Drawing from the greats of classic philosophy, including Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, playwright Seneca the Younger, and slave-turned-teacher Epictetus, The Daily Stoic presents a variety of strategies for managing thoughts, seeking clarity, cultivating awareness, and applying logic and reason in your day-to-day life. Focusing on motivation rather than fear, authors Stephen Hanselman and Ryan Holiday introduce practical tips for improving your relationships, achieving your goals, and finding inner joy.
Each day, we wake up and find ourselves pulled in a hundred different directions well before the morning haze has lifted. If we do not feel this way, we are the anomaly rather than the majority.
So, how can we best manage the lure of distraction in our day-to-day lives?
Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, answers this question on a regular basis by succinctly telling his players, “Do your job.”
While this may sound obvious at first, the underlying message is that in order to be effective at any one task, you must reduce your focus to that activity alone. Then, when the first task is complete, you can move onto the second one. When you multi-task and split your attention, nothing is getting done to the full extent of your ability.
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius believed in the importance of prioritization as well. He felt that each responsibility an individual took on should be treated as though it were their last task on Earth.
To activate this mindset, Aurelius suggested that people adopt personal mantras in order to stay productive and focused during challenging times. An example of a mantra he may have used is the following:
“I am capable of giving 100% of my attention to the task at hand, and, in doing so, I can be satisfied that I am creating my best work.”
In case mantras are not your thing, Aurelius also reminded his pupils that certain occurrences are within your control and others are not. It is important to know this distinction and only feed what you have the ability to change.
One actionable way to embrace your personal power in addition to mantras is by creating a daily schedule that includes the tasks you need to accomplish and nothing else.
While we like to think that each decision we make is carefully crafted in our minds before it is spoken aloud, this tends not to be the case.
Instead, as Malcolm Gladwell discusses in Blink, our brains are hard-wired to make choices quickly, based on past experiences. While it is certainly important to consider personal history in the decision-making process, in doing so, we end up incorporating our unconscious biases into the outcomes we create.
In order to mitigate the potential of unintended prejudice in our decisions, we must make a conscious effort to pause before we speak.
And during this pause, we must ask ourselves two questions:
- What could I have overlooked here?
- Is it possible I am wrong about this?
While this extra moment of self-reflection might seem minor, it can make a huge difference in how we present what it is we want to say.
Consider the following example.
Ashley sees that someone is parking in the handicapped spot outside of a grocery store and he has the appropriate tag on his car. When the individual walks into the shop, he is not exhibiting any outward signs of physical impairment. Ashley assumes that he is cheating the system in order to get a good parking spot.
While she initially would like to call out the man for his behavior, she pauses and considers...what if the individual actually has a disability that is not visible at first glance?
After all, it is very possible that the man Ashley encountered cannot walk an increased distance for a reason that is not apparent to her, such as an eye, heart, or lung condition that prohibits a longer trek.
We, as humans, have a tendency to say, “I will do it tomorrow,” when asked to complete an undesirable or demanding task. According to Aurelius, this is actually coded for “I am never going to do it”.
We see this in elementary school students just as prominently as we do in full-fledged adults, so how do we address this common refrain and re-shape the conversation?
By definition, Stoicism is the endurance of hardship without letting the challenge you are facing have a significant impact on your life. In other words, keep moving forward and focus on the process, not the product.
When we think of all the tasks we need to complete in a given week, month, or year, the prospect is overwhelming, hence where the avoidance by procrastination comes in. The key to combating this maladaptive attitude is to break larger projects and goals into smaller, more manageable chunks. Keep in mind that moving forward is still forward motion, even if you are taking baby steps.
The slave-turned-teacher Epictetus was known for reminding his students that no one is perfectly stoic--it is simply a concept you should try to embrace.
We are often told that nothing is more important than having a plan. That way, there will be no surprises and life will move along predictably, as expected. However, we all know the reality--bumps will be uncovered and flexibility will be required along the way.
So, how do we prepare for the unexpected?
This is not a trick question.
While we may not know exactly what lies ahead of us, the teachings of Stoicism indicate that rather than planning for every possible outcome in a scenario, we should instead be fostering creativity and innovation.
It is more important to be flexible than to have all the answers.
Epictetus rejected the notion that students must come to teachers for advice. Rather than answering his pupils’ questions directly, Epictetus hoped that he could instead teach them to think critically and become self-sufficient.
He recommended that when making any sort of plan, you always have a back-up plan. This way, if your first plan fails, you are able to quickly redirect without losing momentum.
A setback may present an obstacle, but if you are flexible and creative, it should not throw you entirely off your path.
Resilience and Virtue
After his plane was shot down over Vietnam, Navy vice admiral and US pilot James Stockdale were subjected to a torturous lifestyle as a prisoner of war in the seven years following this crash.
While imprisoned, did Stockdale wish for a way out? I’m sure. But, what he did not do is expect freedom, as he knew that it was unrealistic to depend on the promise of liberation given the severity of his situation.
He was resilient and refused to quit living, as many in his situation would, and he did this by relying on his personal fortitude rather than the unseemly circumstances of his existence.
This perseverance paid off, as Stockdale was released from prison in 1973 during Operation Homecoming and he went on to live until 2005.
Stoicism teaches us that we must be resilient, but also that we must live with virtue.
And what does virtue really mean?
According to the Stoics, acting with virtue is embodying a sense of duty that emphasizes high moral standards and advocates for the common good.
While goals can be valuable tools, Stoics believe that virtue is far more important. Virtue is an umbrella under which your specific goals can live and it is also the ultimate reason for living.
When Aurelius found himself overwhelmed with responsibilities, he maintained the philosophy that duty and virtue must come before all else.
We all have a stake in the progress of the world.
Shades of Gray
Stoicism differs from other schools of philosophy in that it can actually be very practical. There is a focus on tangible results.
The belief system argues that if you are waiting for the perfect time to take action, it will never come. If you are waiting for the perfect place to open before you, it will never appear. If you are waiting for the perfect person to lead you down the path to success, you are doing it wrong. You must rely on yourself and stop using external circumstances as an excuse.
Relatedly, Stoics advises that people avoid cognitive distortions aka ‘all or nothing’ thinking. Rarely is a scenario entirely black and white. Often, there are shades of gray that need to be examined and adjusted.
Think of it this way: You meet someone who seems to mostly fit your schematic of the ideal partner. Are you really going to refuse to date them because they do not fit every box on your prescribed list? As we discussed earlier, flexibility is important...and not every situation can be dichotomized into a simple yes or no. Otherwise, you miss out on the glorious in-between.
By nature, humans are impulsive creatures. We decide quickly, act even faster, and often save our logical thinking for after the fact.
But what if we didn’t make choices based on our emotional preferences? What if we relied solely on intelligence and reason instead?
According to Stoics, we would be much better off.
Take Julius Caesar's rival Cato the Younger, for example. When Cato became involved in politics, it was expected that he would give self-aggrandizing speeches and position himself as a brave and fearless leader.
Instead, however, Cato did what we have been recommending throughout our discussion of Stoicism--he took a step back and assessed his situation before taking action.
In repressing his ego and his emotional desire to be liked, Cato was able to be selective in his speech and make sure that his words were worth hearing. Ultimately, Cato was respected for leading with logic rather than feelings.
It may be tempting, but it is maladaptive to let emotion dictate our choices and rule our lives.
You probably know people who have lived to be 90. Maybe even people who have lived to be 100. Or 105. However, none of these worthy contenders come close to the longest human lifespan, which was recorded as 122 years.
You would see a lot in 122 years on Earth. But at what cost? Many of your friends and family members would pre-decease you and you would be apt to see your physical body decline.
The subject of death differs between cultures and belief systems. Now, we will look at how Stoicism views the idea of death.
Stoics see death as a motivator, encouraging people to live life to the fullest. They see death as an inevitability to be embraced and accepted rather than worried about.
Most significantly, Stoics views death as proof that there is nothing to fear. After all, death not only signifies the end of life, but it is also the end of worry, pain, and fear.
The philosopher Cato the Younger killed himself. He was more afraid of watching Julius Caesar destroy the Roman Empire than he was of death. It is all about perspective.
While we all seek out shortcuts to fast-track our paths to success, the classic philosophers of ancient times ardently caution us against taking the easy route. Instead, these prominent figures and heroes of their time believed that by living with intention, focusing on the task at hand, and remaining dedicated to a life of virtue, we can push back on our natural tendencies...and optimize our work to its full potential.