How to Structure Your Day Like a Stoic
The daily practices of the Stoics for a life lived well.
The Stoic life centred around habits and routines — practices in which they engaged daily, from their waking moments until going to sleep, that provided the structure necessary for a day lived well. These practices can provide a blueprint for us, to help us to lead good and happy lives. This article outlines these practices, and how you can structure your day like a Stoic thousands of years later.
“Assemble your life… action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal… No one can keep that from happening…Action by action.” — Marcus Aurelius
Wake up early
“The day has already begun to lessen. It has shrunk considerably, but yet will still allow a goodly space of time if one rises, so to speak, with the day itself. We are more industrious, and we are better men if we anticipate the day and welcome the dawn.” — Seneca
The Stoics believed in rising with the sun. As Seneca states, we are more productive and better people when we wake up in time to greet the sun. This also allows more time for the morning practices that will follow, as well as the stillness that only the early morning can provide, to ensure you are well set up for a day lived well.
We must always remind ourselves of the privilege of being alive, and be grateful for all that we have been given. Remind yourself of this when you wake up. Marcus Aurelius said,
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
If we view each day as a bonus day — to live, to love, to do the things we love — we can’t help but experience gratitude. Viewing each day in this way will ensure that you live your day well.
The Stoics were big on meditation, although not the standard practice we are accustomed to today. It is important in the morning to be able to sit or go for a walk in silence, listen to what is going on in your body and mind, gather your thoughts, and reflect on the day ahead.
It is important to regularly have this time alone with your thoughts — to find stillness and reset. Marcus Aurelius says,
“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”
Walking was important for the Stoics:
“We should take wandering outdoor walks so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.” — Seneca
Not only does walking provide physical exercise, but Seneca suggests that it shines a light on the soul:
“Birds that are being prepared for the banquet, that they may be easily fattened through lack of exercise, are kept in darkness; and similarly, if men vegetate without physical activity, their idle bodies are overwhelmed with flesh, and in their self-satisfied retirement the fat of indolence grows upon them…But this, to my thinking, would be among the least of their evils. How much more darkness there is in their souls! Such a man is internally dazed.”
The Stoics borrowed a practice from the Pythagoreans, of walking at dawn and witnessing the stars going down and the sun coming up. This humbled them at the start of their day, reminding them of how small their place in the world is. It also reminds one of the workings of the cosmos, and the universe, and therefore sympatheia — our connection with the universe and everything in it. It reminds us to pass over our control to what the universe has in store for us — our place within the bigger plan.
In Meditations, 6.38, Marcus Aurelius says,
“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.”
Ryan Holiday further explains,
“Sympatheia is an invitation to us to take a step back, zoom out and see life from a higher vantage point than our own. It changes our value judgments, weakens the power that luxury and temptation have over us, reduces the seemingly insurmountable differences between people and races and turns the worries of daily life from anxiety attacks to absurdities.”
Sympatheia reminds us that we are all one, and therefore helps us to treat others with respect and in a non-judgmental way. We must look out for one another and care about each other, and therefore we must be patient and accepting of others. This view also puts things in perspective — our problems are so tiny among the vastness of the cosmos.
Self-reflection and planning
This was a core practice of the Stoics. After purposeful silence, the Stoics would think about the day ahead — the ways in which they would go about their day, how they would behave in accordance with the four virtues of Stoicism (wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance), the challenges they may face, and how they would work to overcome these.
Marcus Aurelius wrote,
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”
Prepare yourself for any potential challenges you will face, so that if they happen, you will be equipped to deal with them. Mentally rehearse your day, outlining what you want to accomplish in an ideal situation. Then, think about the ways in which your day could go wrong. Mentally prepare yourself to deal with these setbacks in a way that aligns with your own core values as well as the virtues of Stoicism.
Seneca outlines how we can mentally prepare for the challenges that may lie ahead:
“Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: Not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity, and always to take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do. Whatever you have been expecting for some time comes as less of a shock.”
In self-reflection and planning, we can ensure that we live our days well. Seneca reminds us,
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”
Use your time wisely. Act with wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. Treat others kindly. Live well.
“Life is constantly asking us, Is this going to be alive time or dead time? A long commute. Are we going to zone out or listen to an audiobook? A delayed flight. Are we going to get in a couple of miles by walking around the terminal or shove a Cinnabon into our face? A tour of duty or a contract we have to earn out. Is this tying us down or freeing us up? That’s our call…. We have to choose to make every moment a moment of alive time. We have to decide to be present. To make the most of whatever is in front of us.”
As you plan your day, identify ways where you can maximize alive time and minimize dead time. Realize the situations in which you can bring more value to your day, to ensure that your days are lived to their maximum potential.
Remember your purpose
The Stoics believed in the power of hard work and of staying on task. Marcus Aurelius frequently alluded to his purpose — what he was brought here to do. This kept him focused on the task at hand and gave him the motivation to wake up in the morning.
“Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants, the spiders, and the bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being?”
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
Marcus Aurelius reminds us to keep focused on the task at hand and doing all things to the best of our ability:
“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom, and justice — giving yourself a break from all other considerations. You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint over your fair share.”
Marcus Aurelius was passionate about working without distraction:
“Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.”
Eliminate the distractions in your life — don’t let yourself be pulled in all directions. Approach each task as if it were your last. This will ensure that you do it with excellence.
Remember what you control
Part of working hard means understanding what you have control over and what you don’t. There is no point wasting time or energy on things outside of your control. Marcus Aurelius says,
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
As you go through your day, focus your energy on the things you can control — your actions, your thoughts, your judgements. And let go of all resistance to the things you don’t have control over — the traffic, your colleagues’ actions, the neighbour’s loud music.
Remember your mortality — Memento Mori
Marcus Aurelius always reminded himself of his mortality:
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
This will help you to do things well. If you approach each task as if it were your last, because it very well could be, you are likely to do it well and with your whole heart. This related to the important Stoic concept of arete — essentially, excellence.
Seneca has a similar outlook:
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.… The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
Embrace each day as if it were your last. Do all things with excellence. Make the most of your time here on earth.
Marcus Aurelius knew the importance of finding stillness in your day:
“Anyone with a feeling for nature — a deeper sensitivity — will find it all gives pleasure. Even what seems inadvertent. He’ll find the jaws of live animals as beautiful as painted ones or sculptures. He’ll look calmly at the distinct beauty of old age in men, women, and at the loveliness of children. And other things like that will call out to him constantly — things unnoticed by others. Things seen only by those at home with Nature and its works.”
Finding moments of stillness throughout your day will allow you to better appreciate the little things, to notice the beauty around you. It will keep your mind sharp and calm. It will help you to live a good life.
The Stoics were always looking to better themselves, and a core practice for this was reading. Seneca explains,
“Reading, I hold, is indispensable — primarily, to keep me from being satisfied with myself alone, and besides, after I have learned what others have found out by their studies, to enable me to pass judgment on their discoveries and reflect upon discoveries that remain to be made. Reading nourishes the mind and refreshes it when it is wearied with study; nevertheless, this refreshment is not obtained without study.”
Reading can provide the moments of stillness mentioned above. Reading will nourish your mind, and provide respite in your busy days. Reading will also enable you to grow as a person — by reflecting on the discoveries made by others and contemplating the discoveries still to come. Never stop growing. Always find time for reading in your day.
Evening reflection continues from the reflection of the morning. The Stoics believed in putting each day up for review, in order to continually be better people and to live a better life.
“When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.”
“I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil — that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.”
Epictetus describes a very similar practice:
“Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes,
Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed:
“Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?”
From first to last review your acts and then
Reprove yourself for wretched [or cowardly] acts, but rejoice in those done well.”
Every night the Stoics would ask themselves three questions:
- What did I do badly?
- What did I do well?
- How can I be better tomorrow and what tasks were left undone?
These three questions can help form the basis of the morning meditation and planning.
The Stoics centred their lives around being good people and living good lives — lives dictated by virtues and living life to the fullest. Stoicism can provide a blueprint for us, to help us to lead good and happy lives. The Stoics had practices in which they engaged daily, from their waking moments until going to sleep, that provided the structure necessary for a day lived well. We can use these practices, thousands of years later, to help us to live well in a busy, distracted, and stressed society. Following these practices daily will help us to develop and grow — to be better people and to achieve more success.
“Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” — Epictetus