Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. He is known as the last of the Five Good Emperors, at a time when Rome was at the peak of its glory.
Over 2000 years ago during the Germanic Wars, Marcus wrote his journal, which he titled “To Himself,” that contained all of his personal thoughts, observations, and self-reflections. It became a golden treasure of a book, laying the foundation for stoic philosophy. Today, that journal is widely published as Meditations.
Thanks to the richness of his writings, we have a good understanding of what his typical day might have looked like. This article will lay out the daily habits and philosophies that Marcus Aurelius lived by, so you can use them in your daily life too.
Prepare for the Day
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
— Marcus Aurelius
This quote is not meant to be pessimistic or cynical. Rather, it is a reminder that you should be prepared for all the things life can throw at you.
All people are self-interested. Everyone has their own families, their own finances, their own goals, their own lives. When someone rips you off, they’re only doing so in their best interests. Such people were abundant in Marcus’s life. Being a roman emperor, we can imagine that many of those around him, even advisors and so-called friends, were scheming to take his power.
Every day, there will be people and things that you face that will try to annoy you, to distract you from what’s important. You can’t control or take responsibility for those things. The only thing within your control is your own perception and response to the situation. You can mentally prepare for that.
Think of all the ways things might go south and be prepared for them. You don’t have to be sad or angry with them. Just come up with a firm and well-thought out action plan to handle them, if they should arise. If they don’t, fantastic! But if they do, you’re already prepared and won’t break a sweat.
Wake Up and Start Work Early
“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?’”
— Marcus Aurelius
Marcus must of wrote this in his journal as a personal pep-talk early in the morning after he woke. Even someone as wise and disciplined as he still needed encouragement to get out of the comfort of his own bed and get to work. It’s comfortable to stay under the warm covers in bed. But it’s not what Marcus or you were meant to do.
We’re all unique individuals on this earth. We all have incredible things to offer to the world. Hiding in bed under the covers is a disservice — the rest of the world is being deprived of your great gifts. You were meant to be productive; you were meant to work and to contribute and to be involved. That’s what life is all about.
When you wake up tomorrow, get up right away and get to work. Just move. The momentum will carry you forward throughout the day. In time, your productivity and the achievements of your goals will replace and surpass the pleasures of staying in bed.
Do The Most Important Task First
“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying…or busy with other assignments. Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. There as well: “To do what needs doing.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Marcus would tackle his most important tasks first. He didn’t believe in procrastination or putting things off, even if they were the harder things to do. “Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying…or busy with other assignments…To do what needs doing.” He knew and fully understood what needed to be done — so he did it. Whether a task was tiring or difficult or had non-ideal conditions didn’t matter to him. He knew the job, so that’s what he did.
Procrastinating on your work that needs to get done is easy. Complaining about the poor conditions or unfairness is easy. It’s natural for us to avoid hard work. But what good does that do you? It doesn’t move you any closer towards your goals, nor does it help you grow. The only way you will be free of the hard work and free of those tasks you dread is to do them.
Tackle the more important tasks of the day first, no matter their difficulty. Doing so will make the most progress towards your goals, and make the rest of the other less-important, less-challenging work a total breeze.
Live Ever Day Like It’s Your Last
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Marcus was a leader at the front lines of the Roman Empire’s many wars. Close to battle and death, yet far away from his family. His wife Faustina bore 13 children during this marriage — yet by the time of Marcus’s death only five remained.
Mortality is an inevitable part of life. Marcus knew that and understood it through and through. Each time he tucked his kids into bed might be the last time he saw them before dying in battle, so he made sure he cherished those moments. Every time he ate, drank, made love, or strolled in the forest could have been his last. So he made it a point to understand the importance of those moments and fully enjoy them.
You and I face the same mortality that Marcus does. Though we are not leading any military campaigns or going off to battle, we face the same ultimate destination of death — which can happen at any time. Today, tomorrow, or at any moment after that.
Understanding this is the key to getting the most out of your life. Being angry at things is never, ever worth your time. Being stressed out about work is never, ever worth your time. Spending time on things that aren’t truly fulfilling is never, ever worth your time.
Today, whenever you do anything, consider your mortality. Do things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. Say things that put more good and happiness into the world than bad. Make every moment of your life the best one — it might be the last one you have.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson