Before we get into Stoic habits, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the world around us can be difficult to navigate. These days, we’re constantly bombarded with information, conflicting world views, expectations, and pressures to succeed or behave a certain way. With the growing complexity of life and the lack of breathing room, it’s not hard to see how our mental health can take a hit.

Our career, personal relationships, financial stress, and general pace of life can be a lot to juggle if we don’t deliberately manage them all. Stress, burnout, and anxiety are common side effects when these things begin to overwhelm us.

It could be that the uncertainties of the future are keeping us up at night. Some might find it impossible to strike a balance between work and decompression in the face of demands on their time. Others still struggle with negative self talk, difficulty finding purpose, or an inability to find happiness in day-to-day life.

All of this can happen if we let life’s pressures rattle around in our lives unchecked and are not deliberate with how we view and think about the things life throws at us.

Chance is Not Resilient:

So what can we do about it?

You and I were both born with a pretty blank slate in terms of our minds, our beliefs, and our values. As we grew, we learned about the world around us. We had good and bad experiences; we read books, watched movies, made friendships, got into fights, tasted different foods, fell over, and picked ourselves back up. All of these things shape who we are. For better or for worse.

However, much of what we are exposed to is not a deliberate choice. Much of it is random and could depend on where we live, our parents, our school, who we are surrounded by, or the politics, economics, and social conditions of our country. A lot of it is simply chance.

I don’t believe that chance is a very good way of deciding who we are.

It may turn out well, or it may not. By it’s very definition, it’s not up to us. Which means that we could come out the other side a constructive and well-regulated individual or a destructive, unstable one.

I think a better way to forge who we are is to be deliberate about it and limit, or even rewire, the influence of chance. We can question our beliefs, define our own values, be strict with who we spend our time with, read what we want to read, listen to what we want to listen to, and slowly shift the person we are from something shaped by chance into something shaped by deliberate and conscious choice.

To that end, here are 5 Stoic habits that have had the greatest impact on my life.

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Acceptance (Amor Fati):

Before I get into acceptance, I’ll address a common misconception about the idea. In this context, to accept is not to lie down, let life steamroll over you, submit, and do nothing about it. When we talk about acceptance, we don’t mean absolute submission.

In The Book of Five Rings, the Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi once wrote:

“Truth is not what you want it to be; it is what it is.
And you must bend to its power or live a lie.”

This is the essence of what we mean by acceptance. There are often things in life we have no control over, and when we encounter them, we have two options:

  1. We accept them for what they are, knowing that no matter how much energy we put into trying to change them, they will not change. Then we look at the areas of our lives we can control and focus our time and efforts there.

  2. We resist them. We attempt to twist reality, tell ourselves mistruths, and put time and energy into something that we ultimately cannot change.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said:

“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”

The Stoics believed that much of what happens around us is completely outside of our control. What we do control is how we respond to it. To that end, we can learn to accept what happens around us as part of nature; we can learn to see the opportunities in things; we can learn not to dwell on wishing things were different; and, if we are in a difficult place and suffering, we can learn to leverage what we have within our control to improve our situation.

When we resist the world around us, we anchor ourselves to things outside our control, allowing them to infect our peace of mind and drain us of time and energy that could be put to better use elsewhere.

Memento Mori:

Memento Mori can seem a bit morbid. It roughly translates as ‘remember that you will die’. Not the most cheerful personal philosophy.

However, when we look a little deeper, Memento Mori does have the ability to add a lot more color to day-to-day life. It can magnify the way we love, encourage us to be more present, help us savor the things we enjoy, and help us see life in a completely different way.

In his journal, now called Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:

“Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?”

If we can learn to allow death to be at the forefront of our minds and get over some of the dread and discomfort it can bring with it, we can use the knowledge of our own impermanence to stop taking things for granted and live in the moment.

There will be a time when you wake up for the last time, kiss your partner for the last time, tuck your kids into bed, eat your favorite meal, watch a movie, read a book, look up at the stars, and watch how the leaves of a tree move in the wind, all for the final time.

When we’re aware of this, it all becomes a little more impactful.

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Voluntary Discomfort:

Next up, we have voluntary discomfort. This is one that takes a little discipline to get going, but you’ll quickly begin to feel the benefits.

The Stoics were consistently advocates of doing things that were deliberately uncomfortable.

In Letter 83 (10) to Lucilius, the Stoic philosopher and Roman statesman Seneca describes swimming in rivers and cold water:

“I, a great lover of cold baths, who used to celebrate the new year by taking a plunge into the canal, who, just as naturally as I would set out to do some reading or writing, or to compose a speech, used to inaugurate the first of the year with a plunge into the Virgo aqueduct [part of the Roman baths]”

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius challenges himself to get out of bed:

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

Senca once wrote:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”

For you, discomfort could be pushing yourself in the gym, doing martial arts, taking cold showers, running, or even eating plain food.

The Stoics recognized the harm of constant comfort. As our comfort zone shrinks and we become accustomed to higher and higher levels of comfort, our resilience to discomfort drops. Meaning that whenever we find ourselves uncomfortable, it has a greater impact on our wellbeing.

Doing things that are deliberately uncomfortable increases our tolerance and even helps us better enjoy the things that bring us comfort because we know what it feels like without them.

Personally, I use the gym and cold showers as sources of discomfort, occasionally throwing in things like fasting and bland food. As long as it helps drop your baseline level of comfort, anything can work for you.

Epictetus once said:

“What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.”

Comfort can hold us back if it stops us from walking into discomfort.

Remind Yourself of What is Within Your Control

If you’ve read any of the content here before, you’ve probably already seen me talk about the dichotomy of control, probably more than once.

There’s a reason for this, and it’s not that I don’t have anything else to talk about. It’s because when we get this wrong, our entire worldview can set us up for frustration, resentment, despair, ineffectiveness, and bitterness. It’s not a happy place to be.

When we get it right, however, we can effortlessly pass through challenges and adversity while quickly organizing ourselves and what we have at our disposal to make the most of the situation.

For this reason, Epictetus’ dichotomy of control is, to me, one of the most impactful and simple lessons from the ancient world.

He said this:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.”

Simply put, there is very little within our control—just our actions, thoughts, beliefs, and values. Everything else is outside the reach of our will.

This means that whenever anything happens around us, we can look at it, see it for what it is, accept it as the new reality, and then quickly accept ownership to leverage our own actions to either improve the conditions we’re in, or leave.

Failing either of these two things, we can change the way we look and process what’s in front of us to lessen it’s impact on our peace of mind. We can’t always decide what happens to us, but we can decide how we respond to it.

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Meditation and Reflection:

Seneca once wrote:

“I make use of this opportunity, daily pleading my case at my own court. When the light has been taken away and my wife has fallen silent, aware as she is of my habit, I examine my entire day, going through what I have done and said. I conceal nothing from myself, I pass nothing by. I have nothing to fear from my errors when I can say: ‘See that you do not do this anymore. For the moment, I excuse you.’”

This, to me, is another simple tool that can have a huge impact on our day-to-day lives. Most of us wake up, go to work, come home, do chores and life admin, spend time with loved ones, eat, decompress for a bit, then put our heads down, go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.

This repetition without a way of organizing and examining our thoughts and emotions can build up stacks of things like unaddressed stresses, unanswered questions, unexamined behaviors, and negative interactions.

Over time, as these stack up, they can begin to eat away at our peace of mind and even burn us out. So not only do reflection and mediation help us clear our minds, but they also help us unpack all of the business and craziness of the day so it doesn’t build up and boil over like an unwatched pot.

Reflection also helps us develop as people. If we examine how we approach life and how we respond to life, we are better able to decide what to continue doing and what to stop doing.

The way in which we do this will depend on the person, but generally we can sit down and write in a journal, like Marcus Aurelius, or we can sit and meditate on the day for a while, mentally going through the good and the bad, or the whys, hows, and whats.

Whatever you choose to do, incorporating some kind of reflective practice can have an amazing effect on our day-to-day mental state.

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