Daily life can be busy. And it can be worrying. And exciting, anxious, and a whole host of other things that distract us from focusing on ourselves and the present moment. We read about Stoicism and get excited about adopting a philosophy of life, something to guide us in our decisions and make us feel proud of our actions. But then life takes over again and we forget to apply what we’ve learned. Bereft of well-defined principles, we just deal with situations the best we can as they arise.
With a little more conscious effort we can cement our philosophy of life. We can permanently make Stoicism our North Star, always there to give us a good response to what we face every day.
But it can be hard to relate Stoicism to specific circumstances, especially as a beginner. To help with this, I have outlined a hypothetical Stoic daily routine that hopefully makes the benefits of having a philosophy of life clearer. And remember, you don’t necessarily need to be “all-in” on one thing in life, feel free to pick and choose which parts of Stoicism to adopt!
Your Stoic Daily Routine
“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
Before you can do anything, you have to get out of bed. Hitting snooze and lying there for another ten minutes adds nothing to your day. It’s one of those moments when your only obstacle is yourself, and it’s easy to overcome. Once you’re up, make your bed. If you achieve nothing else today, you achieved that.
In his letter, On the faults of the spirit, Seneca calls himself a veteran devotee of cold water. While you might not fancy a cold shower every morning, it’s worth practicing every now and then as a means of reducing your dependence on comfort and reminding yourself how resilient you really are. There are also proven health benefits.
Seneca advocated dressing merely as protection against cold and personal discomfort. In other words, there’s no need for expense and extravagance when it comes to clothing – you have more when you are content with less (and are impervious to advertising).
Preparing For The Day
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive-to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”Marcus Aurelius
- Eating breakfast
The Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus taught that Stoics should prefer inexpensive foods that are easy to obtain and healthy to eat. Shunning fancy or unhealthy meals, or at least limiting them to rare occasions, is one way to exhibit the self-control that Stoics strive for. It will also benefit your long-term health.
- News and social media
The temptation in the morning is, after going several hours without doing so, to check the latest news and scroll through social media. You can reclaim that time for yourself by avoiding those actions. It will take Stoic self-discipline, but if you can build a habit of consuming less of the content that is designed to hook you, then you will have a more positive outlook as you begin your day. The following two bullet points are what you can replace early-morning news consumption with.
- Mental warm-up
As you get ready to start your day, there may be thoughts whirring in your head about what you’ll have to deal with in the next 24 hours. Try doing what Marcus Aurelius did in the morning – write in a journal. There doesn’t have to be any special technique to it, just spill your thoughts onto a page and feel your head begin to clear.
- Take a walk
The open air of an outdoor walk raises our spirits and refreshes us, Seneca said. Maybe a friend or family member can join you, maybe you have a dog that would appreciate the exercise, or maybe you prefer to go alone and appreciate the peace. However you do it, it’s a nice way to complete your preparation for the day ahead.
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”Seneca the Younger
- Traffic/vehicle issues
In the middle of your journey your car might break down, your bus might get stuck in traffic or your train might be halted by a fallen tree on the track. In most cases, these events are out of your control so it is best to follow Epictetus’s advice and focus only on what you can control. Don’t get angry about an obstacle, just do your best to deal with it. If you need to let someone know you’ll be late, let them know. As described in the next bullet point, make use of the time while you wait for things to be resolved.
- Using the time
If you travel to a workplace, or indeed any other destination during the day, you might see it as “dead time”, a means to an end that just has to be endured until you get where you’re going. It’s actually a good opportunity to listen to an audiobook or a podcast, especially if that’s something you wouldn’t otherwise have had time to do. Check out these Stoicism podcasts for some ideas on what to listen to.
If it’s a cold day you’ll naturally turn the heater on in the car or wrap up in a scarf and gloves as you leave the house. If it’s hot you’ll blast the air-con. The Stoics regularly practiced discomfort in order to “inoculate” themselves from future hardship. Provided there’s no health risk to doing so, give it a go – leave the gloves at home or turn the air-con off.
“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom, and justice—giving yourself a break from all other considerations. You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint over your fair share.”Marcus Aurelius
- Dealing with people
Whether it’s work colleagues or clients, family members or friends, there will be situations every day when people display traits that bother you. Remind yourself that their insolence, ill-will, selfishness – whatever it may be – is not malicious but rather due to their ignorance of what’s good or bad. When you come to expect and accept this behaviour you’ll be able to treat it with equanimity.
- Work ethic
Marcus Aurelius told himself to stick to the task at hand without complaint just like plants, birds, ants, spiders and bees, who all strive to put the world in order as best they can. Working hard, honestly, without expectation of rewards, invariably brings rewards. The greatest reward, however, is internal – the more sustained satisfaction of a job done to the best of your ability.
- Being a leader
If you aren’t an employer or a manager you might not think you’re a leader. But if your actions inspire just one other person then you are. The leadership model of a Stoic, just like Cato the Younger practised, is that of servant leadership. When he became a military leader in 67 BC, Cato slept in the same rough conditions as his soldiers and would never take a drink of water until his last subordinate had quenched their thirst. Your leadership qualities will be judged by how you treat those who can do nothing for you.
Taking a Break
“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”Marcus Aurelius
- Switch off
The mind must be given relaxation, Seneca said, it will rise improved and sharper after a good break. Heed those words and ensure you take time throughout the day to reset, especially if you’re feeling stressed or under pressure – most tasks can wait.
You probably don’t have time to go far on your lunch break but, as Marcus Aurelius said, you have a readily-available retreat in your own mind if you look within. The midpoint of the day can be a good time for self-reflection as you shift your focus away from your work for a brief period – ask yourself what you have done well so far today and what you can do better.
Don’t take yourself too seriously, especially at work. Taking yourself overly seriously often, ironically, means you’re taken less seriously by those around you. Remember to laugh. Laugh with others and laugh at yourself – these two scenarios combined means you’ll never run out of reasons to laugh.
“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”Seneca the Younger
The Stoics had a practice they called premeditatio malorum – the premeditation of evils. Deal with vague worry by getting specific about what could go wrong. Work backwards by first defining your desired outcomes, what success looks like. Create a high-level plan of what needs to be done. Then break the plan down into manageable steps. When all that has been well-defined, it becomes possible to anticipate the potential pitfalls and then work to mitigate the risk. Fear of failure gives way to the confidence that only comes with preparation.
- Dichotomy of control
If an event or a person’s actions are worrying you, remember what Epictetus defined as the chief task in life – to identify and separate matters so that you can say clearly to yourself which are externals not under your control, and which have to do with the choices you actually control. Your choices are your own. Focus only on what you can control, the rest takes care of itself.
One further way to avoid making negative value judgements (i.e. “this thing happened, it is really bad”) is to describe things in less emotional terms. Try writing down a description of something that is worrying you in the plainest, most unemotional language you can. Reading it back, it should seem a lot less catastrophic.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”Marcus Aurelius
It can be easy to get disheartened if things aren’t going your way, if you aren’t stacking up enough wins as the day progresses. But if you can accept, even love, what fate is handing you, then your mood becomes harder to negatively impact. A Stoic greets adversity with arms wide open – it’s a test of character, something to endure that ultimately makes you stronger.
Your mind will always wander, that’s natural. Sometimes it will imagine what life would be like if you purchased that expensive car or upgraded your phone to the latest model. You’ll struggle for freedom and contentment if you attach too much value to possessions. Challenge yourself. See what non-essentials you can do without. The comfort of knowing you don’t need something is often greater than the comfort of having it.
- Bad news
For all your preparation, bad news can still hit you out of nowhere. We can expect certain things to occur but they can still take us by surprise. Don’t be hard on yourself if you have a knee-jerk reaction to something; the Stoics knew this was natural, you aren’t a robot. Stoicism (upper case ‘S’) isn’t the same thing as stoicism – one is a philosophy that was practiced by Marcus Aurelius, the other is an unemotional coping mechanism. The important thing isn’t your initial reaction, it’s what you do next – you can’t choose what bad news you get but you can always choose how you respond to it.
“Nature bore us related to one another … She instilled in us a mutual love and made us compatible … Let us hold everything in common; we stem from a common source. Our fellowship is very similar to an arch of stones, which would fall apart, if they did not reciprocally support each other.”Seneca the Younger
They say there’s a first time for everything. Well, there’s also a last time for everything. Every time you interact with a loved one could, for whatever reason, be the last time. Be attentive and present when you’re spending time with others. That means putting your phone away, it means not just hearing, but really listening to what people are saying.
- Helping others
We exist for the sake of one another, Marcus Aurelius said. If your neighbour needs help, do the Stoic thing and help them. Don’t forget the good deeds done to you. Don’t keep track of the good deeds you do. Reward but don’t expect to be rewarded.
Whether it’s with someone you like or dislike, you’ll often get baited into an argument. Or even just into giving your opinion on a controversial topic. While it may sometimes be appropriate to put forward a point of view or defend a principle, remember you always have the option to hold no opinion at all about a thing. Try doing that to see how freeing it is.
“Indulge the body just so far as suffices for good health. It needs to be treated somewhat strictly to prevent it from being disobedient to the spirit.”Seneca the Younger
- Running and weight training
If you already get regular exercise, then great, stick with it. If you don’t, then consider what Seneca said on the matter – keep it simple and save your time; running and “brandishing weights”, he said, are short and simple exercises that get the job done with minimal fuss.
If running and weightlifting seems like too much too soon, start with walking. As we saw in ‘Preparing for the Day’, a long walk outdoors is of great benefit mentally as well as physically.
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself.”Epictetus
There’s no time like the present to work on your goals. How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself, Epictetus said. You might have new skills you want to learn, a career you want to pursue, or just a thirst for knowledge. Schedule time in your day, even if it’s only half an hour, to move the needle in the right direction. A little effort each day adds up to a lot.
To gain any benefit from reading, Seneca said, it should be carefully directed. You can of course read simply for the pleasure of a good story, but if your intention is to learn new things then seek out the best sources on those topics. Take notes on what you read and review them. Reading lets you tap into the knowledge of so many authors who have gone before you – authors who dedicated years to allow you to easily learn about a subject. If it’s Stoicism you want to read about, here’s an extensive reading list to work through.
Another good way to learn something new is to take a course. Sites like Udemy, Skillshare and CreativeLive offer a lot of options. For a list of the best Stoicism courses, check out this list.
Completing the Day
“When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.”Seneca the Younger
In addition to journaling in the morning, the Stoics also saw the value in writing for a short time in the evening. The purpose was usually to review the events of the day – what happened, how did I react, how can I do better. Try it yourself, it’s a good way to ensure that the day’s efforts aren’t in vain, that they can be recorded and used to improve.
Whether your day was tough or easy, a failure or success, there is always a chance to gain perspective at the end of it. Look up at the stars, or the moon, or the clouds. Imagine yourself floating up there, high above earth. Look down and see how small it all looks. Contemplate the vastness of the universe, the millions of years that have passed before this very moment. The trials of daily life start to lose their significance when you put them in this context.
You did well today, you did your best and let fate handle the rest. You focused only on what was within your control and made the most of the small chunk of time allotted to you. All that’s left is to put your head down and go to sleep. Get enough sleep that you’re well rested and ready to welcome another day tomorrow.