At the end of the year, we all think about how the past year went and how we want the new year to be better. When we do this, what we’re really thinking about is habits. The things we did accomplish, didn’t accomplish, or hope to accomplish—these are all a byproduct of our habits.
The Stoics had a word, arete, which means human excellence—moral, physical, spiritual. It’s what the Stoics were chasing. It’s what you’re chasing today. And the only way to get there, the Stoics said, was through repeated action, through habit. Excellence isn’t this thing you do one time. It’s a way of living. It’s like an operating system and the code this system operates on is habit.
So if we want to be better, if we want to be successful, if we want to be great, we have to develop the day-to-day habits that allow this to ensue. Here are the steps I’m taking. As you stare down the barrel of a new year, my question to you is: if you aren’t going to cultivate good habits now, when will you?
George Washington’s favorite saying was “many mickles make a muckle.” It was an old Scottish proverb that illustrates a truth we all know: things add up. Even little ones. “Well-being is realized by small steps,” Zeno would say looking back on his life, “but is truly no small thing.” Don’t promise yourself you’re going to read more; instead, commit to reading one page per day. Thinking big is great, but thinking small is easier. And easier is what we’re after when it comes to getting started. Because once you get started, you can build.
Use Physical Reminders
A physical totem can make the habit or standard you’re trying to hold yourself to into something more than an idea, and that helps—a lot. The author and minister Will Bowen has a simple system that helps people quit complaining. He provides each member of his congregation with a purple bracelet, and each time they complain, they switch the bracelet from one wrist to the other. This method is simple and straightforward and makes it easy to hold yourself accountable. Over my desk, I have a picture of Oliver Sacks. In the background he has a sign that reads “NO!” that helped remind him (and now me) to use that powerful word. One of the reasons we made coins for Daily Stoic was that when you have something physical you can touch, it grounds you. The coins are made at the same mint where the first Alcoholics Anonymous chips were invented, and they represent the same idea. If you have 10 years of sobriety sitting in your pocket or clasped in your hand, you’re less likely to throw it away for a drink.
Decide WHO You Want To Be
Generally, I agree with Paul Graham that we should keep our identities small, and generally, I think identity politics are toxic. It’s a huge advantage, however, to cultivate certain habits or commitments that are foundational to your identity. For example, it is essential to my understanding of the kind of person I am that I am punctual. I also have decided that I am the kind of person who does not miss deadlines. This also works in eliminating bad habits. In one of the most vulnerable scenes in Miss Americana, Taylor Swift talks about how she feels while looking at a paparazzi photo of herself. Her lifelong habit, she says, is to see what’s wrong with her appearance, to instinctively see that she needs to lose weight. But then she stops herself as she lingers on the photo, drawn toward that well-worn habit and says, “No, we don’t do that anymore.” She identified the version of herself that doesn’t do that anymore. We can decide to be the kind of person who doesn’t do that anymore, or who finishes projects before the deadline, or gets up early to go for a run, or doesn’t lose their temper around their family. It’s up to you—who are you going to identify as?
Create A Routine
The Stoics were big on routine. In a world where so much is out of our control, committing to a routine we do control, they said, was a way of establishing and reminding ourselves of our own power. Without a disciplined schedule, procrastination inevitably moves in with all the chaos and complacency and confusion. What was I going to do? What do I wear? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or rush to put out this fire? That’s torture. Seneca would call it a design problem. “Life without a design is erratic,” he wrote. “As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct, and beating a cowardly retreat. This will happen in all our affairs unless we remove the faults that seize and detain our spirits, preventing them from pushing forward and making an all-out effort.” The writer and runner Haruki Murakami talks about why he follows the same routine every day. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing,” he says, “it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
Lay Out Your Supplies
When I get to my desk in the morning, the three journals I write in are sitting right there. If I want to skip the habit, I have to pick them up and move them aside. So most mornings I don’t move them, and I write in them. You can use the same strategy if, for example, you want to start running in the morning. Place your shoes, shorts, and jacket next to your bed or in the doorway of your bedroom so you can put them on immediately. You’ll be less likely to take the easy way out if it’s embarrassingly simple to do the thing you want to do.
Associate With People Who Make You Better
The proverb in the ancient world was: “If you dwell with a lame man, you will learn how to limp.” It’s a pretty observable truth. We become like the people we spend the most time with. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the importance of who you surround yourself with. ”One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior,” Clear writes. “Your culture sets your expectation for what is ‘normal.’ Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together.”
Develop the Muscle
My wife hated that I chewed gum. I didn’t go anywhere without a pack of gum. Gum is probably the least bad habit you could possibly have, so I never considered quitting it. Then as part of one of the Daily Stoic challenges, I wanted to quit using social media so much. The challenge email talked about flexing the quitting muscle—starting by quitting something small to prove to yourself that you are the kind of person that can decide to stop doing things that you don’t want to do anymore. So I started with gum. I was able to flex the muscle, to prove that I could quit something just for the sake of quitting it. And every time I see gum, or I think about wanting to have gum but don’t give in—that helps reinforce that identity. In time, the thought of me quitting social media didn’t seem so impossible. So if you want to become a person that can do something hard like giving up alcohol, start by doing something easy like giving up gum. The logic applies to good habits. If you want to become a person that writes books, for instance, start by becoming a person that writes in a journal for 15 minutes every morning.
Free Up Precious Resources
One of the reasons I’ve talked about watching less news and not obsessing over things outside your control is simple: resource allocation. If your morning is ruined because you woke up to CNN reports of another ridiculous tweet-storm, you’re not going to have the energy or the motivation to focus on making the right dietary choices or sitting down to do that hard piece of work. I don’t watch the news, I don’t check social media much, and I don’t stress about everything going on in the world—not because I’m apathetic, but because there are all sorts of changes I want to make. I just believe these changes start at home. I want to get myself together before I bemoan what’s going on in Washington or whether the U.K. will figure out a Brexit strategy. “If you wish to improve,” Epictetus said, “be content to be seen as ignorant or clueless about some things.” (Or a lot of things.)
You Can Binge on Good Habits Too
I read a lot, but I sometimes go days without reading. For instance, in the two weeks I spent driving an RV across the country and back to do some media for Courage is Calling, I was in a reading funk. Trying to force myself to read every single day (or for a set amount of time or a set amount of pages) would not have been productive or enjoyable. Once back home, I got rolling again and finished a stack of books in a week. Binge reading may not be the right thing for everyone, but not every good habit has to be part of a daily routine. Sprints or batching can work too. What matters is that the results average out.
Join A Program
In 2018, we did our first Daily Stoic Challenge, full of different challenges and activities based on Stoic philosophy. It was an awesome experience. Even I, the person who created the challenge, got a lot out of it. Why? I think it was the process of joining a program. It’s the reason personal trainers are so effective. You just show up at the gym and they tell you what to do, and it’s never the same thing as the last time. Deciding what we want to do, determining our own habits, and making the right choices is exhausting. Handing the wheel over to someone else is a way to narrow our focus and put everything into the commitment.
Pick Yourself Up When You Fall
The path to self-improvement is rocky, and slipping and tripping is inevitable. You’ll forget to do the push-ups, you’ll cheat on your diet, you’ll get sucked into the rabbit hole of Twitter, or you’ll complain and have to switch the bracelet from one wrist to another. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I’ve always been fond of this advice from Oprah: If you catch yourself eating an Oreo, don’t beat yourself up; just try to stop before you eat the whole sleeve. Don’t turn a slip into a catastrophic fall. And a couple of centuries before her, Marcus Aurelius said something similar:
When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.
In other words, when you mess up, come back to the habits you’ve been working on. Come back to the ideas here in this post. Don’t quit just because you’re not perfect. No one is saying you have to magically transform yourself in 2022, but if you’re not making progress toward the person you want to be, what are you doing? And, more importantly, when are you planning to do it?
I’ll leave you with Epictetus once more, who spoke so eloquently about feeding the right habit bonfire. It’s the perfect passage to recite as we set out to begin a new year, hopefully, as better people.
From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer…