10 Practical Stoic Exercises for a Modern Stoic Lifestyle
For the Stoics, practices played a key role in their philosophy.
Stoicism is not a philosophy as we imagine it to be: highly theoretical and a lot of blah. On the contrary, Stoicism is immensely practical and designed to work in the real world and has been a source of guidance and practical advice for people for over two thousand years.
Thanks to daily exercise the Stoic lifestyle can help you become a better and kinder person. It helps you to become less emotionally reactive and prepares you to meet misfortunes, whether minor irritations or serious adversities, with tranquility.
Stoic exercises help us in our pursuit of the good life, they help us stay calm and persevere when life gets tough, and they make us overall more effective in our demanding world.
It’s time we reap those benefits and become calmer and less reactive in everyday life.
(Before we get to the 10 Stoic practices we look at the importance of putting Stoicism into practice.)
Practical Stoicism: The Philosophy Must Be Applied and Practiced
“That’s why the philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should.” – Epictetus
LeBron James is phenomenal. Why?
Because he trains every day. Sure, this is just one of many reasons, but it’s the main reason.
You get good at something because you do it often. You train hard. You practice, practice, practice.
This is the same in life as in sports. Do Stoic exercises and get better at living well. Do basketball exercises and get better at throwing balls.
This is why the Stoics placed emphasis on daily practice. They saw themselves as warriors of the mind and focused on the practical dimension of Stoicism. They believed that philosophy is not merely to be learned, but practiced and lived.
It’s not what you know, but what you do that matters.
For the Stoics that meant to put their philosophy into practice and live a Stoic lifestyle. They applied in the real world what they learned in the classroom. Not occasionally, but every single day over the course of their lives.
LeBron is already the best, and yet he keeps on practicing. He knows damn well how to throw balls, and yet he chooses to throw balls every day. He keeps on practicing because he wants to get better.
And we need to do the same. Learn how to live well in theory, practice what we learned, and then keep on training to get better and better. And just like LeBron, we will still miss some shots.
Look, this is highly important for you right now. Don’t be satisfied with mere reading of these Stoic exercises. You can’t hear something once and expect to rely on it when the world is crashing down on you.
You need to actually do these exercises. That’s why they’re called exercises in the first place – to exercise them.
And hey, we’re all different. Some Stoic practices work better for different people, so it’s best to treat the following exercises as suggestions. Try the ones that speak to you.
Stoic Exercise #1: What Would Batman Do?
“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words… have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.” – Seneca
The Stoics advised to use role models.
In particular, they contemplated the Stoic Sage.
The Stoic Sage is a supremely virtuous, perfect human being. She is a completely good person and lives a smoothly flowing, happy life. She’s the ideal, yet hypothetical, role model in the Stoic philosophy.
Since the Stoic Sage is not close to us, let’s rather use a better known role model – what about Batman? Batman is great, but basically you can choose whoever you want.
The Stoic practice works like this: When you face a difficult situation in your life and you don’t know what you should do, ask yourself, “What would Batman do?”
Or depending on the situation, you can ask:
- “What would the perfect mother do?”
- “What would the ideal friend do?”
- “What would the best boss do?”
Stoic Exercise #2: Negative Visualization – What if You Were Dead?
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.” – Seneca
Negative visualization is a well-known Stoic exercise.
In short: You imagine (visualize) possible bad future scenarios in your head so that you’ll be ready when these occur and you’ll be able to stay cool and respond in the best way possible.
As Seneca pointed out, what catches us by surprise hurts double. This is why we want to see things coming, we want to be prepared. If you know you’re getting slapped in the face it still hurts the same, but you can take it better. You’ll be less surprised and therefore much calmer.
The Stoic exercise works like this: Take a comfortable position and think about possible misfortunate future scenarios:
- Do you have any event coming up? Exam, vacation, work presentation, marriage, etc. Ask yourself and imagine: what could go wrong?
- Think about your loved ones. What if they’d suddenly be gone? How would you feel? What would you do? How would you react?
- Remember your own mortality. What if you dropped dead right now? What feelings come up if you imagine this ultimate bad scenario?
Stoic Exercise #3: Voluntary Discomfort – Lay on the Floor in Starbucks
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence… If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” – Seneca
Voluntary discomfort: Train for uncomfortable situations so you won’t flinch when they come.
This is about getting uncomfortable to grow your comfort zone. Let’s say you’re uncomfortable when you can’t eat for half a day. Now when you practice 48 hour fasts once a month, after some months you won’t be uncomfortable anymore when you can’t eat for half a day.
The Stoic exercise works like this: Purposefully get yourself in an uncomfortable situation (regularly). Tim Ferriss advises to lay down on the floor in public. There are many more options:
- Sleep a night on the floor.
- Ask for a 10% discount when you order a coffee.
- Go a week without coffee.
Stoic Exercise #4: Add a Reserve Clause – If Nothing Prevents You
“I will sail across the ocean, if nothing prevents me.” – Seneca
The Stoics knew very well that not all was under their control.
So they added a reserve clause to their actions. A Stoic might try to do such and such, as long as nothing prevents her. Adding a reserve clause to our actions is a great reminder of the uncertainty of things.
We don’t know what tomorrow will be. This is why I like what the Muslims here in Egypt, where I currently live, often do: They add the saying “Inshallah” which translates into “if Allah wills – God willing.”
However, it goes a step further and is twofold: (1) Do your very best to succeed and simultaneously (2) know and accept that the ultimate outcome is beyond your direct control.
The exercise works like this: When you set out to do something, add a reserve clause such as “if nothing prevents me,” “Deo volente,” “Inshallah,” or “God willing.”
- I’ll finish that article today, if nothing prevents me.
- See you at 3pm at Starbucks, inshallah.
- I’ll try voluntary discomfort and go a week without coffee, Deo volente.
Stoic Exercise #5: Amor Fati – Love Your Fate
“Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.” – Seneca
Amor fati - love your fate.
The Stoics tried to focus on what they can control. And fate wasn’t one of them.
So they advised to not wish for reality to be any different and rather accept and love it as it is. They often used the “dog leashed to a moving cart” metaphor:
The wise man is like a dog leashed to a moving cart, running joyfully alongside and smoothly keeping pace with it, whereas a foolish man is like a dog that grumbly struggles against the leash but finds himself dragged alongside the cart anyway.
We can’t change what happens to us in life. So the smartest thing is to accept rather than fight every little thing that happens to us. We’re like that dog leashed to a cart: we’re only as free as the length of the leash. Therefore we rather enjoy the journey than getting dragged along.
To resent what happens is to wrongly assume you have a choice in that matter.
The Stoic exercise works like this: When something happens to you, ask yourself whether you can do something about it or not. If not, if it’s not under your but under fate’s control, then accept it as it is. There’s no sense in fighting with reality, it’ll only make you miserable.
- Nonresistance: Don’t wish for reality to be any different than it is.
- Nonjudgment: Don’t judge events, simply accept them as they are. (Watch the Maybe Story.)
- Nonattachment: Things come and go, don’t get too attached to what you like.
Stoic Practice #6: Pain and Sickness – Opportunities for Virtue
“Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will. And add this reflection on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself.” – Epictetus
Stoic teacher Epictetus was lame. He chose this was an impediment to the leg, not to the mind.
The same is true for physical pain and sickness. The pain is to the body, not the mind. We can choose what we do with the pain. Either we can take a headache bravely or we can whine and complain about it. The choice is up to us.
This exercise is about not being taken over by weakness and self-pity when we suffer pain. Such self-indulgent responses will only make things worse.
The exercise works like this: Next time you feel some sort of pain try to train your virtue and hang in there. Remember, the pain is to the body, not the mind.
- Headache? It’s an opportunity to train strength.
- Fever? Give your body some rest, no reason to complain.
- Choose not to be affected by pain, preserve your tranquility.
Stoic Practice #7: Imagine Everything as Borrowed from Fortune
“We have no grounds for self-admiration, as though we were surrounded by our own possessions; they have been loaned to us. We may use and enjoy them, but the one who allotted his gift decides how long we are to be tenants; our duty is to keep ready the gifts we have been given for an indefinite time and to return them when called upon, making no complaint: it is a sorry debtor who abuses his creditor.” – Seneca
All we truly own is our mind. Everything else can be taken away at a snap.
Your possessions, your body, your family, your friends, everything could be taken away in a second.
According to the Stoics we should enjoy these things as long as we have them, but not get too attached because they could be gone quickly. Think of everything as borrowed – from nature, fortune, God, or whatever you want – and you can only use it temporarily. It can be taken away at a snap. Whoops and gone. Without prior notice. Without asking.
Seneca wondered, how can we see so much misfortune happening in the world and not imagine it happening with us? It’s ignorance.
The Stoic practice works like this: Remind yourself that everything you think to possess is not truly yours. Even if you paid for it. If it can be taken away at a snap, it’s not truly yours.
- Be aware that everything you hold dearly can be taken away without prior notice.
- What’s your favorite object you “possess?” Remember, it could be gone by tomorrow.
- Next time you kiss your loved ones goodbye, imagine it’s the last time.
Stoic Practice #8: Count Your Blessings
“Don’t set your mind on things you don’t possess as if they were yours, but count the blessings you actually possess and think how much you would desire them if they weren’t already yours. But watch yourself, that you don’t value these things to the point of being troubled if you should lose them.” – Marcus Aurelius
They preferred to value what they had instead of longing for what they didn’t have. They were grateful for what they had in life. They tried to want whatever they already had instead of desiring things they didn’t have.
Basically, (1) they tried to fight their urge to gather and horde stuff. They (2) were grateful for what they already had without (3) getting too attached to those things. (Remember, they can be taken away at a snap.)
The exercise works like this: How much would you want the things you have if you didn’t have them? Like with other exercises, you can write things down. For example, write down three things you’re grateful for.
- Don’t buy stuff you don’t need.
- Appreciate the things you already have.
- Don’t get too attached to these things you’re grateful for.
Stoic Practice #9: Forgive the Wrongs of Others – They Don’t Know any Better
“When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: 'for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,' as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.” – Epictetus
The Stoics believed that everybody tries to do what he thinks is right. Even if it’s obviously not.
People don’t do wrong on purpose, they act as they think is right. And we should pity rather than blame them.
How can we be angry at somebody when we know he didn’t know any better? Right, we want to be tolerant and kind instead. We want to forgive the wrongs of others, as Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don‘t know what they are doing.”
The Stoic exercise works like this: Before you get angry at someone, tell yourself that she didn’t know any better. But you do, and therefore you can be kind and forgiving.
- Don’t seek revenge when somebody wrongs you – mean comes from weakness. Choose to be tolerant and kind instead.
- Pity rather than blame wrongdoers – they are blinded in their most powerful tool: their mind.
- If someone is mean to you, then try to see it as training. We’re all learning and trying to get better, scratches happen. So shake it off and move on, it’s happened only in training.
Stoic Practice #10: Buy Tranquility Instead
“Starting with things of little value – a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine – repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price I buy tranquility and peace of mind.’” – Epictetus
This is mere genius.
One of the main goals of the Stoics was to be able to stay calm even in the face of adversity. Whatever a Stoic faces, he wants to stay calm and reasonable.
“I buy tranquility instead.” This sentence has saved me from a lot of wasted energy and emotions. Often when something happens I don’t like and which arouses this inner anger and excitement, I tell myself, “I buy tranquility instead.” And move on calmly. Even with a smile.
This quote alone was worth all the books I read on Stoicism. I highly encourage you to try to incorporate these words into your Stoic lifestyle. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.
The only caveat: It requires enough awareness to step in between the stimulus and response. If you work on that, you’ll quickly benefit greatly from these words.
The Stoic practice works like this: Bring awareness into your life and whenever something is arousing anger and discontentment within you, tell yourself, “I buy tranquility instead.”
- When you spill some wine over your clothes – buy tranquility instead.
- When your roomie (or brother) doesn’t do the dishes – buy tranquility instead.
- When your favorite sports team concedes a late equalizer – buy tranquility instead.
Bonus Practice: Reflect Yourself – The Day in Review
“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 acts, but rejoice in those done well.” – Epictetus
Tonight, ask yourself, “Which Stoic exercise did I try?”
We need to start at some point. Why not now? These exercises are all helpful, if done. Some might fit you better than others, but this last one is the most important for the good life.
Check on yourself. How are you doing? Where are you improving? What are you doing well? What should you get better at?
These daily reflections make you more aware during the day. If you ask yourself in the evening, “What good did I do today?” and you can’t answer, then your mind will automatically be more aware the next day and look for the good things you do.
The Stoic practice works like this: Look back at the passed day and see where you did well and where not so. For the next 5 days, before you go to bed, ask yourself these 3 questions only (go through them in your head or write it down):
- “What good did I do today?”
- “What could I do better?”
- “What do I need to do to be the best I can be?”
Don’t Be Satisfied with Mere Reading, Get Started Now with those Stoic Practices!
The classic story:
You’re motivated, google for Stoic exercises, read the best match, and then…
…google something else.
But YOU are different. You actually take action and try at least one of the exercises.
The hard truth: Just as physical workouts build strength, so do mental workouts improve your mind – but only for those who practice. Going for a run once a year won’t help your fitness. And reading practical Stoicism once in a while won’t prepare you to be able to face adversity calmly.
Remember LeBron James. He’s good because he throws a lot of balls.
And you can be good at living well if you actually try to improve.
Live the Stoic lifestyle and do these exercises.
Wait, there’s more:
I created a PDF with all these Stoic exercises so you have a go to source when you want to improve yourself. Plus, I added 10 more! So you get a PDF with 20 Stoic exercises. For free.
Get it here.