The Stoic Way to Find More Time in Your Day
Philosopher Marcus Aurelius urged people to get rid of ‘needless actions.’ Here’s how to do that today.
“I just didn’t have the time.”
That’s one of the most common phrases I hear from my psychotherapy clients who’ve neglected to do the exercises we talked about — things like keeping a record of upsetting thoughts or practicing a mindfulness meditation technique. Over and over again, people call me and apologize uncomfortably for ignoring their homework, as though I’m there to scold them instead of help them.
I can certainly understand being stretched thin right now. We’re all living under pressures we’ve never experienced before. But in my own clinical practice, I’ve found an effective way to help my clients find more time, and that’s to challenge them to stop doing the things that do not serve their deeper goals in life.
It’s a tool I borrowed from the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In Meditations, his collection of writings, Marcus cites a quote from the Greek philosopher Democritus: “Do little if you want contentment of mind.” However, Marcus puts a Stoic twist on this ancient maxim, suggesting that we should do only what is necessary for achieving our fundamental goals in life:
For this will bring not only the contentment of mind that comes from acting aright, but also that which comes from doing little; for considering that the majority of our words and actions are anything but necessary, if a person dispenses with them he will have greater leisure and a less troubled mind.
Marcus describes a very simple technique for achieving this, one that we all can practice: Before engaging in an activity — at least one that might be of questionable value — ask yourself: Is this really necessary? Pause and consider whether doing it will actually be good for your well-being. He writes:
And we should dispense not only with actions that are unnecessary, but also with unnecessary ideas; for in that way the needless actions that follow in their train will no longer ensue.
It’s a powerful strategy that’s not unlike ones we use today in cognitive-behavioral therapy. (I recently wrote about Marcus’ influence on cognitive psychotherapy in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.) Here’s how to do it in practice.
Watch out for early warning signs
Whether it’s jumping on Facebook to kill an hour of your time or ruminating pointlessly about some old grievance in the privacy of your own mind, habits are processes with a beginning, middle, and end. To change them, we will have to notice when we’re doing them — something that usually happens only once we’re in the middle of them. The tried-and-tested way of doing that is to watch out for the early warning signs.
But with practice, we can catch ourselves in the act sooner, at the very beginning, or before we’ve even really started. The key is self-observation. That’s why the Stoics practiced a kind of mindfulness they called prosoche, which literally means “attention.” Pay close attention to the way you use your body and your mind in general, throughout the day. As soon as you notice the first inkling of a questionable habit, treat that as your signal that it’s time to stop and think. For example, you might begin to notice slight changes in your breathing or facial expression when you’re starting to get frustrated with a work project and are considering checking Instagram as mental relief.
Ask yourself: Is it necessary?
The rather abrupt-sounding question is actually Marcus’ way of making the consequences of his behavior more obvious to his mind. “Is it necessary?” means “Is it helping you?” What’s it doing for you — or your loved ones, or your community — in the long run?
Another way of putting it: In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama suggested that we should pause to consider whether, in the long run, our own thoughts and actions lead to suffering or to happiness. Behavior therapists often ask a similar version: “How’s that working out for you?” (This open-ended phrasing is one of those tools of the trade that tends to be surprisingly effective.)
All the questions above direct our attention toward the function of whatever it is we’re doing. They ask: Where is this leading? Find the version of the question that suits you, but make sure it performs a similar function to Marcus’ “Is this necessary?” Focus your attention on the consequences of your action. Could it actually be leading you in the very opposite direction from where you want to be going in life?
When you’re able to spot the early warning signs of the behavior you want to change and question the value or consequences of your actions, you free yourself of habits that do not serve you. Now you’ll have a new problem: What are you going to do with all that time?