In studying and writing about Stoicism for a while now, I’ve come to learn that the true benefits of the philosophy are realized only through disciplined, habitual practice. It is one thing to be able to explain the theory behind the dichotomy of control, for example, and another thing altogether to consistently apply the concept to actual life events.
That’s why I developed—for my own use and for anyone else who might be interested—a checklist of daily Stoic psychological techniques and exercises. While the techniques below have been pulled from both classic and contemporary sources—and modified based on my own emphasis of certain principles—the primary inspiration for this post comes from William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.
Irvine, more than most philosophers, understands the importance of practice and is unapologetic in his tendency to refine the theory to best suit his own needs or to improve it. Stoicism is, after all, a philosophy to help people live better lives, not a dogma that must be blindly followed.
In that spirit, here are the techniques and practices you can use (or adapt) on a daily basis in your effort to live up to the Stoic ideal.
- Negative visualization. This is a great exercise to begin the day. Spend a moment contemplating the possibility that this will be your last day on earth. If you take this seriously—for example, by imagining that this will be the last time you see your spouse—you will come to fully appreciate what you have rather than longing after what you don’t. Also contemplate the loss of your health, income, possessions, and relationships, and consider that you are already living someone else’s dream—someone who has much less than you do.
Exercise: Imagine that you are about to lose your sense of sight. What will you start to notice and appreciate regarding an ability that you so often just take for granted? Begin each day with a different imagined loss and start paying closer attention to the things you already have.
- Dichotomy of control. Focus only on what you can control and ignore the rest. You can control your own thoughts, values, goals, and actions; you cannot control the actions of others or of the world. Tranquility is achieved only when one’s well-being is tied to what one completely controls, and controls well.
Exercise: Separate every daily event into two categories: (1) what you can control and (2) what you cannot control. If you lose your job, for example, recognize that you control only your response, and that your job loss is harmful to you only if you judge it to be. Rather than ruminate on the loss, use the job loss in a positive manner by spending more time with your family or on a worthwhile hobby, seeking additional training, education, or a career change, or searching for a better, more rewarding job. Make a habit of turning all events into Stoic practices and tests of your mental resolve.
- Internalization of goals. Regarding worthwhile goals that you only partially control, ensure that your goals are internalized. For example, if your goal is to get hired, seek only to be the best candidate for the job; if your goal is to win someone’s love, seek only to be someone worth loving. That way, even when pursuing goals not entirely within your control, you maintain focus only on the aspects of the goal that are within your control.
Exercise: If you’re seeking a promotion at work, spend no time contemplating what your boss thinks of you or whether or not you will get the promotion over others. Further, do not set as your explicit goal the act of getting promoted. Seek only to be the best employee you can be, and seek only to produce the best work you can produce, and the rest will take care of itself (and is not up to you anyway).
- Amor fati (love of fate). As Epictetus said, “Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you will have a calm and happy life.”
Exercise: The next time you experience an adverse outcome, re-frame it as either a positive outcome or as an opportunity to practice your Stoic resolve (all outcomes can be made to serve some purpose). For example, if you didn’t get the promotion at work, consider that the extra responsibility and stress wouldn’t have been worth it. Or, if you lose your job, use this as an opportunity to practice your Stoic resilience and work towards landing a more worthwhile job or career. When adversity strikes, always ask “What next?” to ensure a positive, future orientation to any problem.
- Growth through adversity. Just as we seek to improve our physical conditioning by engaging in resistance training at the gym, we can use adversity as a form of “mental resistance training” to build our mental resolve. Always seek to re-frame adversity as either a game or a test.
Exercise: Intentionally seek out adversity as an opportunity for growth, and do this at least once a day. Examples: Intentionally read a book slightly above your current level of understanding, take the stairs instead of the elevator, wear a light jacket in cold weather, fast for a day, or get on a plane if you’re afraid of flying. Do something out of your comfort zone each day, and you will not only enhance your resolve and learn to better appreciate comfort, but you will prepare yourself for future hardships that are not within your control.
- The view from above. This was a favorite technique of Marcus Aurelius. Contemplate the smallness of your concerns by comparing them to the immense scales of universal time and space. In a universe that is 14-billion-years-old and 93-million-light-years across, how important can our selfish concerns for wealth and fame and material possessions really be?
Exercise: Contemplate that which unites humanity rather than divides it: namely, that all humans share the capacity for reason and a reliance on society and each other. Adopt the view from above by doing one thing (at least) each day that benefits others or the common good.
- Practice Humility. As Epictetus said, “never call yourself a philosopher,” and definitely don’t go around calling yourself a Stoic. It is enough to act according to virtuous principles without having to broadcast it.
Exercise: Don’t tell people how generous you are; just be generous. Don’t broadcast your ability to handle adversity; just handle adversity. Live through your actions and let others think what they will.
- Contemplating the sage. Choose a historical role model and imagine that they are evaluating your every thought and action. Ask yourself, for example, what Marcus Aurelius would think of your ability to handle some recent hardship.
Exercise: The next time you are insulted or hear that someone has been talking negatively about you, deflect the criticism with self-deprecating humor. When Epictetus learned that someone insulted him, he replied by saying that the person in question must not know about his other faults, otherwise he would have mentioned those as well. To make yourself invincible against insults, misfortune, and hardship, imagine that Epictetus—or better yet, a panel of ancient Stoics—is watching your every response.
- Nightly reflection. As a final exercise, review and evaluate your day as you are drifting off to sleep, as Seneca recommends. Did you deviate from your goals? Did you waste mental effort focusing on things outside of your control? Did you allow other people to get under your skin? In your continual effort to improve, make a mental inventory of things to work on for the next day.
Check out these two titles from William Irvine:
- A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
- The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient
Also check out The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual by Ward Farnsworth.
And here are some additional articles I’ve written about Stoicism: