The Stoics were all about building positive habits. Figure out what the right thing to do is and then do it every single day. They would have agreed wholeheartedly with Aristotle’s teachings about habits:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”
It follows then that if we want to be happy, we should form habits that support happiness. If we want to be strong, we should form habits that a strong person would have. For every goal we wish to achieve, for every quality we wish to develop, we must focus on establishing the small, everyday habits that lay the foundation. The results will follow as “we become what we repeatedly do.”
This is great news for us. It means that success won’t require us to have natural-born talent or to get really lucky. All we really need to do is figure out which habits we should form. If we can develop a system of habits that is in line with our long-term goal, then achieving the goal just becomes a matter of time and everyday effort.
Epictetus used to say “Every day and night keep thoughts like these at handwrite them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.” He’s talking about practicing philosophy daily. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is entirely based on a habit — regular writing in a journal as a form of self-reflection and self-improvement.
There is nothing more powerful than good habits. They form the foundation for all future things. Establish good habits, and success and happiness are just a matter of time. Here are 4 powerful stoic habits to get started.
#1 Wake Up Early
“The day has already begun to lessen. It has shrunk considerably, but yet will still allow a goodly space of time if one rises, so to speak, with the day itself. We are more industrious, and we are better men if we anticipate the day and welcome the dawn.”
— Seneca, Letters From A Stoic
It’s well known that happy and successful people wake up earlier than the average person. In a psychology study by researchers at the University of Toronto, it was found that “Morning-Type” type people experience an increase in wellbeing in four key areas: emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual.
“Our results demonstrate that morningness is associated with higher positive affect among both younger and older adults,” says the study, because of our “internal biological clock.” Our ancestors didn’t have curtains to keep things dark until noon — they had to get up with the sun. It’s the most natural way.
Aside from the argument of waking up early aligning with our natural biological clock, there are also psychological benefits. Waking up early is quite calming and soothing to the mind. It’s still quiet since everyone is still asleep, so you’re able to ease into the day and maybe even get some extra work done before the noise starts.
The extra productivity is incredibly motivating too. Instead of waiting to start your work at 9 or 10 AM, you’re finishing it before most people have breakfast. By just lunchtime, you’ve accomplished enough work to be proud of, the rest is a bonus.
Waking up early gets you in the mood for productivity and life. You’re not dragging yourself out of bed. You’re jumping up, getting into the habit of being excited for the day, and tackling it head-on.
#2 Start a Self-Reflection Journal
“No man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom … This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection.”
There are few habits as popular and time-tested among history’s successful leaders as journaling. These people came from all walks of life: John D. Rockefeller (business), George Patton (US military), Thomas Edison (science and engineering), Winston Churchill (Prime Minister of England), and Mark Twain (author) — just to name a few.
A self-reflection journal is a central place to physically write your thoughts and feelings about the past day and to prepare for the next. It’s an exercise for clearing your mind and putting it all down on paper.
Through this exercise, you’re able to see your thoughts directly. You can analyze them — reflect on what you did right and what you succeeded in. These are things that you should plan (and write down) to continue to do. At the same time, see what things you didn’t do so well, mistakes you made. These are things to improve upon tomorrow.
As you continue to write in your self-reflection journal, you will eventually establish a record of all your thoughts, events, and critical decisions. You’ll be able to see the trends, which daily habits are helping you to improve and which ones are slowing you down. Through this one daily action, you’re establishing a lifelong habit of constant improvement.
#3 Read Something Everyday
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for”
Most people say that the best form of learning comes from experience. The Stoics would argue that the best form of learning is from books.
Learning from experience is valuable because you get a firsthand account of the action or skill you wish to learn. You’re the one doing it, so you’re able to establish mental muscle memory and learn from your mistakes.
But this is where books have a key advantage: instead of making your own mistakes, you get to learn from other people’s mistakes first. You raise your knowledge level to be equal to or greater than the ones who have labored before you by default.
If it’s your first time investing, would you put your money into the stock market, buying some random company stocks while not knowing how to evaluate them? Many people do this — they’ll buy Starbucks stock because “hey I love Starbucks coffee!”
Or would you rather read a few books by some legendary investors who have done it before so you can skip the mistakes they once made? You’ll have a much easier time and get to making money a lot faster.
This goes for every subject you could ever learn about. Math and Science are built “on the shoulders of giants”. We read books about them in school to skip past most of the hard labor and experiments that the original inventor had to go through.
It helps to read about all things: tips and tricks about personal finance, politics, the intricacies of romance, the strategies of power and warfare, and how to establish life philosophies (stoicism for example).
Reading books is a straight-up shortcut to success, an endless wealth of knowledge. As Leo Tolstoy once said,
“I cannot understand how some people can live without communicating with the wisest people who ever lived on earth.”
#4 Develop a Walking Habit
“We should take wandering outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.”
Most of our lives are structured and fast-paced. During workdays, we rush through breakfast and get down to our daily tasks as quickly as possible. On vacation, we’re running around catching flights and get through all the items on our itinerary.
Walking slows everything down — your thoughts and feelings are finally given their due time to relax. Sometimes that’s all you need, time for everything in your head to just sit there, undisturbed. When you look back on them, you may see something different, a fresh perspective. You’ve given your brain the time, space, and energy to do what it does best: to think.
The most creative ideas come from taking walks too. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle used to give his lectures while walking through Athens as his students followed him. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Steve Jobs all used to take walks throughout the workday to freshen up their minds.
Creativity is not something you could ever do consciously within a structured environment. How could you think about something you’ve never seen or ever known about? That’s why you need to let your mind wander, to let it do the exploring all on its own. That’s where the leisurely walks come in, to slow things down and set your mind free to do its own exploration.
Habits are like a bonfire. The more you perform a habit, good or bad, the more you reinforce it by adding fuel to the fire. The stoics believed in establishing good habits through and through. There are 4 habits which have been particularly emphasized in stoic writings:
- Waking up early. To rise as naturally as possible with the rising sun and our biological clock. We get ahead of the day and get used to being excited to contribute to life.
- Self-reflection journaling. To continuously reflect on our successes and areas for improvement. Over time, it becomes a physical document for tracking our progress.
- Reading every day. Learn from other people’s mistakes so you can gain their experience without your own effort.
- Take walks. To slow things down and relax. To let your mind wander and spark creativity.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
The Discourses by Epictetus