For more than two thousand years, wise men and women have relied on an ancient philosophy known as Stoicism to help them live their best lives. It’s been a source of guidance, wisdom and practical advice for millions. It’s been used by everyone from Marcus Aurelius and Seneca (one of the richest men in Rome), to Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick the Great and Michel de Montaigne and now coaches like Pete Carroll and athletes like Kerri Walsh Jennings to help them live better, more resiliently and more peacefully.
Below are three Stoic exercises and strategies, pulled from The Daily Stoic, that will help you have your best month yet.
RISE AND SHINE
“On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind—I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Were you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?”
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1
Nobody likes Mondays so it’s comforting to think that even two thousand years ago the emperor of Rome (who was reportedly a bit of an insomniac) 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. From the time we’re first sent off to school until we retire, we’re faced with that same struggle. It’d be nicer to shut our eyes and hit the snooze button a few more times. But we can’t.
Because we have a job to do. Not only do we have the calling we’ve dedicated ourselves to, but we have the larger cause that the Stoics speak about: the greater good. We cannot be of service to ourselves, to other people, or to the world unless we get up and get working—the earlier the better. So c’mon. Get in the shower, have your coffee, and get going.
THE CHAIN METHOD
“If you don’t wish to be a hot-head, don’t feed your habit. Try as a first step to remain calm and count the days you haven’t been angry. I used to be angry every day, now every other day, then every third or fourth . . . if you make it as far as 30 days, thank God! For habit is first weakened and then obliterated. When you can say ‘I didn’t lose my temper today, or the next day, or for three or four months, but kept my cool under provocation,’ you will know you are in better health.”
—Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.11b–14
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once gave a young comic named Brad Isaac some advice about how to write and create material. Keep a calendar, he told him, and each day that you write jokes, put an X. Soon enough, you get a chain going—and then your job is to simply not break the chain. Success becomes a matter of momentum. Once you get a little, it’s easier to keep it going.
Whereas Seinfeld used the chain method to build a positive habit, Epictetus was saying that it can also be used to eliminate a negative one. It’s not all that different than taking sobriety “one day at a time.” Start with one day doing whatever it is, be it managing your temper or wandering eyes or procrastination. Then do the same the following day and the day after that. Build a chain and then work not to break it. Don’t ruin your streak.
HOW YOU DO ANYTHING IS HOW YOU DO EVERYTHING
“Pay attention to what’s in front of you—the principle, the task, or what’s being portrayed.”
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.22
It’s fun to think about the future. It’s easy to ruminate on the past. It’s harder to put that energy into what’s in front of us right at this moment—especially if it’s something we don’t want to do. We think: This is just a job; it isn’t who I am. It doesn’t matter. But it does matter. Who knows—it might be the last thing you ever do. Here lies Dave, buried alive under a mountain of unfinished business.
There is an old saying: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” It’s true. How you handle today is how you’ll handle every day. How you handle this minute is how you’ll handle every minute.
A final trick for having a great month comes to us from the Stoic philosopher Seneca. In a letter to his older brother Novatus, Seneca describes a beneficial exercise he borrowed from another prominent philosopher. At the end of each day he would ask himself variations of the following questions: What bad habit did I curb today? How am I better? Were my actions just? How can I improve?
We shouldn’t just do this daily, but also monthly, quarterly and yearly. We should reflect on our lives and on our actions. What could we do better? How have we kept our chain of progress and good actions unbroken (or indeed, where have we failed?) And finally, have we done our proper job as people? Have we done the work we’ve needed to do?
The more we think about this, the more we follow these habits, the better we will get at them.