Stoic Decision Making: Think Clearly, Decide Quickly

As adults, sources suggest, we make around 35,000 decisions every day [in contrast a child makes about 3,000] (Sahakian & Labuzetta, 2013). That is one choice every two seconds. Most of these are simple decisions—straightforward and easy to make, like what dress to wear to the office today.

Now, some people would not call that a simple decision, and that is why Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck and blue jeans every day. And Mark Zuckerberg always wears the same gray T-shirt to work.

The gist of the Stoic way of decision-making is this: The Stoics suggest we deal with whatever life throws at us by deciding first whether we control it or not. The things we do not control, we let go. The things that come under our control, we sift them through the four cardinal virtues. If they are virtuous, we could do them. If they are not, then we must not.

Let’s dive in to understand it better, in fact, so better that we do not ever forget it!


What Is Decision-Making

We can describe decision-making as the ability to choose one out of several alternatives and to act accordingly. Mostly, the goal of a decision lies in the future. That is, when we want to make a good decision, we have to pick an alternative in the present moment that best meets the future demands of an upcoming situation.

Making decisions is a necessary step in the problem-solving process. But making too many decisions and choosing between too many alternatives can tire our brains.

What Is Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue refers to the worsening quality of decisions after one has been involved in decision-making for a long period with no interval of rest. Usually, the decisions made towards the end of the day are poorer than the ones made at the start of the day or after a break time.

The more decisions we make in a day, the more mental energy we lose. It happens because our willpower is a limited resource. There is only so much we can draw in a day from our well of will.

Decision fatigue is also called ego depletion or willpower depletion.

People having decision fatigue also feel less guilty about their actions and are less helpful to others. Those under high stress seem to get it sooner and more often.

John Tierney, who co-authored the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength with Roy Baumeister, says, “Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy.”

How The Stoics Decide Quickly

The Stoics have it easy. Their philosophy trains them to think clearly, decide quickly, and rarely regret. So, how do they think clearly? Here is how to make a quick decision like a Stoic would when you stand at a diversion and cannot seem to decide which way to go:

First, decide if the situation you are facing is under your control or not. If it is not under your control, then leave it there and stop overthinking or worrying about it. If it is something you can control, then sieve it through the four cardinal virtues. If it passes the test and proves to be a virtuous thing, then do it. If it does not pass the virtue test and does not come across as a thing of virtue, then do not do it.

Stoicism emerged in ancient Athens around 2,300 years from now when Zeno of Citium, a Phoenician (Lebanese) migrant to Athens, Greece, began to teach his philosophy under the Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch) beside the Athenian marketplace (the Agora).

The Greek philosophy appealed to the Roman elites because one of its fundamental purposes was to find “Apatheia”—a balanced state of mind—while living a life of repetitive challenges and impediments. We could translate apatheia to mean “without passions,”—not without emotions (which is apathy, an English word that was borrowed from the Greek apatheia).

For doing some complicated thinking before making a decision, the Stoics can achieve exceptional results using the bare minimum mental energy. They can make hard choices while remaining unruffled. The Stoic calmness has roots in the way they learn to prune off the wild offshoots from their decision tree.

The Stoics say we should try our best to live as rational beings, in harmony with nature and other beings. To do so, we must screen all our decisions and actions before carrying them out, with wisdom, while watching closely if they are in agreement with nature and social good.

So then, what is the Stoic idea of wisdom?

It is wisdom that is grounded in practicality and guided by morality. It is the intelligence we could apply to everyday situations, and also for making big decisions. A Stoic describes wisdom as the ability to distinguish between the good, the evil, and the indifferent, with virtue (morality) as the key deciding factor.

By the way, we need to acquire wisdom is because it is the only way to reach any correct reasoning.

Here is how they think clearly. They start with what they call the Dichotomy of Control. The dichotomy of control is simply the Stoic way of separating things into ‘under my control’ and ‘outside my control.’ It means when they face a situation, this is the first question they ask themselves: Is it under my control?

So now, think of an undecided problem in your life, and ask yourself the same. And then proceed as follows.

  • If it is under your control, then simply go ahead and do it.
  • If it is not under your control, then leave it where it is. Stop worrying about it right away.
  • If it is somewhat (partially) under your control, then you may attempt it. On attempting it, if the result doesn’t turn out as you had thought it should have, then categorize it as not under your control. And if the result is exactly or nearly what you had expected, then mark it for the future as something you control.

Once you learn to sift things this way, you are halfway to reach a final decision. It helps you avoid wasting your energy and time trying to control what you simply cannot control. Now, here is a succinct guide from the Stoic master Epictetus to know what things fall under your control:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.

— Epictetus, Enchiridion 1

How The Stoics Think Clearly

Now you know you have in your hand something you control, so how do you decide quickly?

This is what you do next: Run it through the Virtue Model. That is, scrutinize it through the microscope of virtue.

So, what is virtue?

Virtue is excellence of character. It is a disposition inbred into a person, almost like second nature, to feel, desire, choose, and act in certain ways that are based on goodness. When one is virtuous, they always do what is morally right and ethically good.

A virtuous person is a good person, and vice versa. The virtue-abiding person avoids doing foul things because they are immoral and unethical, and therefore, evil and wicked.

For the Stoics, virtue is the only thing that truly matters in life. Stoics strongly feel living with virtue is the only right way to stay unperturbed by the vagaries of a chaotic world.

In brief, the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism (you must check out the unknown practicalities of The 4 Stoic Virtues) are:

  1. Wisdom or Prudence: practical wisdom applied to situations
  2. Justice: reason and judgment applied to social interactions
  3. Temperance: moderation and avoidance applied to indulgence
  4. Courage: grit and resilience applied to difficult circumstances

On this, Massimo Pigliucci writes, “Your duty as a Stoic is to do whatever allows you to practice the four cardinal virtues of — wisdom (the ability to determine the best course of action under difficult circumstances), justice (the most obviously socially-oriented of the Stoic virtues), temperance (the most inward-looking, concerned with controlling your own excesses), and courage (which does not have to be, and indeed often is not, just physical, but more broadly the determination to do the right thing).”

The options you take when facing a hard-to-decide situation are:

  • If it has virtue, you go ahead and do it to practice wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage.
  • If it has no virtue, then decide if it is indifferent. Of these, some are preferred indifferents—life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, well-functioning sense organs, wealth, reputation. These we could do. The others fall under dispreferred indifferents—death, disease, pain, ugliness, frailty, disablement, poverty, low repute, and ignoble birth. These we should avoid.
  • If it is the opposite of virtue—a vice, something harmful to self or others, or against Nature, then we never do it.
Stoic Wisdom

Stoic Beliefs Behind Decision Making

Stoics believe all events in the cosmos are predetermined and happen because of a pre-calculated chain of causes. Humans have no power to control the course of events. Stoic ethics follows logically from that premise.

So, the basic tenet of Stoic ethics is that one cannot control external circumstances, but can control their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

The early Stoics adopted from Socrates the idea that Reason is the greatest of all virtues.

Reason is our rational capacity to make sense of the world by thinking and applying logic. Stoics defined reason as a mental dialogue or “internal speech” — the ability to see and consider an issue from a 360-degree perspective.

Stoics believed it is human nature to reason, and it is a trait exclusive to us among animals. Seneca asserts all virtues spring from reason. And virtuous acts are the most rational (reasonable) acts in every situation.

Moreover, Seneca declares all acts of virtue or goodness are equally good, whatever the circumstances they arise from. This is because virtue comes from reason and what is rational can only be rational – no more and no less.

And what is rational, is right.

Now, to act rationally is to bear oneself as nature intends it to be. And since nature is ruled by the divine “logos,” everything that is natural is perfection. Therefore, to act out of reason is to act with perfection and in harmony with nature.

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, said: “A man’s excellence or virtue does not depend on his success in obtaining anything in the external world; it depends entirely on having the right mental attitude toward things.”

Zeno emphasized, “the single plan by which life should be lived must be a plan formed by correct reason, and this would be one that is natural in the sense that it accords both with man’s nature and with universal nature.”

Final Words

The Stoics have it easy, as we said earlier. But it is easy because they take themselves as perpetual learners, who they know will fail at their many attempts to achieve their objectives. Success lies in aiming right, whether you hit the target or not. The only question that matters is if you aimed right.

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Awe-inspiring story of Zeno—The First Stoic.

6 Ways You Can Become A Modern Stoic.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

• We are Happiness Project.

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