As students of Stoicism, we don’t just read about the philosophy and talk about its principles. We seek to practice it in daily life. In doing so, as anyone practicing anything does, we seek to become better. The better we become, the more we feel the benefits that the ancient Stoics spoke of – peace of mind, resilience, fearlessness, wisdom.
To ensure we’re on track with our philosophical goals, to ensure our practice is paying off, we need to regularly review our progress. Otherwise, how can we know?
The Stoics had their own ways of carrying out reviews and passed them on to their students so that they might be capable of self-assessment.
Here are two types of Stoic review you can practice:
1. Specific review of your set goals
One way we can use philosophy is to guide us in building good habits and eliminating bad ones. Whichever it is, we need to keep a close eye on how we’re doing. Complacency will cause good habits to die off and permit bad habits to persist.
Epictetus advised using daily reviews to help beat bad habits such as anger (Discourses 2.18.12):
“If you wish not to be quick to anger, don’t feed your habit; don’t throw it fodder on which to grow. As a first step, keep quiet, and count the days on which you didn’t get angry. “I used to get angry every day, then every other day, then every third, then every fourth.” If you can quit for thirty days, make a sacrifice to God. For the habit is loosened at first, then totally destroyed.”
To put this practice of reviewing in more practical terms, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says the first step to breaking bad habits is to track how many times per day your bad habit happens. Put a piece of paper in your pocket and a pen. Each time your bad habit happens, mark it down on your paper. At the end of the day, count up all of the tally marks and see what your total is.
From there it’s possible to see what triggers your bad habit and take steps to replace it with a good habit.
2. General review of your day’s actions
The other review we can carry out is a broader one. We can examine all the events of our day, including how we responded to them, and assess how Stoic our responses were. We can see what we did, what we should have done and how much progress we are making as Stoics. All it requires is a pen and a page with those three columns.
In his essay On Anger, Seneca outlined how he carried out his general review:
“The mind should be summoned every day to render an accounting. Sextius used to do this. At the end of the day, when he had withdrawn to his nightly rest, he would interrogate his own mind: “Which of your wrongs did you correct today? Which fault did you resist? In what way are you better?” Anger will leave off and be more moderate, if it knows that it must each day come before a judge. Is there anything finer than this habit of searching through the entire day? . . . When the light has been removed and my wife, long aware of my habit, has become silent, I scan the whole of my day and retrace all my deeds and words.”
So, if we are serious about our philosophy of life, each night we should sit down with a pen and paper and review; review our progress in making specific improvements and review our progress in applying Stoicism to our lives in a general manner.
Remember, the ideal of the Stoic sage is intentionally not an attainable goal, it is simply a guide. There is no guru, no perfect Stoic. Stoics don’t seek perfection, they seek to make the most of the process.
Improving a little each day is enough. What’s more, adopting this attitude makes it easier to stay motivated.