Stoicism. Founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, Stoicism is a practical philosophy with an aim to bettering oneself in order to live a purposeful life.
Of all philosophies, it remains perhaps the most immediately relevant and useful. And I’m not just saying that as someone who tries (and often fails) to follow the appealing wisdom of Stoicism.
Take “amor fati”, for example. A timeless adage which loosely translates from Latin as “love of fate”. Amor fati is the Stoic mindset that you should make the best of whatever comes your way. To accept and embrace change – and find ways to take positives from adversity.
In an increasingly one-click world of instant gratification, it’s Stoic habits of mindfulness, stillness, and reflection that stand the test of time.
Here are 5 simple ways to incorporate Stoic habits in your daily routine. Starting today.
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One of Stoicism’s greatest practitioners, Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “when you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
Stoics are big on journaling; the art of self-reflection. Famous faces who were partial to a bit of journaling include Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and even her Maj, Queen Victoria!
But what really is it? Journaling is the simple act of writing down your thoughts and feelings to understand them more clearly.
According to a study conducted by Harvard Business School, participants who journaled at the end of the day had a 25% increase in performance when compared with a control group who did not journal. While The Journal of Experimental Psychology found that journaling before bed decreases cognitive stimulus, rumination, and worry, allowing you to fall asleep faster.
This is because journaling helps empty your mind. You can transfer your thoughts, fears, and hopes onto paper, you clear your mind and make way for new ideas.
In doing so, you boost your cognition. According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, reflective writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. Making way for more important cognitive activities.
How can you start practising journaling?
- Start small (very small): write just one reflection each time you journal. You don’t have to produce Booker Prize-worthy writing.
- Do it twice a day: each morning (to prepare for the day) and each evening (to reflect). Seneca was an advocate of journaling in the evening. He famously wrote, “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.”
- Pick one key metric you want to track: most people are intimidated by a blank piece of paper. Think about what’s important to you and simply track that one starting metric. It could be “time spent with the kids”, “time/distance of today’s run”, or “hours of sleep”. First, it’ll keep you focused. Second, it’ll get the reflective cogs turning.
Focus Only on what you can control
You have zero control over everything other than yourself.
That might seem terrifying to the control freaks and perfectionists among us (myself, admittedly, included in the latter).
Stoics don’t just recognise this. The philosophy is built around this very idea.
The Stoics argue there are only two things we have absolute control over. Our thoughts and our actions. We can’t control the world around us. But we can control our judgements and reactions. How we respond makes events good or bad.
As Epictetus wrote in Discourses, “there is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” Our unhappiness is, in large, caused by thinking that we control things we can’t.
How can you practice this? It takes patience and practice to remember to truly master your internal locus of control.
But Reinhold Niebuhr, famed American theologian, created a rather apt prayer for this. Named the Serenity Prayer, it goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Create a morning routine
Marcus Aurelius knew this too: “At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself… is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
“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?”
Stoics, like Marcus, recognized that human beings are not exempt from the cycle of the natural world. That we all have a duty, a role to play. Every lifeform is serving and working, working and serving. We are all connected, we all need to contribute.
A morning routine reinforces this. It sets the tone for the rest of the day. It’s a moment in time for us to take stock of what our duties are for the day ahead.
It could be as simple as sipping a coffee while looking out the window. As active as a morning jog. Or like the great Ben Franklin, you can get all philosophical by asking yourself every morning: “what good shall I do this day?”
Plan for the worst
This isn’t all doom and gloom. Quite the opposite. The Stoic practice of Premeditatio Malorum is liberating.
In plain English: take a moment to think through everything that could go wrong with a particular plan.
Why is this practice so powerful?
- It forces you to consider unpleasant outcomes, you prepare yourself mentally that something may not work.
- This, in turn, means you’re more at ease with your expectations. And less stressed when something doesn’t come off the way you’d hoped. In short, it prepares you for hardship.
Speaking from personal experience, the practice is highly valuable in facing your fears. How? As Seneca said, “We suffer more in our imaginations than in reality.” By expressing all your fears upfront, it helps to rationalise them.
How can you practice this? Writing your own premeditatio malorum is as simple as making a list of what could go wrong for any upcoming situation. It could be a big meeting at work, a big change in your life (like moving house), or an upcoming road trip.
Writing your list means taking an objective look at your day and approaching it with a sense of realism and rationality. Nature, on occasion, brings us misfortune. And that’s ok. In visualizing the worst that can happen, we limit devastation and maximize our ability to think positively in the face of adversity.
Aha! Bet you didn’t see this one creeping into Stoicism. We often don’t associate the dreary, bitter-sweet wisdom of Stoicism with this Buddhist practice.
While the Stoics didn’t quite have “mindfulness”, they had prosochē. The word describes a type of vigilance. Always being aware of our present desires, actions, and impressions. Keyword: present.
Mindfulness is about the quality of being ‘present’. Meaning to be fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment – free from distraction or judgment, and aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them.
How can you practice this in daily life?
It’s not easy to completely calm a restless mind – it will take practice.
But all you really need is to go for a stroll outdoors, anywhere. The greenery of a park can add extra calm. Take care to listen to your surroundings, take note of each step. Engage in exactly what it is your doing at exactly that moment in time.
Want to read more about Stoicism?
Once you’ve got the concepts nailed. Dive into Stoicism’s ‘big three’: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Check out Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, Epictetus’s Discourses, and, of course, Marcus Aurelius’ famous Meditations.