without a design is erratic. As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct, and beating a cowardly retreat. This will happen in all our affairs unless we remove the faults that seize and detain our spirits, preventing them from pushing forward and making an all-out effort.” — Seneca
The opposing team comes out strong, establishes an early lead, and you never had time to recover. You walk into a business meeting, are caught off guard, and the whole thing goes poorly. A delicate conversation escalates into a shouting match. You switched majors halfway through college and had to start your coursework over and graduate late.
It’s the chaos that ensues from not having a plan. Not because plans are perfect, but because people without plans—like a line of infantrymen without a strong leader—are much more likely to get overwhelmed and fall apart.
The Super Bowl–winning coach Bill Walsh used to avoid this risk by scripting the beginning of his games. “If you want to sleep at night before the game,” he said in a lecture on game planning, “have your first 25 plays established in your own mind the night before that. You can walk into the stadium and you can start the game without that stress factor.” You’ll also be able to ignore a couple of early points or a surprise from your opponent. It’s irrelevant to you—you already have your marching orders.
Some of the world’s greatest minds—philosophers, artists, writers, painters, scientists, composers, businessmen—have similarly boxed out the chaos of life by scripting their days, hour by hour. Daniel Ek, founder and CEO of Spotify, talked about it recently on The Tim Ferriss Show. “I feel like one of the greatest things in my day job today is I get to meet some of the most creative people in the world, in their various fields,” he said, “but the interesting thing for me—when you think about creativity, most people associate it with unstructured thinking…[they think creative’s] do whatever they feel like doing. But some of the most creative people that I know are actually incredibly scripted in their creativity, in their approach, in their process, and how they approach their creativity.”
More and more people are now able to make their own schedules. If there’s not a lot of people who are telling you what you have to do and when you have to do it, what you have to take from that is that you have to decide what you’re going to tell yourself to do or not do. It can’t be chaos. It can’t be unordered. It can’t be unstructured. You have to have a system, a script.
Procrastination feeds on uncertainty. It loves confusion and complexity. It loves questions like, What was I going to do? What do I wear? What time should I wake up? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or should I rush to put out that fire?
That’s what Seneca would call a life without design. And that’s what the Stoics would call torture. When you can do anything each morning you wake up, when you are deciding on the fly what you’re going to do or not—that decision fatigue evaporates motivation. A well-designed day is one that eliminates all that uncertainty and decision fatigue. When we know what we do and when we do it, procrastination is boxed out—by the structure you built, the script you’ve written.
Most people wake up to face the day as an endless barrage of bewildering and overwhelming choices, one right after another. What do I wear? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or rush to put out this fire?
Needless to say, this is exhausting. It is a whirlwind of conflicting impulses, incentives, inclinations, and external interruptions. It is no path to getting or staying motivated.
For this reason, the Stoics were big on routine and repetition. In a world where so much is out of our control, committing to a practice we do control, they said, was a way of establishing and reminding ourselves of our own power.
Epictetus said that “every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.” If you don’t want to do something, he said, make a habit of doing the opposite. He used the image of the habit bonfire. Every habit—good and bad—is like a fire. Each time we perform the habit, we reinforce it, we add fuel to it. The question he’d ask his students and now us is: which fires are you fueling?
The Ancients knew intuitively what psychologists and researchers would later prove: motivation, self-control, concentration—these are all finite resources:
[*] Roy F. Baumeister, social psychologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, coined the term decision fatigue, referring to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after continuously making decisions. Baumeister and his colleagues discovered in a series of experiments and studies that decision fatigue depletes self-control which results in emotional problems, underachievement, lack of persistence, and even failures of task performance.
[*] In a series of experiments and field studies, University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and colleagues repeatedly demonstrated that the mere act of making a selection depletes self-control (i.e., less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination, and less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations)executive resources. For example, in one study the researchers found that participants who made more choices in a mall were less likely to persist and do well in solving simple algebra problems.
[*] The psychologist William James spoke about making habits our ally instead of our enemy. That we can create a kind of bulwark against the chaos of the world and free up the best of ourselves for the work we want to accomplish. “For this,” James wrote, we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”
James said that no one is more miserable and less motivated than the person who relies on volatile, moment to moment decision making. The Stoics would agree. “Life without a design is erratic,” Seneca wrote some eighteen hundred years before James. “As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct.”
When you routinize, disturbances to your motivation are boxed out by the order and clarity you built. You must assert control over and be deliberate about when you do what you do. The writer and runner Haruki Murakami talks about why he follows the same routine every day. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing,” he says, “it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” If you Google how many books Murakami has written, it just says, “at least 30.” He’s written a lot of books. He follows the same schedule day after day after day. He doesn’t need motivation. He has his routine.
Decide, assert control, be deliberate and explicit. Let it be known to yourself and others. Be explicit—I wake up at 7. I take a walk at 7:30. I journal and read until 9. I work until 1 when I take a lunch break. At 1:30, I go for a run. At 2, I get back to work. At 3, I take a five minute break for some physical activity. At 6, I make dinner. While cooking and eating, I allow myself time to watch TV. After dinner, I spend time with family and friends. I’m in bed at 9. I read for an hour and call it a night at 10.
Done enough times, done with sincerity and feeling, your routine becomes ritual. The repetition of it—the daily cadence—creates deep and meaningful experience. The question, “How can I get motivated?”—it is gone from your life.
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay Warm? —But it’s nicer here. . . .So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them?” — Marcus Aurelius
One of the most relatable moments in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is the argument Marcus Aurelius has with himself in the opening of book 5. It’s clearly an argument he’s had with himself many times, on many mornings—as have many of us: He knows he has to get out of bed, but so desperately wants to remain under the warm covers.
It’s relatable…but it’s also impressive. Marcus didn’t actually have to get out of bed. He didn’t really have to do anything. One of his predecessors, Tiberius, basically abandoned the throne for an exotic island. Marcus’s adopted great-grandfather Hadrian hardly spent any time in Rome at all. The emperor had all sorts of prerogatives, and here Marcus was insisting that he rise early and get to work.
Why? It’s because Marcus knew that winning the morning was key to winning the day and winning at life. He wouldn’t have heard the expression that “the early bird gets the worm,” but he was well aware that a day well-begun is half done. By pushing himself to do something uncomfortable and tough, by insisting on doing what he said he knew he was born to do and what he loved to do, Marcus was beginning a process that would lead to a successful day.
“The recognition that I needed to train and discipline my character. Not to be sidetracked by my interest in rhetoric. Not to write treatises on abstract questions, or deliver moralizing little sermons, or compose imaginary descriptions of The Simple Life or The Man Who Lives Only for Others…To write straightforward.” — Marcus Aurelius
Why did Marcus Aurelius spend those precious hours in his tent, writing by the lamplight, even on the nights and mornings he strained under the burdens of his war-time duties? It wasn’t for our benefit. No, he never expected Meditations would see an audience. He was writing for himself, to himself, as a way to practice the principles of the philosophy we are still following today. He was journaling as a means of self-improvement as much as he was of self-expression. As Gregory Hays writes in his translation of Meditations, Marcus was journaling “as a means of practicing and reinforcing his own philosophical convictions.”
Who knows what kind of emperor, what kind of man, Marcus would have been without that practice and preparation? Instead of letting racing thoughts run unchecked or leaving half-baked assumptions unquestioned, he forced himself to write and examine them. Putting his own thinking down on paper let him see it from a distance. It gave him objectivity that is so often missing when anxiety and fears and frustrations flood our minds. It let him enter his day and the important work calm and centered.
For centuries—nay, millennia—people have been doing the same with their private journals. Some did it at night. Some did it in the morning. Some did it in sporadic bursts or on rare occasions. But in literally countless cases, journaling has been a source of self-guidance. Because a journal is the perfect place to clarify your thoughts, find some peace and quiet, calm the negative energy swirling around in your head, and cope with stresses and struggles. It’s your loyal companion. It’s your sounding board. It’s your guide.
Whether you need help ridding yourself of bad habits like procrastination or you are looking to get more motivated, the journal is where you can do it. Just as Marcus developed this daily habit, so can you. As Musonius Rufus said: habit always beats theory for it’s where “one brings together sound teaching with sound conduct.”
“Reading, I hold, is indispensable – primarily, to keep me from being satisfied with myself alone, and besides, after I have learned what others have found out by their studies, to enable me to pass judgment on their discoveries and reflect upon discoveries that remain to be made.” — Seneca
Seneca said there was an easy way to “shake the laziness out of [your] system.”
Seneca believed that reading was an indispensable part of the daily routine—particularly early in the day—because “reading nourishes the mind and refreshes it.” He’s right. Who doesn’t feel better after they’ve read? Who ever regrets picking up a book? And how much better are our days when we front-load them with good inputs (and how miserable are they when we kick things off with bad choices?)
Another recent student of Stoicism agrees: Hugh Jackman reads right after he wakes up (early) in the morning. As he explained,
“I read a book with my wife. So we get up and we read to each other for half an hour. It’s the best. I recommend it to anyone…It’s the greatest way to start the day. Right now I’m reading Stillness Is the Key, by Ryan Holiday…I’m really into philosophy.”
Thirty minutes in the morning. Or fifteen to start the day and fifteen to end it. Or a chapter over lunch. Drink deeply from philosophy, from history, from the books of journalists and the memoirs of geniuses. Study the cautionary tales and the screw ups, read about failures and successes. Just read every day. Read as a practice. Make it a habit!
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” — Seneca
It can be easy to overlook how important health and fitness were to the Stoics. The stereotype of the philosopher is one who spends all day and night with their dense textbooks and their denser thoughts. When the truth is that the great philosophers we hold up as having made these brilliant insights into human nature and the human experience were reading and studying philosophy in addition to many other endeavors and activities.
Marcus Aurelius loved boxing, wrestling, running, ball games and hunting. The saying in the ancient world was that “but for Chrysippus, there had been no Porch” (the stoa in Stoicism). As Diogenes Laertes recounts in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, the Stoic Chrysippus was an avid long-distance runner. Even Epictetus, whose leg was crippled (from his time as a slave), talks frequently about lifting weights because “I like a body to be strong… strong with the energy that comes of good health and training.” He likely learned from his teacher, the Stoic Musonius Rufus, who said, “The philosopher’s body also must be well prepared for work because often virtues use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life.”
Fitness was essential. The Stoics called it keeping themselves in fighting shape—at fighting weight—not for appearance’s sake but because they believed life was a kind of battle. They also knew, as you know, that when we feel awful, we act awfully. A person disgusted with themselves has less patience for others. A person who easily loses their breath more easily loses their self-control.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca
The quote from Seneca above takes part of Memento Mori—the ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, who said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” That was a personal reminder to live with a sense of urgency.
The Stoic finds this thought invigorating and humbling. It is not surprising that one of Seneca’s biographies is titled Dying Every Day. After all, it is Seneca who urged us to tell ourselves “You may not wake up tomorrow,” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again,” when waking up as reminders of our mortality. Or as another Stoic, Epictetus, urged his students: “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.”
Use those reminders and meditate on them daily—let them be the building blocks of living your life to the fullest and not wasting a second.
Part of the reason we struggle to get and stay motivated is that we have a false sense—or we haven’t completely internalized—how progress and achievement happen. We often see only the impressive result—a bestselling book or an impressive six pack. We almost never see the process leading to those results. Therefore, we imagine the process must have been equally brilliant.
In fact, it’s the opposite.
Plutarch tells the story of a rich Delian ship-owner who was asked how he built his fortune. “The greater part came quite easily,” he said, “but the first, smaller part took time and effort.”
How does that work?
Doing anything of consequence or magnitude requires deliberate, incremental and consistent work. At the beginning, these efforts might not look like they are amounting to much. But with time, they accumulate and then compound on each other. Whether it’s a book or a business or an anthill or a stalagmite, from humble beginnings come impressive outcomes.
In one of his most famous letters to Lucilius, Seneca gives a pretty simple prescription for the good life. “Each day,” he wrote, “acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes, as well and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day.”
One gain per day. That’s it.
The Stoics believed that the little things that added up to wisdom and to virtue. What you read. Who you studied under. What you prioritized. How you treated someone. What your routine was like. The training you underwent. What rules you followed. What habits you cultivated. Day to day, practiced over a lifetime, this is what created greatness. This is what led to a good life.
“Well-being is realized by small steps,” Zeno would say looking back on his life, “but is truly no small thing.” Which is why today and every day, you need to think about those little things. They are worth sweating. You need to create good habits. You need to stick to your rules. You can’t make excuses to yourself, saying “Oh, this doesn’t matter.”
Because it adds up. Because it determines what you’ll accomplish, and what you won’t. Most important, it determines who you are.
One page in a book. One conversation. One note between friends. A few minutes of Meditation. A single question. A single decision. A single passage like the one that guided Marcus Aurelius to “take away with him some one good thing every day: he should return home a sounder man, or on the way to becoming sounder.”
That’s why, every single morning, we send out an email for Daily Stoic. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world get it. They spend some time thinking about it. Maybe they journal about it. Maybe they forward it to a friend to discuss.
It’s one little thing that makes them better, that inches them towards where they need to go. Because “daily study,” Tolstoy wrote is “necessary for all people.”
That’s what philosophy is actually about. Not grand, pretentious theories.
It’s incremental progress, over a lifetime, done day to day.
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’” — Marcus Aurelius
“Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” — Epictetus
“From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event.” — Epictetus
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” — Seneca
“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules. And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir into him action?” — Epictetus
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day… The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Marcus Aurelius
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ― Marcus Aurelius
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” — Epictetus
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The Dip by Seth Godin
Motivation: An Ancient Guide on How To Get and Stay Motivated by Daniel H. Pink
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
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