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The Power of Habits: What The Ancients Knew About Making Good Ones & Breaking Bad Ones


Arete—the most powerful word to the Stoics. It means excellence, and it was the ultimate expression of human greatness—moral, physical, spiritual. It’s what the Stoics were chasing. It’s what we’re all chasing. 

Reaching it requires a certain philosophical approach. Because brilliance and inspiration and skill are not enough. Summing up Aristotle’s thoughts on excellence, Will Durant wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”

In other words: Excellence isn’t this thing you do one time. It’s a way of living. It’s foundational. It’s like an operating system and the code this system operates on is habit 

Which is why we’ve created this guide for you. We’ll first lay out the best habits for happiness and success. Then, we’ll help you understand how habits are formed, so you can break bad habits and replace them with good habits. And at the bottom, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of additional resources. Click the links below to navigate to a specific section or scroll and read the entirety of the page. And bookmark this page and return to it frequently—it is the ultimate guide on habits.

I. What Are Habits?

II. Why Do Habits Matter?

III. What Are The Best Habits For Happiness And Success?

IV. How Are Habits Formed?

V. How Are Habits Broken?

VII. What Are The Best Books On Habits?

VIII. What Are The Best Quotes About Habits

If you want to take a deeper dive into Stoicism and learn how to apply the philosophy to your life, check out our most popular course, Stoicism 101: Ancient Philosophy For Your Actual Life. It’s a 14-day course that will equip you with the tools to live as vibrant and expansive a life as the Stoics. Along with 14 daily emails, there will be 3 live video sessions with bestselling author Ryan Holiday, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life. Learn more here and make sure to register before the live cohort begins on March 22nd!

I. What Are Habits?

The Stoics were all about habits and routine. It wasn’t just about knowing what the right thing was, it was about doing it daily. They would have agreed with Aristotle that we become what we repeatedly study and focus on. We are what we habituate. 

As Epictetus would say, “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.” So if we want to be happy, if we want to be successful, if we want to be great, we have to develop the capability, we have to develop the day-to-day habits that allow this to ensue.

This is great news. Because it means that impressive results or enormous changes are possible without herculean effort or magic formulas. Small adjustments, good systems, the right processes—that’s what it takes. Epictetus said that philosophy was something that should be kept at hand every day and night. Indeed, the title of his book Enchiridion actually means “small thing in hand,” or handbook. At the core of Marcus Aurelius’s power as a philosopher and philosopher king seems to be this lesson he would have read in Epictetus: “Every day and night keep thoughts like these at hand,” Epictetus had said. “Write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.” That’s exactly what we see Marcus doing in Meditations because “such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind,” as he put it. Seneca, for his part, talked about repeatedly diving back into the great texts of history—rather than chasing every new or exciting thing published. “You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works,” he said, “if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” 

There is nothing more powerful than a good habit. Nothing that holds us back quite like a bad habit. We are what we do. What we do determines who we can be. You know this. You’ve seen these forces at work in your own life, for better and—frustratingly all too often—for worse. What we do in practice, the Stoics knew, is how we play when it’s gametime. Repetition, routine, ritual, habits—they dictate who we are and what we become. Success and happiness isn’t random, it’s a habit.  

II. Why Do Habits Matter?

These are difficult times we’re in. Economic uncertainty. Personal adversity. These things can sink you…or they can be opportunities to improve. They can be obstacles you triumph over…or setbacks that bring you to your knees.

What will it be? 

Habits answer that question. If you can cultivate good habits, you can survive—even thrive on—what lies ahead. If you relapse and fall to the level of your worst habits, these hard times will only be harder. 

Epictetus said habits—good and bad—were like a bonfire. Every time we perform a habit, we reinforce it, we add fuel to the fire:

“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 that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.” 

It was likely one of the many lessons he learned from his teacher, Musonius Rufus. Rufus was perhaps the earliest philosopher to identify the power of habits. In “many circumstances,” he said, “we do not deal with our affairs in accordance with correct assumptions, but rather we follow thoughtless habit.” We really are creatures of habit, as the age-old cliche goes. In fact, research has proven exactly what Musonius intuited over two millennia ago. In a 2014 study by a team of psychologists, they found that 40% of our daily lives are repeated with behaviors and activities in near-exact circumstances. Day after day, we drive the same roads, walk the same sidewalks, eat the same meals, perform the same tasks at work, and slip into a Groundhog Day-like trance of thoughtless habit. 

So think about the things you’ve done in the last week. Think about what you have planned for today and the week that follows. Think about the person you’d like to be, or the person you see yourself as—are your actions the actions of that kind of person? Will your actions get you there if you are not there yet? Are you fueling the right bonfires? There’s few things more important than making sure you are.

III. What Are The Best Habits For Happiness And Success?

Wake Up Early

“The day has already begun to lessen. It has shrunk considerably, but yet will still allow a goodly space of time if one rises, so to speak, with the day itself. We are more industrious, and we are better men if we anticipate the day and welcome the dawn.” — Seneca, Letters From A Stoic, 122.1

“I am convinced,” Lord Chesterfield told his son, “that a light supper, a goodnight’s sleep and a fine morning, have sometimes made a hero out of the same man, who by an indigestion, a restless night and a rainy morning, would have proved a coward.”

One of the perks Marcus could have enjoyed as the ruler of the world was he didn’t have to wake up early. He didn’t have to do anything. But he was convinced just as Chesterfield was that kings own the morning:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself, As a human being I have to go to work. Why am I complaining if I’m going to do what I was born to do – the things I was brought into the world to do? Is this really what I was created for – to snuggle under the blankets and stay warm? But, you say, it’s nicer here. I see, so you were born to feel nice, is that it? Not to do things and experience them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees all going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order as best they can? And you mean you’re not willing to do your part as a human being? Why aren’t you jumping up to do what your nature demands? 

It’s well documented that happy and successful people wake up early. In many ways, as Shane Parrish has written, the best productivity advice on the planet is to get up early. You do your best work while the day is young. There are fewer distractions in the morning, the emails haven’t come in yet, the phone isn’t ringing, the kids aren’t fighting or whining or demanding your attention, there’s less traffic. 

But, again, Marcus wouldn’t have had to contend with any of those things. He simply understood that his nature required waking up early. In a study led by two psychologists from the University of Toronto, early riser’s prove to experience increased well being in four areas of life—emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual. “Waking up early may indeed make one happy as a lark,” researchers write, because of our “internal biological clock.” We are biologically wired to follow a specific circadian rhythm, which is tied to the sun’s. Our nature demands, as Marcus wrote some two thousand years ago, that we wake up with the sun, just like the birds and the ants and spiders and bees. 

No one, Seneca said, is more unhappy than those that sleep the day away. “We are base churls,” he wrote, “if we lie dozing when the sun is high in the heavens, or if we wake up only when noon arrives; and even then to many it seems not yet dawn.” Wake up early—it’s the first habit required for happiness and success.

Start A Journaling Habit

“I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil — that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.” — Seneca, Letters From A Stoic, 83.2

Thomas C. Corley, author of Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals, conducted a five-year study of 177 self-made millionaires and found that nearly 50% of them woke up at least three hours before their workday began. So while getting up early is a great start, it is not enough. As Seneca said, it’s about what we do when we wake up. If we’re up at dawn but doze hours away to television or social media or cramming for a presentation we put off until the last minute, we are certainly not owning the morning; the morning is owning us. 

There’s few habits as time-tested and researched-backed as journaling. Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, Queen Victoria, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath, Mary Chestnut, Brian Koppelman, Anaïs Nin, Franz Kafka, Martina Navratilova, Ben Franklin, and we’ll stop there—all journalers. And for good reason—it works. It clarifies the mind, provides room for quiet, private reflection, it gives one a record of their thoughts over time, it prepares you for the day ahead.

And the Stoics, of course, were big fans of journaling ( if you’re a Daily Stoic subscriber, you’ve definitely heard us say that in an email or two). Epictetus the slave. Marcus Aurelius the emperor. Seneca the power broker and playwright. These three radically different men led radically different lives. But journaling—they all had that habit in common. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations consists of a collection of personal self-help notes, which he never intended to see the light of day. “No man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom,” Seneca wrote. “This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection.” And Epictetus encouraged his students to write down their thoughts and reflect upon their actions everyday. The Stoic “keeps watch over himself as over an enemy lying in ambush,” he said.

Preparing for the day ahead. Reflecting on the day that has passed. Reminding oneself of the wisdom we have learned from our teachers, from our reading, from our own experiences. It’s not enough to simply hear these lessons once, instead, one practices them over and over again, turns them over in their mind, and most importantly, writes them down and feels them flowing through their fingers in doing so. In this way, you could rightly say, journaling is Stoicism. A happy, successful life requires it. One cannot expect wisdom or self-mastery to simply arrive via epiphany. No, those states are acquired, little by little, practice by practice, journal by journal. Wake up with the sun, pour yourself some coffee, and start journaling!

Read Everyday

“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. Reading nourishes the mind and refreshes it when it is wearied with study; nevertheless, this refreshment is not obtained without study.” — Seneca, Letters From A Stoic, 84.1

We’re wound up. Our schedules are packed. Our email inboxes are flooded. We have stresses and worries and problems to solve. We’re successful yet unhappy. What should we do? How should we handle this? 

Relaxation, stillness, doing only what is essential, Marcus said, is the path to tranquility. Not vacations, or escapes from our responsibilities, 15-day silent retreats in the hills of Sri Lanka, but relaxation. “People look for retreats for themselves in the country, by the coast, or in the hills,” Marcus wrote. “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.” 

As it turns out, one of the best forms of relaxation, of renewing yourself, of finding stillness is cheap if not free: reading. The great William Osler (founder of John Hopkins University and a fan of the Stoics) told his medical students it was important that they turn to literature as a way to nourish and relax their minds. “When chemistry distresses your soul,” he said, “seek peace in the great pacifier, Shakespeare, ten minutes with Montaigne will lighten the burden.” Shakespeare’s plays are free online to print out. Montaigne’s essays are a couple bucks as used copies on Amazon. Both these writers have provided centuries of pleasure and wisdom to minds even more stressed than yours. 

We know that Seneca and Marcus were big readers. Their works abound with quotes and allusions to plays and poets and the stories of history. They read to relax and to be at leisure. It kept their minds strong and clear. How could you not do the same? Why do you turn instead to the TV or to Twitter?

Let us follow Osler’s advice,

Start at once a bedside library and spend the last half-hour of the day in communion with the saints of humanity. There are great lessons to be learned from Job and from David, from Isaiah and St. Paul. Taught by Shakespeare you may take your intellectual and moral measure with singular precision. Learn to love Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Should you be so fortunate as to be born a Platonist, Jowett will introduce you to the great master through whom alone we can think in certain levels, and whose perpetual modernness startles and delights. Montaigne will teach you moderation in all things, and to be ‘sealed of his tribe’ is a special privilege.

Or, we’ll suggest, fifteen minutes to start the day, fifteen minutes to end the day. Drink deeply from history, from philosophy, from the books of journalists and the memoirs of geniuses. Study the cautionary tales and the screw ups, read about failures and successes. Water down your television time and read during commercial breaks. Take your lunch break with Shakespeare or Seneca or Montaigne or Plutarch. Read constantly. Read as a practice. Make it a habit!

Develop A Walking Habit

“Birds that are being prepared for the banquet, that they may be easily fattened through lack of exercise, are kept in darkness; and similarly, if men vegetate without physical activity, their idle bodies are overwhelmed with flesh, and in their self-satisfied retirement the fat of indolence grows upon them…But this, to my thinking, would be among the least of their evils. How much more darkness there is in their souls! Such a man is internally dazed.” — Seneca, Letters From A Stoic, 

In Dan Rather’s six decades in journalism, he’s reported on some of the most important historical events of his time—the Vietnam War, the Kennedy Assassination, the Watergate Scandal, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, the Soviet-Afghan War. As a reporter, Dan Rather was on the scene, in the trenches for all of them. Add onto that his famous mistake—which some viewers will never forgive him for—and some 80 years of life on the planet, and you could say, to put it simply, Dan Rather has accumulated some experiences and wisdom. He shared a timeless piece of that wisdom with all of us:

One of my favorite things long has been taking a leisurely stroll with wife Jean at twilight time. My steps are getting slower and, increasingly, I have another journey on my mind—the one into eternity. But with it all, the joy—the sheer, unadulterated joy—of a hand-in-hand, slow walk as evening shadows fall never ceases. The contrast with the ever-present fast pace and screaming headlines of modern life is stark.

I gently recommend it. Just walk slowly in the time after the sun sets and before night descends. Feel the breeze, smell the flowers, hear the trees leaves rustle and the birds sing. Watch as the stars begin to emerge. If you must think any about the current state of the country and politics, remember: the outrageousness and dangers of Trump’s Time may last for awhile, but Twilight Time will last forever…on into eternity.

Marcus Aurelius gave himself similar advice, “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” Seneca talked about the importance of walking as a way to relieve the mind and body. “We should take wandering outdoor walks,” he wrote, “so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.” Indeed, philosophers have been walking to think and get perspective—in the mornings, in the afternoons, at sunset—for centuries. 

The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, conducted his lectures while walking around his school in Athens as his students followed him. Nietzsche reportedly walked up to eight hours a day with a notebook and pencil in hand, and said, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” Writers, poets, and scientists throughout the ages have all found that walking offers the additional benefit of time and space for better work and a happier life. Albert Einstein walked the mile and a half from his home to his office at Princeton University every day. Charles Darwin took three 45-minute walks per day, like meals for the mind. Ernest Hemingway would take long walks along the quais in Paris whenever he was stuck in his writing and needed to clarify his thinking. Steve Jobs daily schedule included several walks, as did those of the groundbreaking psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the latter of whom wrote that “I did the best thinking of my life on leisurely walks with Amos.”

Today, it’s easier than ever to dwell on the negativity of life. Our phones are never-ending streams of chaos and distraction and screaming. Put that away. Go for a walk. 

Making Time For Mastery

“One person likes tending to his farm, another to his horse; I like to daily monitor my self-improvement.” — Epictetus, Discourses, III.5.14

Why was Marcus attending Sextus’ lectures throughout his reign? Why was he in his tent on the battlefield of Germania writing in his journal? Why did he practice everyday tasks with his left hand? Because he had a pretty important job and he wanted to succeed at it. “Mastery of reading and writing,” he said would be the key to his success, so “make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile.”

It would have been something Marcus picked up in reading Epictetus, who over and over again reminds his students that he only wanted those who were committed to a lifetime of training and improving. He said that he’d never seen someone “perfectly formed.” His baseline expectation? “At least show me someone actively forming themselves.” That’s all Epictetus wanted in his classroom: people focused on making progress, however incremental.

Yes, we’re busy. Yes, we (hopefully) love our jobs, and we need what those jobs provide, both in terms of financial security and fulfillment. Yes, making time to learn something new, to attend classes seemingly unrelated to your profession, seems selfish when there’s people relying on us. But it isn’t selfish. It’s selfless. You know what happens when you improve? Everyone around you improves too.

Marcus knew that. People sneered at him for attending those philosophy lectures. Shouldn’t the emperor be spending his time on more important matters. “Learning is a good thing, even for one who is growing old,” he’d reply. “From Sextus the philosopher I shall learn what I do not yet know.” Not everyone could see it, but Marcus knew he was bettering his people by bettering himself. Now he’s hailed as history’s only philosopher king, fulfilling both his childhood dream of being a successful philosopher and Hadrian’s dream of Marcus being a successful king. 

Maybe you’re the CEO of a multinational, how much better of a leader would you be if you mastered another language and could better communicate and connect with your foreign employees. Maybe you’re an entrepreneur, how much better would you be at pitching investors if you mastered public speaking? Maybe you’re climbing the corporate ladder, how much better would you be at navigating the office politics if you knew a book like 48 Laws of Power front to back and back to front. 

If you’re not constantly learning and improving and adding new skills to your game, what are you doing? You’re stagnant, you’re running on the hamster wheel, you’re in what David Epstein calls the “rut of competence.” We make sure we never find ourselves in one by constantly learning and pursuing new skills. We have to build it into our day. We have to embrace what Epictetus calls “profitable difficulty”: making routine out of seeking what does not come natural, on opening ourselves to possibilities otherwise left dormant, on improving. There’s no success or happiness without it. There’s only a rut.

Connect With People You Love

“Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.”  —Epictetus, The Art Of Living, p.150

Seneca wrote 124 Letters to Lucilius. 124 letters. Nearly five hundred pages of carefully thought out prose…to one friend. Why? Because “no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself.” 

Although Stoicism is a philosophy that stresses independence and strength, moral rectitude and inner-life, it’s essential that we don’t mistake this as a justification for isolation or loneliness. We are not islands, we are social animals. Only the beasts can get through this alone. We need community, we need friends. We get something out of giving, and we are made better for caring and being cared for. That’s what the Stoic idea of sympatheia is really about—the warm, snug feeling of knowing you’re a part of a larger whole. 

Relationships are key to a good life. We cannot neglect them. Our friends, our kids, our spouse, our siblings, parents, coworkers, that guy we see every morning at Starbucks—these people make life worth living. We are social beings. Marcus wrote it repeatedly. It’s what we were made for. It’s why we feel so good after surprising our wife with flowers. It’s why we get a hit of dopamine when your mom’s excitement pours out of the text that she received the letter you wrote her. It’s why we feel lousy when we’re sitting at our desk, missing our kids soccer game. 

It’s why we need to prioritize relationships. To connect. To reach out to that lost-touch-with favorite coach or teacher or mentor. To write a letter. To have dinner as a family. To have our morning coffee over FaceTime with our parents. To call our friends for no real reason except to let them know you’re thinking about them. 

There’s just no way around it: there’s no happiness or success in isolation. It might as well be called a law. In fact, Seneca did: “I can lay down for mankind a rule, in short compass, for our duties in human relationships: all that you behold, that which comprises both god and man, is one – we are the parts of one great body. Nature produced us related to one another, since she created us from the same source and to the same end. She engendered in us mutual affection, and made us prone to friendships.” Are you following the rule of mankind? You have to!

Adopt Healthy Eating Habits

“Since of all creatures on earth, the human being is the most closely related to the gods, he must be nourished like the gods. The vapors coming from earth and water are enough for them: what we must do…is get food like that—the lightest and most pure food. If we do this, our soul would be both pure and dry, and being such, it would be best and wisest.” — Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Fragments, 18.3

A student once asked Epictetus how he ought to eat. This, Epictetus replied, was simple. The right way to eat is the same as the right way to live: be “justly and equitably, in moderation, with restraint and self-control.” He meant that meals embody the principles and the disposition of the person who eats them. Food means choices and choices mean a chance to fulfill our principles. He uses the metaphor of living life as if at a banquet buffet, and how rarely people seem to be able to control themselves and their appetites. 

Epictetus was not alone. Philosophers have been experimenting with food for centuries in hopes of finding the best ways to be healthy and to enjoy life. Seneca writes of the nauseating culinary excesses of his time. Posidonius, an early Stoic, was particularly appalled by a certain large and unhealthy man named Apicius who loved to gorge himself and whose name came to be a synonym for “gourmand” in his own time. 

To the Stoics, this was all dangerous and to be avoided. In the first book of Meditations, titled “Debts and Lessons,” Marcus Aurelius marvels at how Antoninus Pius, one of the truly great Roman Emperors, kept a simple diet so he could work from dawn to dusk, so he could be at the service of the people for longer, so he could reserve mental energy and conserve time for the important things. And In her beautiful book Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has Hadrian write to Marcus Aurelius that “overeating is a Roman vice, but moderation has always been my delight.” He explains that far too many people “poison themselves with spice” and drown themselves in sauce. Simple pleasures were better. Fitness was essential. 

The Stoics believed in keeping themselves in fighting shape—at fighting weight—not for appearance’s sake but because they believed life was a kind of battle. You had to be ready for it. 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 temper…or their self-control. We must avoid the vice of overdoing our overeating. Moderation must be our delight. 

Review The Day

“I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil — that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.” — Seneca, Letters From A Stoic, 83.2

Winston Churchill was famously afraid of going to bed at the end of the day having not created, written or done anything that moved his life forward. “Every night,” he wrote, “I try myself by Court Martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground, anyone can go through the motions, but something really effective.” 

Seneca had the same habit of examining his day and his actions. As he put it, “When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.”

That’s what success and happiness require. Self-awareness. Self-reflection.

Writing, analyzing, reflecting, interrogating, taking inventory of how you spent the day—this is how you continue improving. Ask yourself questions. Question each experience, each day. Why was it so hard to wake up early? Why am I glad I did it? Why couldn’t I spare ten minutes to go for a walk? What progress did I make with that new skill? How did I feel after that call with an old friend? Where did I fall short today? What can I learn from it? 

Through reflection, you begin to understand with greater certainty what you want your life to look like. Leo Tolstoy said, “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” Those are the questions he grappled with in his journal, which he called “an instrument of self-perfection.” And when Dutch scientist Marije Elferink-Gemser studied the qualities that helps people reach peak performance, she found that “reflection is…a key factor in expert learning and refers to the extent to which individuals are able to appraise what they have learned and to integrate these experiences into future actions, thereby maximizing performance improvements.”

Did I follow my plans for the day? Was I prepared enough? What could I do better? What have I learned that will help me tomorrow? These simple questions make an enormous impact. Spend some time every night answering them. 

IV. How Are Habits Formed?

As we mentioned at the top, Epictetus said habit formation was like fueling a fire. But he put it even more plainly and brilliantly: 

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 that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead…the, then begin to count the days on which you don’t get mad…the vice begins to weaken from day one, until it is wiped out altogether.

Whatever the habit, it begins to find strength from day one. Every corresponding action fuels the fire. That is why, to the Stoics, the most important aspect of habit formation is starting. Today’s leading experts all agree. The writer James Clear talks about the idea of “atomic habits”—small acts that make an enormous difference in your life. Leo Babatua talks similarly about making it so ridiculously easy, “you won’t say no. You’ll feel crazy if you don’t do it. And so you’ll actually do it!” You want to start working out? Commit to doing five push-ups. You want to eat healthier? Commit to eating one serving of vegetables a day. You want to floss regularly? Commit to flossing one tooth. You want to write a book? Commit to writing one sentence. 

Why does the ancient “start small” strategy that Epictetus lectured some two thousand years ago work? Well, it’s helpful to understand the modern research. Elliot Berkman, director of the University of Oregon’s Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab, the process of habit formation is rooted in a neurological loop, made up of the three stages:

[*] It begins with a cue — the trigger (a time of day, a certain place, the presence of certain people, a particular emotion).

[*] Next is the routine  — the habit or behavior itself.

[*] Last is the reward — the anchor, that hit of dopamine, reinforcing the brain to be on high alert for that cue that sparks that routine that brings that reward.

For instance: you just got home from work (cue), so you crack a beer (routine), because you want to forget the tough day at work (reward). Or, you just woke up (cue), so you go for a run (routine), because you feel great after a sweat (reward). That reward creates and then cements a craving. It doesn’t take long for your brain to associate walking in the door with needing a beer or waking up with needing to go for a run. This is the “habit loop.” It’s easy to see why as time goes on, a behavior becomes more and more automatic.

Epictetus intuited it, neuroscientists and habit experts (like Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit) proved it. The key to habit formation, ancient and modern, is the same—start small.

How Are Habits Broken?

Sharon Lebell’s The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness gives a wonderful definition of what Stoicism is designed to do. “Philosophy’s purpose,” she writes, “is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us. Self-scrutiny applied with kindness is the main antidote.”

Kicking bad habits—philosophy was designed to help do that. In fact, Seneca said it explicitly. In one of Seneca’s letters excerpted in the wonderful new translation of How To Die, by James Romm, we get this little declaration: “My days have this one goal, as do my nights; this is my task and my study, to put an end to old evils.” Notice what this very accomplished writer and powerbroker didn’t say his goals were. It wasn’t to make more money, to pass new laws, to write more brilliant words to dazzle the masses, or anything of the sort. 

He said his goal was to put an end to his own bad habits. That’s it. Nothing else really mattered. Or at least it didn’t matter compared to whether he was making progress as a person. 

How did he do it?

As James Clear puts it: You don’t eliminate a bad habit, you replace it. Seneca, we safely presume, had a bad temper and overindulged his anger until it became a problem. Why else would he have written some two hundred pages in a single essay on anger? It’s the kind of polemic that could only have come from experience. It’s in that essay that Seneca writes:

“Angry people should avoid weighty undertakings, or at least those that push them past the point of exhaustion; their minds should not be employed in difficulties but given over to enjoyable arts. Let the reading of poetry calm them and history amuse them with its stories; let them be diverted gently and sensitively.” — Seneca, On Anger, 3.9

When he felt his temper boiling up, it became a cue for Seneca to find his pen. Remember the habit loop we just described above? Cue, routine, reward. Seneca wasn’t going to stop getting angry (cue), but he could stop indulging that anger (behavior). Say you drink (behavior) when you’re stressed (cue). Stress is hard to completely kick. So zero in on the behavior. What can you replace it with. Can you journal instead of drink? Go for a run? A swim? Read? Take a walk? Practice that skill you’re working on mastering? 

That’s the only way to break a bad habit. Replace it with a good one!

VI. What Are The Best Books On Habits?

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

VII. What Are The Best Quotes About Habits?

“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.” — Epictetus

“Adopt new habits … Consolidate your principles by putting them into practice.” — Epictetus 

“Assemble your life… action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal… No one can keep that from happening…Action by action.” — Marcus Aurelius

“Excellence withers without an adversary.” — Seneca

“But what does Socrates say? ‘Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day.'” — Epictetus

“If your soul be habitually in practice, you will plead and teach, listen and learn, investigate and meditate. What more is necessary?” — Seneca

“In the majority of other things, we address circumstances not in accordance with the right assumptions, but mostly by following wretched habit. Since all that I’ve said is the case, the person in training must seek to rise above, so as to stop seeking out pleasure and steering away from pain.” — Musonius Rufus

“If you want to do something, make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead.” — Epictetus

“Don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress.” — Marcus Aurelius

“Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” — Epictetus

Daily Stoic sifted through the greatest Stoic wisdom and aimed it at one of the most challenging parts of life: habit formation and growth. Check out Daily Stoic Habits for Success, Habits for Success Challenge! Challenge yourself to change what you “repeatedly do.” We are promising that if you can do that, you can achieve excellence—personally and professionally.