Life is short, so it matters how you spend it.
As Seneca points out, “We are not given a short life, but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.” A minute is long if you know how to use it. A week is plenty of time if you don’t waste it.
So that’s what the Stoics thought so much about: How to break down and organize their time. What to do—and not do—in the course of a life in order to ensure we effectively live the time we have been given.
We now have 2,000 years of stress testing applied to some of their insights and so based on their time-proven wisdom, I present to you how to have a great week, per the Stoics.
1: Rise and Shine
“On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind—I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Were you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1
It’s comforting to think that the emperor of Rome (who was reportedly an insomniac) had to give himself a pep talk in order to summon the willpower to throw off the blankets and get out of bed.
From the time we’re first sent off to school until the day we retire, we’re faced with that same struggle. It always seems nicer to shut our eyes and hit the snooze button a few times.
But we can’t—because we have a job to do. Not only do we have the calling we’re dedicated to, but we have the larger cause that the Stoics speak about: the greater good. We cannot be of service to ourselves, to other people, or to the world unless we get up and get working—the earlier the better. So c’mon. Get in the shower, have your coffee, and get going.
2: Prepare Yourself for Negativity
Life is full of suffering, acute and benign. We come down with the flu. We are hit with a costly expense. Someone with power over us abuses their responsibility. Someone we love lies or hurts us. People die. People commit crimes. Natural disasters strike.
All of this is commonplace and inevitable. It happens. Everyday. To us and to everyone else.
That would be bad enough, yet we choose to make this pain worse. How? By pretending we are immune from it. By assuming we will be exempted. Or that only those who have somehow deserved it will find themselves in the crosshairs of Fortune. Then we are surprised when our number comes up, and so we add to our troubles a sense of unfairness and a stumbling lack of preparedness. Our denial deprives us even of the ability to tense up before the blow lands.
“You should assume that there are many things ahead you will have to suffer,” Seneca reminds us. “Is anyone surprised at getting a chill in winter? Or getting seasick while on the sea? Or that they get bumped walking a city street? The mind is strong against things it has prepared for.”
This is premeditatio malorum. What is likely to happen? What can possibly happen? What are the tortures that life inflicts on human beings? And then, more importantly, am I ready for them?
3: Clarify Your Principles
In the opening chapter of his book Call Sign Chaos: Learning To Lead, the retired US Marine Corps general and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis talks about the fundamental lessons he learned in his early years as a Marine. In particular, he writes: “Know what you will stand for and, more important, what you won’t stand for… State your flat-ass rules and stick to them. They shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.” Least of all, you.
Marcus Aurelius called them “epithets for the self.” Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested. Those were his non-negotiables. Think for a second about the position Marcus was in. He had absolute power. In his own time, his statue was displayed in homes across the empire. He could have done whatever he wanted.
Isn’t that why people chase power, success, greatness? So they can be freed from trivial rules and regulations? So they can do whatever they want?
But what the truly great know is that complete freedom is a nightmare. They know that no one has less serenity than the person who does not know what is right or wrong. No one is more exhausted than the person who, because they lack a moral code, must belabor every decision and consider every temptation. No one wastes more time than the person who is winging it. Life is meaningless to the person who decides their choices have no meaning. Meanwhile, the person who knows what they value? Who knows what they will and won’t stand for?Who has a strong sense of decency and principle and behaves accordingly? Who possesses easy moral self-command, who leans comfortably upon this goodness, day in and day out? This person has clarity and tranquility.
That’s what Marcus promised would happen if one followed this prescription. “If you maintain your claim to these epithets,” he wrote, “without caring if others apply them to you or not—you’ll become a new person, living a new life.”
What are your flat-ass rules? What are your principles? Your epithets? Don’t wing it. Life is chaotic and confusing enough. Give yourself some clarity and some certainty.
4: Be Ruthless to the Things That Don’t Matter
One of the hardest things to do in life is say “no.” To invitations, to requests, to obligations, to the stuff that everyone else is doing. Even harder is saying no to certain time-consuming emotions: anger, excitement, distraction, obsession, lust. None of these impulses feels like a big deal by itself, but run amok, they become commitments like anything else.
If you’re not careful, these are precisely the impositions that will overwhelm and consume your life. Do you ever wonder how you can get some of your time back or how you can feel less busy? Start today off by utilizing the power of “no”—as in “No, thank you,” and “No, I’m not going to get caught up in that,” and “No, I just can’t right now.”
It may hurt some feelings. It may turn people off. It may take hard work. But the more you say no to the things that don’t matter, the more you can say yes to the things that do. This will let you live and enjoy the life that you want.
For more on saying “no,” you can check out this video, Why You Should Say No, as well as this article, To Everyone Who Asks For “Just A Little” Of Your Time: Here’s What It Costs To Say Yes.
5: Turn “Have To” Into “Get To”
What does a Stoic say to adversity? To recessions? To pandemics? To setbacks and struggles and months stuck inside? To uncertainty and cramped quarters and a collapse of confidence? What do they say to the looming question that has so many people scared—“What if things get worse?”
They say what Bruce Springsteen said:
Bring on your wrecking ball
Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got
Bring on your wrecking ball
Marcus Aurelius didn’t believe that it was unfortunate that bad things happened to him. He said, “No, this is fortunate that it happened to me.” Because not everyone would have been able to handle it.
But you can. Because you trained for this. Because you know how to find the opportunity inside of difficulty, because you have harnessed the power of amor fati. Other people might be thrown back by what has happened, others still might be able to muddle through, but not you. You’re going to be improved by this. You’re going to triumph over this. You get to prove your mettle.
That’s why you say: Bring it on. That’s why you say hit me with your best shot. Because you have plans to use it. Because you’re going to step up and make something of this moment. Because you know that’s the only part of this that’s up to you.
6: Take a Walk (or a Run)
In his famous Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertes tells us that the philosopher Chrysippus trained as a long-distance runner before he discovered Stoicism. One can only imagine the influence this training had on Chrysippus, and how it put him in a position to understand a philosophy based on self-discipline, inner-control and endurance. The saying in the ancient world was, “But for Chrysippus, there had been no Porch” (the stoa in Stoicism). But if not for the many miles of running, would there have been a Chrysippus?
There are plenty more philosophers, writers, and poets who have found the same benefits not just in running but in walking. In a notoriously loud city like Rome, it was impossible to get much peace and quiet. The noise of wagons, the shouting of vendors, and the hammering of blacksmiths all filled the streets with piercing auditory violence. So philosophers went on a lot of walks—to get where they needed to go, to clear their heads, and to get fresh air. In the process they discovered an important side-effect: it helped them make better work. As Nietzsche would later say, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” Thoreau, another avid walker, claimed “the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
Remember that if you find yourself a little stuck or frustrated today. Go for a walk. Or better yet, go for a run. And in the future, when you get stressed or overwhelmed, take a walk. When you have a tough problem to solve or a decision to make, take a walk. When you want to be creative, take a walk. When you need to get some air, take a walk. When you have a phone call to make, take a walk. When you need some exercise, take a long walk. When you have a meeting or a friend over, take a walk together.
Nourish yourself and your mind and solve problems along the way.
If you’re not yet convinced of the power of walking, I encourage you to read this piece: Take A Walk: The Work & Life Benefits of Walking.
Winston Churchill was famously afraid of going to bed at the end of the day having not created, written or done anything that moved his life forward. “Every night,” he wrote, “I try myself by Court Martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground, anyone can go through the motions, but something really effective.”
In a letter to his older brother Novatus, Seneca describes the exercise he borrowed from another prominent philosopher. At the end of each day, he would sit down with a journal and ask himself variations of the following questions: What bad habit did I curb today? How am I better? Were my actions just? How can I improve?
At the beginning or end of each day, the Stoic sits down with his journal and reviews what he did, what he thought, and what could be improved. It’s for this reason that Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a somewhat inscrutable book—it was for personal clarity, not public benefit. Writing down Stoic exercises was and is a form of practicing them, just as repeating a prayer or hymn might be.
Keep your own journal, whether it’s saved on a computer or on paper. Take time to consciously recall the events of the previous day.
Be unflinching in your assessments. Notice what contributed to your happiness and what detracted from it. Write down what you’d like to work on or quotes that you like. By making the effort to record such thoughts, you’re less likely to forget them. An added bonus: You’ll have a running tally to track your progress.
If there’s been a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we were reminded immediately and unceremoniously that life should never be taken for granted. Sometime during the Antonine Plague, Marcus admonished himself to not put anything off until tomorrow because today was the only thing he controlled (and to get out of bed and get moving for the same reason). The Stoics knew that fate was unpredictable and that death could come at any moment. Therefore, it was a sin (and stupidity) to take time for granted.
Today is the most valuable thing you own. It is the only thing you have. Don’t waste it. Seize it. Live it.