How to Practice Stoicism and Develop Grit
7 powerful exercises to improve how you think, feel, and perform
Stoicism allows you to let go of what you can’t control. Grit allows you to persevere when moving forward is hard.
Combined, they help you focus on the right things and take consistent action where it matters. That, in turn, can radically improve your performance and results in all areas of life.
I’ve been testing these exercises for the last two years, both on myself and coaching clients. They work — except for a few caveats, which I’ll explain below.
When I talk about developing grit, I mean cultivating the fortitude to get through tough times. This is critical to achieving big goals.
Some of those tough times are internal struggles, like procrastination, difficult emotions, and self-doubt. These are the run of the mill, daily struggles that every single person deals with.
Other tough times are external struggles like problems at work, annoyances in your environment, difficult people in your life, or worse. I’ve gritted my way through two near-bankruptcies in business. These types of disasters are guaranteed to come up occasionally.
If you learn the principles of stoicism and you approach grit as a skill, you’ll be able to handle both the run-of-the-mill daily challenges and the randomly occurring major challenges.
You’ll be able to pause and consider the situation at hand more rationally and thereby short-circuit any runaway train of emotion. And equipped with that kind of emotional control, you’ll be more confident and more effective.
But let’s start from the beginning.
A (Very) Quick Introduction to Stoicism
No conversation about grit is complete without considering the legacy of the Stoic school of philosophy.
Founded in Athens around 300 B.C., Stoicism has been summed up as a belief system that:
The path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.
This is what I mean by emotional control: using your rational mind to guide your behavior, rather than falling prey to your emotions. That’s more than just controlling emotional outbursts of anger.
Procrastination, for instance, is a form of short-term mood repair where we make ourselves feel better in the moment but pay a price later. Instead of procrastinating, a Stoic would set aside their desires for pleasure or fear of pain and simply do what needs to be done at the moment.
The Stoics articulated concepts and devised practices that are very useful for developing grit. So, as we get into the exercises below, I’ll draw a lot from their teachings.
1. Count Grits
Throughout your days, you probably feel some resistance toward doing things you should or want to do. Sometimes, it’s mild procrastination. At other times, it’s a big obstacle that requires a lot of effort to overcome. No matter how big the challenge is, I like to think of these moments as opportunities for grit and then to tally up how many times I gritted through a challenge.
I notice that I need some “grit” to make myself stay in the chair and finish the task at hand. I notice that I need some “grit” to go to the gym so I can be prepared for a triathlon in twelve weeks. I notice that I need some “grit” to forgo that dessert that’s not on my eating plan.
When you start working on your mental toughness, counting your grits is a great place to start. Pay attention to those moments when you realize you need to soldier on through a difficult situation.
Each time you power through, give yourself credit for one grit. Then, at the end of the day or the end of the week, tally up how many successes you’ve had.
The point of this exercise is to change your focus from failures to successes. Too often, I meet people who are stuck seeing any failure, even a small one, as a total failure. You might catch yourself doing this in your own self-talk: “I can’t achieve my goal until I learn to stop procrastinating.” That might seem like a reasonable statement, but it leads people to miss the steps in between. To get from lots of procrastinating to zero procrastinating, you first have to move through a middle ground of less procrastinating.
So if you tend to interpret small failures as total failures, then flipping to count successes instead will help you incrementally improve yourself. Today, try to achieve one grit, and tomorrow, try for three, and so on.
2. Give Yourself a Hedonic Reset
The Stoics acknowledged that humans gravitate toward a baseline level of happiness. If we achieve a new goal, we’re initially happier, but dissatisfaction soon creeps back in. And when it does, we look for a new “hit,” more stuff, more thrills, more anything, until we return to our baseline.
Researchers refer to this endless cycle as the hedonic treadmill. It’s the underlying reason why, given enough time, lottery winners generally return to the same level of happiness they had before winning.
A hedonic reset is a period where you step off the hedonic treadmill by cutting out something “normal” from your life. Here are some examples:
- Take cold showers, i.e. cut out warm showers.
- Drink only water.
- Stop using your car.
- Sleep without a pillow.
- Disable your favorite streaming service.
Doing this will help reduce your appetite for material things and pleasure and increase your appreciation for what you have. Generally, people who go down this route find that they start to differentiate between short-term satisfaction and long-term satisfaction. You might end up relying less on retail therapy to improve your mood and more on learning a new skill or making an impact in your community through volunteering.
3. Practice Identifying the Trichotomy of Control
Epictetus, one of the primary Stoic teachers, observed a dichotomy of events:
- Internal events that are inside our control
- External events that are outside our control
He argued that a wise person focuses their efforts exclusively on what is internal and that what is within that category is actually pretty limited. In fact, the only things inside your control are your own thoughts and actions.
Everything else — the past, most of the natural world, the thoughts and actions of other people, and even most things about yourself — are ultimately outside of your control.
That alone is in our power, which is our own work; and in this class are our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. What, on the contrary, is not in our power, are our bodies, possessions, glory, and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes, and troubles, and to the slavery of the soul.
In his book, A Guide to the Good Life, William Irvine makes the case that something important was lost in the translations of Epictetus’ works. And, instead of a dichotomy, he proposes a trichotomy: “There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control.”
The trichotomy of control is a very useful mental construct because it allows you to spend your limited time, energy, and focus on where you can actually make a difference. And as you reduce the time you spend worrying about things outside of your control, you’ll also feel calmer and happier.
For a period of time, continually sort events into the trichotomy of control, and then act accordingly. I would suggest doing this in a journal, or as part of a weekly review:
- Is it inside your control? Take the action necessary to create the change you want.
- Is it outside your control? Treat the situation with a healthy sense of indifference.
- Is it partially within your control? Focus on what you can influence (more on this in the next exercise).
4. Rewrite Goals to Be Internally Defined
Imagine that you want to write a bestselling book. To some extent, this goal is internal. Your effort in writing and promoting the book will certainly affect the outcome.
But it also depends on external factors. You cannot control if publishers will want to publish it or people will want to read it. You also can’t control the quality of books that publish at the same time as yours.
In situations like these, William Irvine notes that you can “internalize” your goal setting. You can state your goals in such a way that you can be successful despite factors that are outside of your control.
“Write a bestselling book” is an external goal because it is defined by an outcome you do not control. To internalize it, think about it in terms of what you can control. For instance: “write a book that I have exquisitely crafted, that expresses my vision in a completely unique way, by writing at least two pages per day.”
By reframing your goals so they depend entirely on your own efforts, you put yourself in charge of your success. Instead of helplessly and randomly getting pulled by factors beyond your control, you make progress every time you take action.
And that’s a much more empowering, effective, and fulfilling way to approach your goals.
Do you have a New Year’s resolution? Review it and reframe it to be internally defined. I’d like to finish an Olympic distance triathlon this year, but I don’t have complete control because of injury risk. So I reframed the goal to simply be to train for an Olympic distance triathlon. That’s something I do have control over.
Do you have other big goals for the year, for your career, even for the week? If your goal is defined by the outcome then you should revise it right now. The outcome should inform your plan, but your internalized goal itself should be just about following the plan.
5. Try Practicing Negative Visualization
Most of us have a tendency to take what we have for granted, and that brings two major problems with it. Firstly, it makes us ungrateful for the blessings in our lives. And secondly, it makes us feel terrible when we lose them.
The Stoics devised a powerful exercise to overcome these problems. It’s called negative visualization and, as the name suggests, it’s a practice where you intentionally imagine the worst possible outcomes in life.
If you kiss your child or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.
Now, the modern interpretation of this isn’t that a Stoic shouldn’t care if their child or spouse died. What most scholars think Epictetus was getting at is that when you kiss a child or spouse, you should reflect on what it would be like if they were to die.
Much like an army that prepares for war during peaceful times, you should prepare for the most catastrophic events in life before they happen. By doing that, you’ll develop a deep appreciation for what you have, and lessen the blow when disaster strikes.
Obviously, you won’t want to ruminate endlessly on negative events. That won’t do you any good. This is an exercise that needs you to practice balance. Try it once or twice a year, not every day. Brief moments of negative visualizations can work wonders for your mental toughness, well-being, and happiness.
Here’s how to do it.
Sit comfortably in quiet and solitude. Then pick someone or something close to you and spend five minutes vividly imagining what it would like to lose them. Allow emotions to surface.
I’ve done this exercise twice and both times I’ve cried. I’ve also run other people through this exercise (with lots of warning) and most people have also reported being very emotional.
So, my caveat with this exercise is that this is the most experimental of the exercises in this article and you should take it with a grain of salt. It’s not so dangerous as to ruin your year, but it might put you in a bad mood for an hour. Afterward, you’ll have to decide for yourself if you feel more prepared for tragedy. I think the answer is yes, but I don’t want to oversell this particular exercise.
When the time is up, remind yourself that this has been a visualization and that the reality is quite different. Contemplate the joy that you get to experience because you have this someone or something in your life.
6. Practice the “Everyone Is Doing the Best They Can” Mantra
As we covered in the section on The Trichotomy of Control, the Stoics advised us to let go of things that are outside of our control. And one area of life that is generally in that category is other people.
The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius dealt with this by continually recalibrating his perception of other people. In his Meditations, he wrote:
Begin each day by telling yourself: today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.
I’ve heard this put another way: “everyone is doing the best they can. By definition.” And Epictetus suggested the following response as you encounter difficult people in everyday life:
[When someone does wrong] Say to yourself each time, “they did what they believed was right.”
When you’ve made a mistake in your life — particularly in your relationships — did you think to yourself, “I’m ready to hurt this person” or “Boy, I can’t wait to mess this all up”?
Of course not. And just like you, other people don’t screw up intentionally. People generally want to do good. And by remembering this, you can keep a calm head and rational mind even when it seems everyone is conspiring against you.
Create a mantra along the lines of “they are doing the best they can” or “they did what they believed was right,” and repeat it in your mind when you feel mistreated. Try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and see how it affects your state of mind and your relationships.
7. Pause After All Criticism
Receiving criticism is a situation where emotions run hot. Whether it’s your boss suggesting a way you can improve your work or a stinging comment, most of us could stand to handle criticism more rationally and less emotionally.
Too often, we perceive criticism as a judgment that we are unworthy in some way — rather than a rational opportunity to do better.
So, in these situations, it can be very helpful to simply pause before responding. Asking yourself a level-headed, “Is this true?” is another useful strategy.
Remind yourself that you’re capable of being a rational person. Rationally, you’re not perfect, but you want to improve, and the feedback you’re getting is a source of information that could prove useful.
When seen from this light, the sting of criticism can be reduced. You can start to take other important factors into consideration. Do you respect the source of the criticism? Do you agree with it? If not, perhaps you can shrug it off.
If the criticism is delivered in person, sometimes you can have a prepared response that gives you an automatic pause. “Thank you for telling me this. I will think about it and get back to you promptly.”
Once you’ve created a pause for yourself, go through a checklist of questions. Does the criticism contain something you can use to improve? Or should you let it go? If the person giving you the criticism is wrong, refer back to the earlier exercise and remind yourself that what they are telling you reflects that they are themselves doing the best they can.
These exercises should fit into a bigger strategy. As much as possible, you want to design your life so that success is easy. But that never works all of the time, because life is always going to surprise you with hard challenges. So be ready to work both ways — taking shortcuts when you can, and gritting your way through obstacles when you can’t.
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