Best Way to Build Self-discipline: The Stoic way
The best way to build self-discipline is the stoic way. The Stoics considered discipline a virtue, along with other related qualities like perseverance, endurance, high-mindedness, and self-control. The Stoics favored hard work and spending their days wisely.
Seneca, for example, urges us not to waste our time and to act now, as life is short. Marcus Aurelius points to nature, concluding that we naturally tend to be hard-working. This article explores Stoic philosophy, which may help develop self-discipline.
Discipline is a controlled effort that requires self-restraint and obedience to specific rules, like a schedule. Discipline generally gets a bad rep, as it sounds unromantic and tiresome and reminds us of the strict regimes of militaries and boarding schools. But self-discipline gets the job done Moreover, self-discipline often leads to inner peace, as structure and predictability reduce stress evoked by uncertainty.
The Stoics considered discipline a virtue, along with other related qualities like perseverance, endurance, high-mindedness, and self-control. The Stoics favored hard work and spending their days wisely. Seneca, for example, urges us not to waste our time and to act now, as life is short. Marcus Aurelius points to nature, concluding that we naturally tend to be hard-working.
Best Ways to Self-Discipline by Stoic Philosophy
This blog explores the Stoic philosophy, which may provide the best ways to develop self-discipline. If you love reading, the book Stoicism for Inner Peace might interest you. It’s a bundle of collected works edited, revised, and expanded. The Cambridge Dictionary describes self-discipline as “the ability to make yourself do things you know you should do even when you do not want to.” Making oneself do certain things requires self-control to resist engaging in activities that don’t contribute to our goals. Also, it requires a drive to get to work and a target to work towards.
So, if we do what we should do and refrain from what we shouldn’t, we’re disciplined, which sounds easy, but for many, it isn’t. These three ‘dimensions,’ if you will, namely, self-control, work, and aim, were praised by the ancient Stoics and are thus embedded in Stoic philosophy.
Even though the Stoics sought inner peace, they weren’t lazy; they knew that living in agreement with nature meant, for us, humans, using our bodies and minds appropriately by being productive, active, and contributing to the whole. We’re not to waste our inherent attributes; we ought to use them properly. Epictetus argued that the engagement in adversity made Hercules Hercules.
What would have become of him if he had not used his powerful physique and noble soul?
The world offered him challenges that called for a strong man like Hercules to take up, as he was built for them and not for snoring away his life. By following his natural inclinations, he not only developed into a hero; he also contributed to society by getting rid of many dangers to his kin. It was a win-win situation.
So, what are the best ways to build self-discipline according to Stoic philosophy?
Let’s explore some relevant Stoic ideas. Epictetus stated that we should treat life as a banquet: if a dish stops in front of us, we should take some in moderation. If it hasn’t reached us yet, we shouldn’t grab it. If it passes us by, we shouldn’t stop it. But even better would be if we could reject what’s set before us; such strength makes us divine.
Self-control is a vital part of being self-disciplined.
Through self-control, we can restrain ourselves from doing things we shouldn’t be doing. Working towards a specific goal, for example, writing a thesis, is theoretically a simple task. We just need to put in the necessary hours of research and writing to finish it. However, in reality, people struggle with such an undertaking. For a significant part, this struggle exists because of how they handle distractions. Unfortunately, we have no control over the distractions life throws at us.
As Epictetus mentions, things not in our control are whatever our actions are. But we have control over how we position ourselves towards the things we cannot control. Regarding distractions, we can’t control people inviting us for drinks, the latest season of our favorite television series being released, or people trying to bring us down by criticizing and opposing us.
No matter how much we try to resist, the world will always have plenty of things to offer that can potentially grab our attention and persuade us to change our minds about our choices. It’s probably only increasing due to technological developments. Of course, we can influence the number of distractions we’re exposed to by limiting our contact with the outside world and arranging our living environment accordingly.
But ultimately, the outside world, including our immediate environment, is up to Fortune. So, what can we do?
We can strengthen our self-control. We can bolster ourselves against inevitable distractions, reinforcing our resolve to finish what we wish to finish. If we have the strength to reject what’s set before us, temptations will not sway us from our cause. Self-control takes practice; we must master it through exposure and repetition, invigorating our ability to restrain.
The more we conquer distractions and temptations, the less powerful they become. If these temptations have no (or limited) power over us, we experience what the Stoics call freedom. Within the context of discipline, it’s the freedom to do what we intend to do—freedom in the sense that outside circumstances do not control our actions.
How can we get things done if we’re not able or willing to work for them?
From the Stoic perspective, work is not only important; it’s also what we’re designed to do. Everything in the universe has its place, and as humans, we’re granted unique capabilities to serve the whole. Therefore, the Stoics consider industriousness a virtuous characteristic; it’s in our nature to work, they believe. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius repeatedly reminds himself of his tasks as emperor and as a human being. He’s here to work and to serve, not to lay in bed all day doing nothing.
I quote: “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 about 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?”
Yes, it may feel much nicer in bed. But the Stoic emperor reminds himself that he was not born to feel “nice.” He mentions how plants, sparrows, ants, spiders, and bees perform their tasks. These living beings work to put the world in order and participate in ways that nature has assigned to them.
“Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”
Marcus Aurelius asks himself: Of course, we can’t toil day and night; we also need to sleep and relax. But, as Marcus Aurelius stated, “Nature set a limit on that, as it did on eating and drinking.” So, there’s a time for relaxation and a time for work.
‘Courage’ is a cardinal virtue in Stoicism. The Stoics subdivided courage into endurance, confidence, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness. Industriousness is a vital part of being self-disciplined. It’s the habit of being active and occupied. If we’re working towards a goal, just self-control isn’t enough; we need to be industrious and do what needs to be done consistently.
But how can we be industrious? How can we prevent ourselves from being lazy and procrastinating?
Marcus Aurelius makes an interesting statement about the cause of laziness and one of the ingredients of being industrious. “In earnest, you have no true love for yourself. If you had, you would love your nature and honor her wishes. Now, when a man loves his trade, how will he sweat and drudge to perform to perfection? But you honor your nature less than a turner does the art of turning; a dancer masters the art of dancing.”
According to this passage, laziness means a lack of love for oneself or one’s natural tendency. A lazy person doesn’t love that he’s naturally inclined to be industrious; if he did, he’d embrace his nature and get to work. So, extrapolating from this idea, we might want to arouse our love of being industrious; instead of seeing it as a form of punishment or condemnation, we might want to see it as something enjoyable.
After all, it has been a natural, inherent part of human life since the dawn of time, although in different forms and intensities. We also might want to seek something that fits our nature. Hercules, for example, was fit to protect the weak because of his strong, athletic body. Other people might be a better fit for writing, art, or scientific occupations.
Nature has given each of us unique characteristics.
From a Stoic point of view, our task is to honor and use them productively and to serve the whole. As Seneca stated, life is short, and we’re wasting most of it. How many people wander through life without aim, without any overarching goal they point their energy towards?
To truly get going, we need a finish line to run toward; we need that star in the sky, whatever it may be, to climb towards. The easiest way to live an undisciplined life is not to have a specific goal. If we don’t have goals or sub-goals, we’re quick to put our energy into things that don’t serve anything long-term, or we do not act at all.
As Marcus Aurelius stated and quoted, “There is likewise another sort of roving to be avoided; for some people are busy and yet do nothing; they fatigue and wear themselves out, and yet aim at no goal, nor propose any general end of action or design.”
In the modern world, we may wear ourselves out by partying, drinking, playing video games excessively, or binge-watching television series. It’s not that we’re not doing anything; we just spend our time and energy on, mainly, short-term pleasures, and we work simply to keep riding the hamster wheel of small pleasures and consumerism. To many people, life seems pointless, and amounting to something bigger, like realizing their dreams and ambitions, seems impossible.
But, most likely, they’re missing the point, which could be because of fear of failure but also because nowadays there are so many options that it’s difficult to choose one direction. The paradox of choice confuses many and causes people to want countless things but end up with nothing substantial. Therefore, choosing one particular goal and letting everything else slide benefits those drifting in the wastelands of modernity.
Marcus Aurelius stated and quoted, “Stop drifting—sprint to the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your savior while you can.” Will we, out of aimlessness, let others make choices for us, even though we can make our own? Will we travel aimlessly—or rather “be traveled”—through life like leaves in the wind? Or will we exploit our only true power, which is our ability to choose and act?
Being self-disciplined becomes much easier if we have a strong and clear goal. We generate purpose for ourselves by embracing a solid reason for getting out of bed every morning. And the more we work towards that goal, the more steadfast we generally become. As we keep an eye on the finish line, seeing it getting closer every day, we build self-confidence as we realize that we can get things done.
Observing progress motivates us to continue.
It prevents us from drifting blindly from one hunch to another. We’ll get things done, even if we don’t want to, because that star in the sky shines brightly upon us and rises far above everything that doesn’t matter, leaving it in the shade where it belongs.
Best Way to Build Self-Discipline: By Stoic Philosophy, Explained in Small, Important Points
- Understanding What is Within Your Control:
- Focus on aspects of life that you can control, such as your thoughts, actions, and responses.
- Stoicism emphasizes acceptance of external events beyond your control, fostering a disciplined mindset focused on personal agency.
- Setting Virtuous Goals:
- Align your goals with Stoic virtues like wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.
- Self-discipline arises from pursuing virtuous goals rather than being swayed by momentary desires.
- Mindful Awareness of Impulses:
- Cultivate awareness of impulsive reactions and desires.
- Stoicism encourages pausing to evaluate whether an action aligns with your principles before acting, fostering disciplined decision-making.
- Embracing Hardship and Challenges:
- View challenges as opportunities for growth.
- Stoicism teaches that embracing difficulties with resilience builds inner strength and self-discipline.
- Practicing Negative Visualization:
- Consider potential challenges or losses to prepare mentally.
- By visualizing hardships, Stoicism helps build the discipline to confront adversity with composure.
- Daily Reflection and Evaluation:
- Engage in daily reflection on your actions and decisions.
- Stoic self-examination fosters self-discipline by encouraging continual improvement and learning from experiences.
- Moderation in Pleasures
- Exercise temperance by practicing moderation in pleasures.
- Stoicism advises against excessive indulgence, promoting the discipline of balance and moderation.
- Focus on the Present Moment:
- Concentrate on the present instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
- Stoic mindfulness encourages disciplined attention to current responsibilities and actions.
- Acceptance of Impermanence:
- Embrace the impermanence of life and possessions.
- Stoicism teaches that a disciplined mind is one that is not overly attached to external outcomes, promoting resilience in the face of change.
- Continuous learning and improvement:
- Cultivate a mindset of continual learning and improvement.
- Stoicism emphasizes the discipline of intellectual growth and the pursuit of wisdom as a lifelong journey.
By integrating these Stoic principles into daily life, one can gradually develop the self-discipline needed to navigate challenges, make virtuous choices, and maintain a resilient and focused mindset.