The new year is not real. It’s an artificial, made up event. Nothing has really changed. Nothing has actually happened.
We know this because there are so many different ways of tracking ‘the year.’ There is the fiscal year. There’s the academic year and the agricultural year. There are regular years and leap years. There’s the Chinese year, which varies each year, typically starting somewhere between January 21st and February 20th and lasting until a similar date the following year.
In actuality, every single day is a new year…because one year has elapsed since that day, one year earlier.
But still, there is something to the New Year. Even the Stoics acknowledged it. Seneca started each year by plunging into the frigid Tiber River in Rome—I think he was washing off the old year and starting fresh for a new year, as well as starting by doing something challenging and difficult.
Sure, you could start fresh any day, but would you? Do you know?
So let’s use the close of 2023 and the beginning of 2024 as an opportunity—however forced, however artificial—to reexamine, reorient and restart. That’s what Epictetus said, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” He asked how much longer we were going to wait to demand the best of and from ourselves?
Here are some habits, some things I am going to ask of myself in 2024, many of which were inspired by The Daily Stoic New Year New You Challenge, which starts on January 1st. It’s a big part of my year each year—kicking things off with something that challenges me—and I hope you’ll join us on January 1st. (Sign up here, more info below).
The writer James Clear talks about the idea of “atomic habits” (and has a really good book with the same title). An atomic habit is a small habit that makes an enormous difference in your life. He talks about how the British cycling team was completely turned around by focusing on 1% improvements in every area. That sounds small, but Clear emphasizes that repetitive actions accumulate and add up in a big way over time.“Well-being is realized by small steps,” Zeno would say looking back on his life, “but is truly no small thing.” If you want to start reading more—don’t promise yourself you’re going to read more books this year; instead, commit to reading one page per day. If running a mile seems daunting—that’s fine, start with a walk around the block. If your eating habits are a mess—start by making one healthy food choice a day. Just focus on getting started, because once you start, you can build.
Embrace Hofstadter’s Law
Starting small only works if you have patience, though, if you stay at it. Hofstadter’s Law says it always takes longer than you think it’s going to take…even when you think it’s going to take a long time. As I wrote about a little while back, I’ve learned this repeatedly throughout my career. I started blogging in 2005. My first book came out in 2012. The Obstacle is the Way came out in 2014…and took six years for it to hit any bestseller list. I didn’t hit the New York Times Bestseller list until 2019, on my 13th book. My wife suggested we open a small-town bookstore back in the fall of 2019. We were delayed opening by a year because COVID, then for another year we didn’t feel right opening, then a freak storm (and political incompetence) shut down the power grid, leading to burst pipes and a busted roof, then books were unavailable due to a global logistics crisis. It was, you might say, one damn thing after another.
That’s life. That’s how success works. And that’s not even getting into my actual journey as a person and as a writer, progress in which has been slow to say the least! I feel like I’m just becoming capable of stuff that I set out to improve on years ago.
The point is: It always takes longer than you want. So, one of the most important habits is the habit that makes all other habits possible: patience. It doesn’t matter if it’s writing a book, opening a small business, getting in shape, establishing a reading or meditation practice—it always takes longer than you expect. It takes longer than you’re willing to wait. In any case, it takes however long it takes. We want our progress now. We want our success now. We want our rewards now. But if you can practice delayed gratification, if you can understand that all good things take time, that it’s a process, you’re almost always going to be more successful.
Make A Commitment
In 2018, we did our first Daily Stoic New Year New You 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? 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.
To kick off 2024, we’re doing another Daily Stoic New Year New You Challenge. The idea is that you ought to start the New Year off right—with 21 great days to create momentum for the rest of the year. If you want to have better habits this year, find a challenge you can participate in. Just try one: it doesn’t matter what it’s about or who else is doing it.
Cut Out The Inessential
One of the challenges in last year’s New Year New You Challenge was to pick a word for the year. The word of 2023 for my wife Samatha and I is the word we’re choosing again for 2024: LESS. Less stuff. Less distractions. Less screen time. Less commitments. Less so we can have more—more presence, more peace. Matthew McConaughey told me he shut down his production company and his music label because “I was making B’s in five things. I want to make A’s in three things.” Those three things: his family, his foundation, his acting career (you can listen to our conversation here). Marcus Aurelius would say that doing less “brings a double satisfaction.” You figure out what’s really essential and you do those things better. Along the same lines, Maya Smart told me she had to start saying “No” so she could say “Yes” to writing her first book (which you can pick up at the Painted Porch Bookshop). “I had to start setting boundaries,” she said “Steven Pressfield writes about this idea that you do this shadow work. For me, it was volunteering…So I started resigning from boards and telling people, ‘I’m no longer able to do this thing that I used to do because I’m focused on this book.’” Me? As I wrote about last week, I surround myself with physical reminders that make it impossible to avoid considering each opportunity and each ask carefully. What’s at stake is my finite resources. So are yours!
Treat The Body Rigorously
Adopting a new habit always seems daunting at first. As I write about in Courage is Calling: Fortune Favors The Brave, we can’t just hope to be brave when it counts. Courage has to be cultivated. To do the big things that scare you, start with smaller things—start with developing the ability to push yourself to do stuff you’re reluctant to do. To be able to endure the cold reception of a bold idea, start with enduring a cold shower. To be able to step forward when the stakes are high, regularly do that when the stakes are low. To be able to embrace the discomfort of a major life change, accustom yourself to minor discomforts. We treat the body rigorously, Seneca said, so that it may not be disobedient to the mind. We push ourselves in little ways so the big ways stop seeming quite so big, quite so out of character. We minimize fear by making the act of overcoming it routine. We test ourselves to prepare for the tests of life. By methodically and deliberately exposing ourselves to small challenges, what once seemed daunting becomes manageable, even routine.
Do The Essential Things First
Hugh Jackman reads right after he wakes up (early) in the morning. For many years, he and his wife would read outloud to each other for thirty or so minutes. “It’s the best. I recommend it to anyone…It’s the greatest way to start the day. Right now I’m reading Stillness Is the Key…I’m really into philosophy. So we read, and we talk, because stuff’s on your mind…That way, no matter what happens through our day, we know that we’ve had quality time together. You always think, tonight; after work; after this; when we put the kids to bed, but that doesn’t always happen.”
Camilla Cabello told me she starts her day by reading the Daily Stoic email (which you can sign up for here) and then one page from The Daily Stoic. I like to read from Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom or Robert Greene’s The Daily Laws.
I try to get some exercise in the morning, and I for sure write in the morning. My assistant knows not to schedule calls or meetings in the morning because they make it too easy to let the day get away from you. They sap your willpower early. By tackling writing first, by getting some time outside (with the kids usually) first, I already won the day. Everything else is extra from there. Well-intentioned plans fall apart. Our willpower evaporates. So it’s key not only that we prioritize the essential things, but that we habitualize doing them first thing.
“Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”
I like the way he says that with a shrug. So what? There’s nothing shameful about needing help. Whether that’s going to therapy, asking for advice, or hiring someone to work for you, ‘help’ is the secret to getting better—to unlocking potential breakthroughs, gains or efficiencies.
Tim Ferriss has a great question related to this, What would this look like if it were easy? The idea is that things don’t need to be hard if you’re doing them right. Just as with managing a business, forming new habits often requires putting in place the right kind of support and building a supportive infrastructure around you. Identify the barriers that make a habit difficult and find ways to remove them. If you need a helping hand, so what? If you need a coach or a trainer and you can afford it, hire one. It’s not a moral failure to have childcare or an accountant. If you don’t know exactly what to do or how to do it, ask someone who does. We’re in this mission together. We’re comrades. Get help.
Go The F*ck To Sleep
All the other habits and practices listed here become irrelevant if you don’t have the energy and clarity to do them. We have to follow the advice of a book I love to read to my kids: Go the F*ck to Sleep! What time you wake up tomorrow is irrelevant…if you didn’t get enough sleep tonight. In the military, they speak of sleep discipline—meaning it’s something you have to be good at, you have to be conscious of, something you can’t let slip. We only have so much energy for our work, for our relationships, for ourselves. A smart person knows this and guards it carefully. A smart person knows that getting their 7-8 hours of sleep every night does not negatively affect their output, it contributes crucially to their best work.
Don’t Just Read, Re-Read
I’ve always loved Seneca’s line: “You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” Because the world is constantly changing, we are changing, and therefore what we get out of those books can change. So I re-read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (check out the leatherbound edition of my favorite translation) every year. Before I start any book project, I take a few hours and re-read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, maybe the greatest book ever written on the creative process. Kressmann Taylor’s Address Unknown was something I re-read in light of the alarming rise of anti-semitism. This year, I’ll re-read some of my favorite novels, and I’m going to re-read some books that I think pertain to the subject I’m writing about now. When I re-read, I learn things I wasn’t ready to learn before, and I gain things that I missed the first time. We never step in the same river twice, Marcus Aurelius said. The books don’t change, but you and your circumstances do. If you want to get better this year, don’t just read…re-read.
Pick Yourself Up When You Slip Up
The path to self-improvement is slippery, and falling is inevitable. You’ll sleep in and not be able to read that page, you’ll cheat on your diet, you’ll say “yes” and take on too much, or you’ll get sucked into the rabbit hole of Twitter. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. You’re only a bad person if you give up.
I told Dr. Edith Eger I felt guilty about how I had lost touch with someone and only recently reconnected with them. She cut me off and told me she could give me a gift that would solve that guilt right now. “I give you a sentence,” she said, “One sentence—if I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently.” That’s the end of that, she said. “Guilt is in the past, and the one thing you cannot change is the past.”
No one is perfect. We all have bad days. We can’t change that. When we mess up, we can’t go back and fix it. But we can move forward. We can be better here and now. We have to. “Disgraceful,” Marcus Aurelius would say, “for the soul to give up when the body is still going strong.”
All of us have fallen short in the last year…and the years before that. We broke our resolutions. We lost touch with people we care about. We made the same mistakes again and again. We were “jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances,” as Marcus said. But now it’s time to pick ourselves up and try again. It’s time, Marcus continues, to “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 2024, 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, 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…The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material.
For more life-changing habits to implement in 2024, check out this video on The Daily Stoic Youtube channel: 10 Stoic Habits To Practice in 2024.
As I said above, I’m starting 2024 with The Daily Stoic New Year New You Challenge. It’s 21 days of challenges—presented one per day, built around the best, most timeless wisdom in Stoic philosophy—designed to turn you into Olympic-class material. It starts on January 1st.
Each day you’ll get an email from us with instructions for the day’s challenge. These will all be exercises and routines you can begin right away to spark personal reinvention. We’ll tell you what to do, how to do it, and why it works. We’ll give you strategies for maintaining this way of living, not just for this challenge or for this coming year, but for your whole life.
This challenge is my favorite way to start the New Year. Head over to dailystoic.com/challenge and sign up NOW!