There’s nothing like a global pandemic to sap your motivation. When you’re locked in your house, working from home, when your routine is disrupted, when everything that’s happening in the world seems to be negative, it’s easy to say, screw it. Or, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’ll get back on track when things go back to normal. I’ll start eating salads for lunch when I’m back at the office. I’ll stop snacking when the kids are back on a schedule. I’ll get back to working out when I can safely go to the gym. I’ll get off social media when there is less news to follow.
The Stoics — who survived their own plagues and exiles and moments of crisis — knew this was no way to live. How much longer are you going to wait, Epictetus would ask? You could be good today, Marcus Aurelius would say, but instead you choose tomorrow.
Now is now. Now is the time to get and stay motivated, to bring arête (excellence and virtue) into our lives and to keep it in our lives. Here are the three principles that have helped fuel my motivation.
Design your life to box out the ‘resistance’
“Life without a design is erratic. As soon as one is in place, principles become necessary. I think you’ll concede that nothing is more shameful than uncertain and wavering conduct, and beating a cowardly retreat. This will happen in all our affairs unless we remove the faults that seize and detain our spirits, preventing them from pushing forward and making an all-out effort.” — Seneca
You may have heard of what author Steven Pressfield calls the “resistance” — that voice that questions your abilities, your worth, your sanity. “Any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity,” Pressfield writes. “Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit resistance.”
The resistance feeds on uncertainty. It loves confusion and complexity. It loves questions like: What should I do? Is this way better or that way? Do you think this will work?
The Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Walsh used to avoid this kind of uncertainty by scripting the beginning of his games. “If you want to sleep at night before the game,” he said in a lecture on game planning, “have your first 25 plays established in your own mind the night before that. You can walk into the stadium and you can start the game without that stress factor.” You’ll also be able to ignore a couple of early points or a surprise from your opponent. It’s irrelevant to you — you already have your marching orders.
Some of the world’s greatest minds — philosophers, artists, writers, painters, scientists, composers, businessmen — have similarly boxed out the resistance by scripting their days, hour by hour. Daniel Ek, founder and CEO of Spotify, talked about it on The Tim Ferriss Show. “I feel like one of the greatest things in my day job today is I get to meet some of the most creative people in the world, in their various fields,” he said, “but the interesting thing for me — when you think about creativity, most people associate it with unstructured thinking… they think creatives do whatever they feel like doing. But some of the most creative people that I know are actually incredibly scripted in their creativity, in their approach, in their process, and how they approach their creativity.”
In his memoir, the writer and runner Haruki Murakami explains why he follows the same script every day. “It’s a form of mesmerism,” he says. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” If you Google how many books Murakami has written, it just says, “at least 30.” He’s written a lot of books. He follows the same schedule day after day after day. He doesn’t need motivation. He has his script, his day designed.
More and more people are now able to make their own schedules. If there are not a lot of people who are telling you what you have to do and when you have to do it, you have to decide what you’re going to tell yourself to do or not do. You can’t wake up every morning to the uncertainty of what you should do first, second, third, fourth.
That’s what Seneca would call a life without design. And that’s what the Stoics would call torture. When you can do anything each morning you wake up, when you are deciding on the fly what you’re going to do or not — that decision fatigue evaporates motivation.
You have to have a system, a script. A well-designed day is one that eliminates all that uncertainty and decision fatigue. When we know what we do and when we do it, the resistance is boxed out — by the structure you built, the script you’ve written.
Fuel the ‘habit bonfire’
“Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running… therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.” — Epictetus
The psychologist William James spoke about making habits our ally instead of our enemy. That we can create a kind of bulwark against the chaos of the world and free up the best of ourselves for the work we want to accomplish. “For this,” James wrote, “we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”
James said that no one is more miserable and less motivated than the person who relies on volatile, moment to moment decision-making.
The Stoics would agree. Some two thousand years before James, Epictetus would use the image of the habit bonfire. Every habit — good and bad — is like a fire. Each time we perform the habit, we reinforce it, we add fuel to it.
Aristotle said something similarly: “Virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions.” The writer Will Durant famously interpreted that line like this: “We are what we repeatedly do… therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
In other words, excellence isn’t this thing you do one time. It’s a way of living. It’s foundational. It’s like an operating system and the code this system operates on is habit. If we want to be happy, if we want to be successful, if we want to be great, we have to develop the capability, we have to develop the day-to-day habits that allow this to ensue.
This is great news. Because it means that impressive results or enormous changes are possible without Herculean motivation or magic formulas. Small adjustments, good systems, the right processes — that’s what it takes. Every day, we can make decisions like: when we wake up, what we study and practice, who we have in our lives as influences, where we go, and how we spend our time.
There is nothing more powerful than a good habit. Nothing that holds us back quite like a bad habit. We are what we do. What we do determines who we can be. The question to you then is the one Epictetus asked his students: Which fires are you fueling?
Think small, not big
“Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” — Epictetus
Part of the reason we struggle to get and stay motivated is that we have a false sense — or we haven’t completely internalized — how progress and achievement happen. We often see only the impressive result — a bestselling book or an impressive six pack. We almost never see the process leading to those results. Therefore, we imagine the process must have been equally brilliant.
In fact, it’s the opposite. Plutarch tells the story of a rich Delian shipowner who was asked how he built his fortune. “The greater part came quite easily,” he said, “but the first, smaller part took time and effort.”
How does that work? Doing anything of consequence or magnitude requires deliberate, incremental, and consistent work. At the beginning, these efforts might not look like they are amounting to much. But with time, they accumulate and then compound on each other. Whether it’s a book or a business or an anthill or a stalagmite, from humble beginnings come impressive outcomes.
In one of his most famous letters to Lucilius, Seneca gives a pretty simple prescription for the good life. “Each day,” he wrote, “acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes, as well and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day.”
One gain per day. That’s it.
The Stoics believed it was the little things that added up to wisdom and to virtue. What you read. Who you studied under. What you prioritized. How you treated someone. What your routine was like. The training you underwent. What rules you followed. What habits you cultivated. Day to day, practiced over a lifetime, this is what created greatness. This is what led to a good life.
“Well-being is realized by small steps,” Zeno would say looking back on his life, “but is truly no small thing.” Which is why today and every day, you need to think about those little things. They are worth sweating. You need to create good habits. You need to stick to your rules. You can’t make excuses to yourself, saying, “Oh, this doesn’t matter.”
Because it adds up. Because it determines what you’ll accomplish, and what you won’t. Most important, it determines who you are.
One page in a book. One conversation. One note between friends. A few minutes of meditation. A single question. A single decision. A single passage like the one that guided Marcus Aurelius to “take away with him some one good thing every day: he should return home a sounder man, or on the way to becoming sounder.”
The filmmaker, entrepreneur, author, former governor of California, professional bodybuilder, and father of five Arnold Schwarzenegger gave a similar prescription for people trying to stay strong and sane during the pandemic: “Just as long as you do something every day, that is the important thing.”
Whether it’s from Seneca or Epictetus or Marcus or Arnold, good advice is good advice and truth is truth. One thing a day adds up. One step at a time is all it takes. You just gotta do it. And the sooner you start, the better you’ll feel… and be.
That’s what philosophy is really about. It’s incremental progress, over a lifetime, done day to day.