Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present‚ thoughtfully, justly. ― Marcus Aurelius
Let’s be clear at the start. To be a Stoic doesn’t mean you should be cold and emotionless. The Stoics can be happy. In fact, they can feel all the emotions any normal person feels.
A modern Stoic knows how to succeed without playing a zero-sum game. They manage their lives in a way that lets them win and makes the world better for their fellow humans. They do not try to impose their will on others. Instead, they make others a potential source of strength for the entire community.
A Stoic’s life, above all, is about living virtuously. Some of the most relevant ideas of the Stoic philosophy are:
- You can only control your actions and judgments, but most other things are out of your hands.
- The rational way to respond to misfortune is to learn from it and accept what we can’t change.
- Inner peace results from our ability to engage with life without trying to control the outcomes.
- We can balance our negative and positive emotions without becoming overwhelmed by either.
Let’s explore some helpful ways to implement their insights into becoming a modern Stoic.
Six Practical Tips On How To Be A Modern Stoic
Here are some practical tips on how to become a Stoic in today’s times.
1. Set Your Daily Goals First Thing In The Morning
Around 1800 years ago, Epictetus advised his listeners to rehearse the day in the morning, and then review their progress in the evening. And the Stoic King Marcus Aurelius‘ morning routine included journaling and self-reflection. They knew something that science proved later.
We are creatures of habit. Habits keep our brains from staying overloaded all the time. Good habits drive us towards a relaxed and productive life. Bad habits have a toxic effect.
Roy Baumeister, the eminent social psychologist, discovered we are more likely to give in to temptations when our willpower is low. And our willpower dwindles as the day goes on.
So, we succumb to more temptations and more bad habits by the time we reach late evening. To counter this, make mornings the time to plan your day.
The Stoics spent their mornings on self-contemplation and day-planning. Then they reached out for the most crucial tasks on their list. They understood instinctively that responsibilities and expectations fill in as the day progresses. This made it harder to attend to the important tasks.
You could do the same. Keep a paper and pen handy near your bed to write your daily goals on waking up. Then attack the toughest piece of work the first thing. And come back to review your goals/achievements before bedtime.
Mark Twain famously advised, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
That “eat a frog” method is extremely effective in removing all thoughts of procrastination. It allows your brain to work more unburdened and stress-free than at any other time of day. It enables you to perform with the sharpest focus of the day.
Remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy. ― Marcus Aurelius
2. Stop Wasting Valuable Time On Meaningless Tasks
In his book On the Shortness of Life, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who was an advisor to Emperor Nero, laments how we waste precious hours doing pointless things.
He is clear “we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”
He writes to Paulinus, “A man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of his life.”
Seneca claimed we squander life’s precious moments acting out of gluttony, vanity, materialistic desires, and the desire to impress others. He sarcastically says, “You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… “
Almost twenty centuries later, we are not much different. We know “Time is Money” but we still play the one-upmanship for hours, sharing the glitzy aspects of our lives on social media.
We post our pictures wearing the latest fashion trend, owning the latest gadget, and dining at the city’s fanciest restaurant. Look beneath those highs, and you find those posts only showcase our vanity and gluttony in one form or another.
But you can make better use of your time. It is easy. You only have to redirect your focus and glue it to your life goals. The resulting motivation kicks you into useful motion.
You could read a book (a proper book), meditate for 20 minutes, or call someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time. You might clean your desk or room, help someone out, or watch the sky and birds.
The most effective way to save time is to plan ahead of time. A pre-made plan lets you have a handy list of productivity activities.
Choose your boredom-killing strategies and list the productive things you could do instead. The next time you want to scroll through your social media feed or watch 1-minute fun videos, stop. Then choose an activity from your list and do it.
Life is long if you know how to use it. – Seneca
Sometimes, you do silly things because you lost your vision. You occupy yourself doing pointless things after an unexpected setback, like losing your job.
In such situations, an effective CBT technique is to ask this question, “So what do your think would happen next?”
Answer it. Then repeat the question several times until you have answered your last apprehension. It will help you see the bigger picture and minimize the problem.
Remember, it’s you who must find the purpose and meaning of your life. Do not let others decide that for you. Neither let random events, chance happenings, or the actions of others decide how you live your life’s precious moments.
Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person. ― Marcus Aurelius
3. Anticipate Hard Times And Practice Living In Discomfort
Being a Stoic does not imply shunning all material comforts from your life. It does not mean you become dispassionate about everything and everyone in your life.
The Stoic treats everything comfortable as preferred indifferent. These do not matter to them in terms of living with goodness or contributing to their happiness. For example, if there is a noble way to acquire wealth, they will take it. But they would not regard their wealth as something they cannot live without.
Now, here comes the twist. The Stoics prepare themselves for the most uncomfortable and unhappy life possible. And they do it while being around things they enjoy and people they love. This is the practice of Living In Poverty.
It is living in extremely miserable and barely livable conditions. It is training to live through difficult times before they occur by simulating a life gone bad after all their possessions are taken away.
Think of a Capybara from the Amazon rainforest trying to survive in the Sahara desert.
Why is it important to learn to live with discomfort? It is to realize that nothing of comfort lasts indefinitely.
The Stoics felt an attachment to people and things that bring happiness today can easily lead to taking them for granted tomorrow. Then they wrongly expect those comforts and relationships to last forever.
But that is not how life works, and good times and hard times both come in cycles.
So the ancient Stoics, including the masters, spent a few weeks every year in conditions of abject poverty. They ate one simple meal a day, wore only a piece of cloth, and lived alone away from others.
When you practice living without the things that make life easy, you learn to strictly rely more on yourself. So, when difficult situations arrive at your doorstep, you are better equipped to deal with them on your own.
We could equate this with what psychologists call emotional desensitization.
It says a response weakens when the same stimulus gets repeated. If you have a specific phobia, like trypophobia or arachnophobia, repeated exposure to the thing you fear will blunt your reactivity to it.
In chaotic times as these, you are unafraid of trying to solve your worst problems on your own. Even if it means using untested methods and risking grave mistakes, you give it your best before giving up or seeking help.
Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and will ask yourself, “Is this what one used to dread?” — Seneca
The Stoic concept of Premeditatio Malorum differs from their practice of Living in Poverty. It is imagining potential sufferings and losses, analyzing them, and planning how to respond to them. Also known as Negative Visualization, it does not involve physically experiencing an artificially created situation.
4. Learn Managing And Controlling Your Thoughts
We can hardly stop our thoughts. Recent research says we have more than 6,000 thoughts a day.
A major chunk of our thoughts is negative, causing us pain, such as past regrets or future anxieties. It comes from our evolutionary history.
We naturally tend to dwell on past mistakes and see our future play out in disasters.
Perhaps the most toxic of our thoughts are the self-critical and self-loathing ones.
They make us feel like a failure, cause us to lose our self-esteem, and get us to overthink constantly. They turn us into self-sabotaging people.
The Stoics knew how to avoid this. They extensively used their principle of Dichotomy of Control.
Using this, they divided all troublesome thoughts into whether they can control them, or cannot. The moment they stopped trying to control worries about things beyond their control, they found equanimity.
Now, your negative emotions and thoughts appear for a reason, so you don’t need to change them or push them away. Instead, recognize they are temporary. Like some fluffy white clouds in an autumn sky, always flying away.
There is another easy way to practice this. Allow your negative thoughts to pass through your mind as if it were a large tunnel. Your thoughts do not define you.
So, why not learn to control which thoughts you keep and which ones you let go of?
A scientifically proven technique for better managing your thoughts and strengthening your willpower is a daily 10-minute practice of mindful meditation.
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself with are externals, not under my control, and which have to do with the choice I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own. — Epictetus
5. Start by Focusing On Your Strengths And Working On Them
The Stoics believed in doing the best we can with the littlest we possess.
To live as Nature ordained, they did not believe in changing themselves radically or in waiting for big changes to happen.
They said we should capitalize on our unique strengths, talents, and skills to start living a good life right away.
To do this, honestly assess your present position in life. Go out with a pen and paper and sit on a park bench. Sort your thoughts out on where you stand now and write them down.
Ask yourself, and answer, who you have become, what you are doing, and how far you reached on your road to your life goals. Question yourself brutally:
- Do you rely too much on your natural talents, or do you have a growth mindset?
- Do you see things as you have known them, or do you review your approach in a more unbiased way?
Find out exactly the qualities unique to you. Is it your temperament, way of seeing things, levels of tolerance, strengths, skills, or knowledge?
Then, instead of worrying about your weaknesses and whatever you don’t have, focus on what you do have and start working from there. Even if they are not much, they are great for gaining confidence and building success.
Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person or that person, this challenge, this deed. Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in right now. You are not some disinterested bystander. Participate. Exert yourself. — Epictetus
6. Stop Complaining About Problems And Start Solving Them
We fail to see how strongly our thoughts influence our opinions and emotions.
When a problem crops up, our negative thoughts about it lead to negative emotions, which then upset us. And when upset, we become less rational and worse at solving problems.
So, what really upset us was our opinion about the problem, not the problem itself. The problem was actually not the problem.
The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude towards the problem.– Captain Jack Sparrow
At the sudden arrival of an obstacle, we become upset because of our value judgments. Then we start complaining and blaming. But all those grumblings are always pointless. They do not help solve the seemingly insuperable challenge.
- A better approach, obviously, is challenging the status quo and taking the initiative to change it. Stop doing what you were at, give the issue a solution-focused thought, and then take the first step to crack it.
- A still superior way is to anticipate and prepare for the difficulties in your path. When you are mentally prepared for the stumbling blocks, they do not seem as devastating when they appear. In fact, positive psychology explains hope in a similar way.
- Yet another effective way around this is to ask yourself, “Would it matter in five years?” We fight tooth and nail against the things that happen to us as they happen. But when we see things as if we’re seeing them in hindsight, we find the problem wasn’t at all as big as we think it to be.
Take advantage of the opportunity to learn something new. The obstacle in your way is a chance to try a fresh approach to a problem the world is facing. Think it through and try some novel strategies. Those may fail, but there is a fair chance they may provide better solutions.
Use the tough time to get proficient in one domain so you can wield your expertise in it. This will help you grow to your full potential and take you miles ahead on the path to your goals in life.
The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around them. That’s all you need to know. Nothing more. Don’t demand to know ‘why such things exist.’ —Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism is not an abstract philosophy out of reach of common people like us. It is not what you can only learn about from the heavy tomes on its philosophy and history.
Stoicism is a way of life you can easily internalize and practice every day.
You can use it to navigate through all the little and big, pleasant and unpleasant surprises of life more successfully. That is the message to you.
The right path to Stoicism may be shorter than you think. Give it a go, pick up one tip and work on it for a week. See how it changes your life for the better.
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.” — Seneca
• • •
The Best Books For A Beginner Stoic
Easy Stoic Exercises For Beginners
Memento Mori: Why The Stoics Keep Death In Mind
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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