The Ancient Art of Habits

We've known what to do for millennia

low angle photography of The Parthenon, Greece

In the year 108 AD, a man named Epictetus informally taught how to live a good life.

Among many other things, Epictetus covered the topic of habits. One of his students took notes listening to his lectures. From the translation in The Daily Stoic:

“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.”

Today, almost 2,000 years later, science calls this neuroplasticity. It’s your brain’s ability to physically alter itself throughout your entire life.

If you want to be a runner, with every run, a material called myelin forms around the according neural connections. This makes it easier for your brain to process another run - and that’s why every action leads to more action in the same direction.

Epictetus also talked about how long it takes to form a new habit:

“If you don’t wish to be a hot-head, don’t feed your habit. Try as a first step to remain calm and count the days you haven’t been angry. I used to be angry every day, now every other day, then every third or fourth . . . if you make it as far as 30 days, thank God! For habit is first weakened and then obliterated. When you can say ‘I didn’t lose my temper today, or the next day, or for three or four months, but kept my cool under provocation,’ you will know you are in better health.”

Once again, science now confirms this in retrospect. The number of reported days continues to fluctuate from 21 to 66 on average to 254 in extreme cases, but the message stands: habits take weeks and months to create or eliminate.

Isn’t it fascinating? 2,000 years of advancement, technology, civilization, progress - and in the end, we confirm what dedicated thinkers knew in their gut all along.

I have a permanent reminder on my laptop screen: Life is simple.

We know it is. We just hide behind complexity. Let’s not overcomplicate things. Like Epictetus, you and I know what to do.

Today, let’s step up and do it.

-Nik


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