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Experiment Log No. 30 — Full-time Stoicism

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The purpose of this experiment is to see what happens when I try to live in alignment with Stoic values for 30 days. The part I’m going to document here is my relationship with entertainment and other activities done only for pleasure. In the Stoic view, pleasure and comfort are okay, but they’re not experience that are worth sacrificing anything for. Living a virtuous live produces them as byproducts, but they aren’t good motives on their own.

For more details, see this post.

This experiment begins on Monday, April 12, 2021, and concludes May 11, 2021. Updates should be posted every few days.

The Log

Day One

Some early observations on the first day.

There’s an interesting relationship between the equanimity Stoic practice allows and the normal ups and downs of mood. It’s a blustery, snowy day here, and I didn’t sleep well, so my mood isn’t great, but the equanimity is still present. I haven’t made perfectly rational choices all day, but I don’t think I’ve done anything “on tilt” and I don’t think I’ve shirked any important duties. For the most part I feel equanimous towards my tired body and dull mood.

I also really enjoyed lunch. Just beforehand I listened to William B Irvine talking about the practice of doing things while keeping in mind that you may be doing them for the last time. It’s a very simple practice. When you’re doing something enjoyable, take a moment to contemplate the fact that it may be the last time you do it. People are constantly doing things for the last time — eating a pizza, picking up their child, talking to a loved one — having no idea that there will not be another time, either because something changes in their lives, or they die before it happens again.

I ate a nice salad and a coconut curry soup, and enjoyed it with the awareness that I would maybe never have it again. It works with everything, and reveals how habitually we take for granted that this particular experience doesn’t matter that much because there’s always another one coming. If we were aware that it was, or even that it could be, we’d appreciate it much more.

Day Two

Two days in I feel pretty great. It’s been easy to say no to the usual types of diversions I fall into.

Most of the time doing the “virtuous” thing was no problem, because succumbing to time-wasting activities feels instantly bad, and it’s such a relief to just drop the impulse and go back to doing the next thing.

Slightly more difficult (but even more rewarding) is attending to a mundane task when it’s something that doesn’t quite demand the attention. Spooning leftovers into tupperware can be done with the body alone, while the mind ruminates or reminisces. Each time I notice the mind going elsewhere, I bring it back to the details of the task, as though I’m watching an arthouse movie, observing the little clumps of rice tumble down into the container, then my hands pushing on the lid with a satisfying thwump. I drop my normal habit of monologuing while I do “mindless” tasks, and the result is that I’m much less agitated, and life feels much more quiet. I feel a lot like I feel on a silent retreat, but somehow even more stable.

There is an interesting synergy between mindfulness practice and Stoic doing. The intentional doing doesn’t allow mental chatter to ever really get going, and because it’s more active than mindfulness, it is more effective at keeping the mind stably in the moment, at least so far. My meditation sits have suddenly become better, as well, which feeds back into the stability of mind during the day. There are many layers going on here — I’m coming out of a winter funk and an even longer depression, and during that time my meditation practice has been in a lull. It’s coming back strong now, and the Stoic practice seems to be an almost perfect catalyst.

On the other end of the equation, my mindfulness experience is what is even allowing me to do this. I don’t know how I’d be able to drop mental chatter so readily if I wasn’t a regular meditator. I’m quite aware of mental talk when it is happening, so when I slip into it after spending most of the day in mental quiet, it’s very obvious.

I have a ton more to say but I’ll leave it at that for today.

Day Three

I’ve reached my first interesting challenge. I’m feeling dull today. I might be sick. Or perhaps the return of winter (it has snowed for three days) and the subsequent lack of activity has caused a mood dip. For what it’s worth, my morning meditation was excellent – best sit I’ve had in months – and I’m very calm. While I’m still conducting myself with the Stoic attitude, I’m not feeling very get-up-and-go. I will deal with this fluctuation Stoically – attending to the moment, dullness and all, as the work of a human being.

I’m experiencing many urges to compromise the day, by pushing the work I was going to do to another day, to take it easy – essentially to come back to ‘the work of a human being’ tomorrow. That’s my usual response. Procrastination. Rationalizing that it is a perfect time for indulgence and stepping away from responsibility.

Instead, I’m trying to take this as an opportunity to practice. It’s hard to find the same intuitive Stoic motivation that came so easily on Days 1 and 2, but a certain Stoic aphorism keeps coming to me: nothing that can happen to me can make me worse, only I can do that. I get to choose how I will field this onset of dullness (which I do attribute to the effects of the April blizzard – lack of real human contact, lack of activity and exercise, lack of sunshine – further evidence of the importance of those things to my well-being). Regardless of what is happening inside and out, I get to choose the values by which I live. I am shifting around the tasks I intend to do — doing more physical things today rather than writing/thinking tasks — but the values will remain the same. I am about to do some fruitful “Bodybuilding of the Will,” which is the whole point of this exercise.

Whatever I do, I’ll do I with full intention and honesty. Right now I’m exercising, writing this between sets. A nap might even be appropriate later. Lapsing into self-comfort is the only clearly wrong choice.

I’m noticing how incredibly clear and persistent that one familiar thought is – “I can give myself a break and get back to this later, when it’s easier.” It is the familiar refrain of a lifelong procrastinator, and the path forward for me is practicing better ways of responding to it. A marble bust appears at my right ear: “Nothing can happen to you that can make you worse, since your will is always yours.”

Days Four and Five

Days 3 and 4 presented an interesting challenge. The Stoic mindset was very obvious to me on Days 1 and 2, and got kind of cloudy on Days 3 and 4. I have still been living Stoically, but I’ve had to consciously think about what it makes sense to do at a given moment, rather than operate intuitively from the guiding mindset.

This happens in life, but I think ADHD makes it happen more. One of the subtle but significant challenges of ADHD is that you are prone to losing track of the feeling of a given intention. You can remember what you wanted to do, or even write it down, but the emotional/intuitive sense of what you wanted to do is gone. You know what actions you plan to take, but can’t recall how it felt to want to do them, so you have no intuition to guide you on a moment-to-moment basis through the appropriate actions. Instead you have to rely on thinking and reasoning your way through it, step-by-step, which is slow and devoid of momentum. (My pet hypothesis is that “intuition of doing” is part of what dopamine does for us, so if you’re low on dopamine you lose it more often. I’ve written about this idea here – scroll down to the heading, 3. Organizing your thoughts is really hard).

Today is Day 5 and I feel better. I am finding my way back to that intuitive alignment with the Stoic mindset. The next action seems more obvious than yesterday. Reading and listening to the Stoics helps guide me there. It is also sunny today and the snow is melting, which seems to have a major effect on my mood.

In the meantime, it only makes sense to use my Stoic tools to contend with this challenge, both now and when it inevitably returns throughout my life. Part of the strategy is to ask myself more frequently questions like “Is this [i.e. what I’m doing now] what I intend to spend this life on?”

Another trick is to do a quick series of small tasks – tidy this room, take out the garbage, look up this one research question. That helps me re-enter that mode of doing a task fully to completion with undivided intention and purpose, and to experience again the satisfaction of it.

Another insight I’ve had over the first few days is that Stoic living is guided by a sort of always-on intention to find equanimity with what is happening. Equanimity is a skill that’s also central to meditation practice. I’ve written about it here – it’s the ability to allow present moment experience to come and go naturally without fighting with it. In other words you’re consciously opening up to the experience of right now, rather than let yourself be driven away by what you find aversive about it or sucked in by what’s pleasurable about it. The essential act of Stoicism is practicing equanimity with what is happening now, as you do the things you rationally determine need doing.

As far as I can tell, what guides Stoic alignment more than anything is this fine-edged intention to be equanimous with whatever it feels like to do what has to be done right now – slipping the dishgloves on when you’re looking at dishes filled with tepid soup-water, to finish the assignment when you want to click over to Reddit. The duty of living Stoically seems to always be to engage willingly with this next moment of equanimity practice.

I remember this with the motto “My job here is to be as equanimous as possible with this moment.” It is basically always true and represents the Stoic mindset as well as anything. An example from a moment ago — when you save a page in WordPress, the browser often loads for an excruciatingly long time — fifteen or twenty seconds. It’s one thing to grumpily endure this, and it’s quite another to open up completely to it as though it’s your purpose. Halfway through the most recent period of loading, I remembered that, and the sense of alignment came back.

Equanimity also requires that you be present for what you’re doing. You really have to embody the task, because part of equanimity is coming to terms with how your body feels while you do it. That’s why Stoicism has been so helpful for my mindfulness practice (and not just vice-versa) – because it requires conscious, ongoing attentiveness. There’s really no room for split attention.

The same attitude is required for every task, fun or no fun, so all you have to do is practice it. That’s one of the great strengths of Stoicism – there are very few things you ultimately need to get good at.

Day Six and Seven

A full week has gone by, and it’s been one of the best weeks in a long time. Nothing particularly fortuitous has happened to me, and I had my share of low moods and setbacks, yet I had a pretty wonderful week. I’ve stayed engaged with what I’m doing for the most part, and I’ve been going to bed more or less pleased with my day.

I am getting more done, but that’s kind of beside the point. I feel like I’m really living my days. I’m appreciating more of what happens, I’m less afraid of the future — not only of what might happen to me, but of what I will do, or fail to do. So far it seems like this is the right philosophy for me, at least by this point in my life.

There were two separate breakdowns — days where I got frustrated enough that I sulked, and ended up watching some fairly pointless YouTube videos and clicking around on the web with no intentions really. I also ordered delivery, almost as a kind of protest. When I realized what I was doing, which didn’t take long, I tried to bring my new tools to the situation. Rather than immediately try to wrestle myself back to being on track, I just paid attention to how it felt to live reactively like this. It felt pleasurable in a small sense, but it also felt kind of absurd — like I was trying to step away from life for a bit, which isn’t really possible, since we’re always just making choices about how to spend the present moment. After my bad mood cooled off, I was excited to get back to living purposefully again, because it just feels better.

There were many smaller instances of going astray — I find myself looking at Instagram, with no real intention to learn anything or connect with anyone, and within a few seconds that feeling of aimlessness becomes conspicuous, and I close it up and feel some relief. I expected this experiment to feel different, as though I would be constantly policing myself, with my usual diversions becoming more and more tempting. But they’re getting less tempting. They don’t even deliver much in the short term, and they come with this obvious feeling that I’m not living the life I want to live.

I’ll write more about this in future updates, but my focus is shifting away from following rules about how I spend my time — e.g. no shows/movies, no food just for pleasure — to monitoring my intentions when I do anything. The rules-based approach is too clumsy and leaves me questioning everything. There isn’t a fine line between eating for pleasure and not, for example. I’m eating oatmeal for breakfast, but am I crossing a line by adding raisins? Salt? Maple syrup? Nuts? If instead of trying to follow rules, I’m continually questioning my impressions and my intentions — is this in alignment with the Good Life as I am conceiving it here, or not? That is clearer than having personal statues about certain activities.

Two instances came up in which I had planned to watch a movie with someone else, and Covid concerns prevented us from getting together. One was a movie — we had planned to watch a movie at the same time and then talk on the phone about it afterward. As we were trying to select one, it became clear to me that I didn’t want to watch one. It’s too long and I had other things to do. We went for a walk the next day instead. The other instance concerned a 55-minute architecture documentary, which I did watch, and we talked about it afterward. The whole thing was a positive experience. However, as I watched it, I frequently had the desire to do more active things and I took a few breaks. It made me realize I’m seldom compelled by a movie for long. Might be an ADHD thing, or a temperament thing. Even when I see a movie in the theatre I am constantly going on diversions in my head, about the production, the actor’s lives, the economics of movie theatres and so on. In any case, passive entertainment isn’t something I can easily do with a sense of undivided intention.

I have a lot more to share but this is a longish update so I’ll save it. Next time I’ll share my revised thoughts on “background” entertainment, and whether it has a place.

Day Eight and Nine

I am currently figuring out how to contend skillfully with two questions that are somewhat related:

  • What to do when I can’t locate the Stoic sense of purpose and alignment
  • How hard to push myself when I don’t feel up to the decidedly rational thing to do at this moment

I’m working on a well-overdue project that has proven to be much harder than I expected, and so I am constantly making ambitious schedules that I soon fall behind. I’m trying to interrupt that pattern and just crunch till the end. However that makes me vulnerable to a certain mode of reactivity that really sends me into a tailspin. When I don’t get done what I expected, and the schedule holds little room for error, it triggers some deep shame and guilt in me that is undoubtedly due to having experienced a lifetime of repeated ADHD-related self-disappointment.

When those particular emotions begin to arise, I fall into a familiar sense of “All bets are off” where I (historically tend to) retreat into a sort of who-cares apathy/anger/indulgence state that is utterly the opposite of Stoicism.

That started to happen yesterday and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I did my best to apply my Stoic skills and attitude to the appearance of this pattern, and it did help. I stopped, thought about what I could control that made sense to do next, but I was unable to relocate that sense of engaged alignment with my values that has been so accessible throughout Week One. This “alignment” as I’m calling it is so hard to describe – a kind of contentment and assuredness that I am doing the right thing, and a moment-to-moment awareness. In any case, there are times, when I’m triggered by my self-regulation-related trauma, when I just can’t find the Stoic mindset and I am going through the motions.

When I fall into that “wounded” state, I almost know that I will not do the right thing, or at least I fear that I won’t. My frustration tolerance becomes low. Trying to do something too challenging in those moments feels liable to send me over the edge into that apathy/anger state. This danger is a very familiar feeling to me – this sense that I am not really in control of my actions, that I simply cannot sufficiently “step up” and therefore I am doomed to disappoint myself and others forever. I genuinely don’t know how much power a person possesses to bring their own will to bear on itself — whether volition is truly in our hands as the Stoics say, or never actually in our hands, or somewhere in between. Epictetus’s dichotomy of control (i.e. some things are in our control and some aren’t) has boundaries that are not categorically clear – when it comes to will and intention, when are you pushing the river and when are you steering the best you can given the current?

Anyway, that is one hell of a philosophical rabbit hole, and I don’t need to figure it out in order to navigate this challenge. All I need is a strategy for bridging those tough patches without collapsing into bad habits and self-destructive behavior (as I frequently did before I knew about my ADHD).

Here’s what seems to help:

  • Making prudent concessions in the plan for the day – if I can’t do the “truly” rational best thing, I can rotate in something that is less pertinent but not as triggering
  • Doing physical, simple tasks that have to be done anyway — these are easier to bring full intention and equanimity to than more complex knowledge-work tasks
  • Clearing up my space, so as to clear the mind of clutter
  • Writing the moment’s most pertinent need on a little sticky note beside me, or saying it out loud

The only trouble is that some of these concessions can also be a sneaky form of needless procrastination. I have spent a lifetime convincing myself that the truly hard thing doesn’t need to be done today. It is a difficult line to ride, between sensible compromise and procrastination, but Stoic practice is helping me zero in on it.

Another way of saying all of this:

I think what I learned in the last two days is that human beings are only capable of a certain amount of courage and temperance in a given moment, and the challenge is to manage that reality rationally, but also assess it honestly.

On the whole, I am accomplishing more than I ever have, and Stoicism seems to be an ideal philosophy for me. My experiment just happens to be coinciding with a very difficult time-crunching project. That’s probably a good thing.

Day Ten

The “central conflict” of my Stoic experiment story so far is remembering how to find, and find again, the particular mindset that makes Stoic living intuitive. I remember what to do objectively – do what has to be done when it has to be done, with undivided attention, while practicing equanimity with the moment – but there’s a certain perspective, a cognitive mode, a groove to settle into, that makes operating that way relatively easy to maintain, and much more rewarding. I keep losing and regaining that intuitive groove.

When I’m in the groove, everything seems to unfold naturally. It’s an almost magical sort of state – I’m attuned to the moment in front of me, as though I’m looking out onto the moment from a clear window — and I see my desk, the kitchen counter, my hands folding a tea towel, or whatever is happening. I perform the necessary action, feeling desire and aversion but without being pushed or pulled by them. It feels like I am truly living, really surfing the wave of being alive, even if I’m just opening a cupboard, or peeling a sticky note from its pad.

This state is very obvious when it’s happening. I’m not sure if it’s what the Stoics refer to as ataraxia, or eudaimonia, or some other named quality. It’s certainly productive, but it’s also tranquil, meaningful, free of guilt, and it casts everything that happens in a beautiful light (sometimes literally) like a lovingly shot film.

At times I can’t locate this state, so I try to go through the motions of Stoic living, which is difficult, but better than collapsing into habit. Sometimes hearing or reading the right kernel Stoic wisdom at the right time precipitates this state. Other times I feel like I’m fishing around in murky water for something that is isn’t there.

It is definitely real though. It keeps coming back, so I’m trying to figure out what conditions give rise to it. One thing that seems to be strongly associated with it is a particular way of viewing the world visually, which I’ve been practicing haphazardly for many years. I watch the moment unfolding – my hands hanging up my jacket, my pencil forming words — as though it is a memory, or some kind of privileged glimpse of life, from a time and place where such things don’t happen –- such as the eons of non-aliveness that stretch on after death or before life begins. This way of seeing instills the moment, no matter how dull by ordinary standards, with a sense of preciousness. The hanging up of the coat, with all its sensory richness, deserves my full attention, because it could just as easily not be happening. I believe this sense of preciousness is what makes Stoic living so intuitive to maintain, when you’ve hit that groove – logically, it’s a no-brainer to appreciate the moment, and your chance to live it well, when it seems special that a moment is happening at all.

This is a very specific kind of gratitude – not for any particular event or thing but for the fact that you are experiencing events and things, and you could easily not be.

I’ve written about other ways to achieve this point of view fleetingly (here, here, and here for example) and I suspect the resulting state was a large part of what motivated the Stoics. This experiment is helping me slowly zero in a way to live from it nearly all the time.

The sages really were onto something – not just a more rational way to conduct yourself, but a moment-to-moment way of being that changes everything about what it is like to live a human life. I feel like a detective, combing through the evidence centuries later, picking up on the scent.

Days Eleven to Thirteen

Two excellent weeks almost in the books now. I’m still getting a lot out of each day, but I have noticed a quiet reversion of habits creeping in.

Existing habits are like water to a fish, so they can advance quite far without any sense that you’ve drifted away from the original course. Today I noticed how much less “stoic” my behavior has been in the last few days than earlier on, even though both days were filled with many moments of practice and insight. I’ve kind of started coasting a bit.

Basically, I’ve had to switch to a new strategy, but hadn’t done it consciously, so I was kind of drifting. When I began the experiment, it was with a very clear vision of how I wanted to live my hours and days, and my strategy was to attempt to embody that vision unceasingly. Of course I wouldn’t always succeed, but I would always aim for that ideal in every moment – mistakes were okay, but no conscious concessions.

After having practiced for a few weeks, this approach doesn’t seem to make sense, because (as I’ve discovered) there are a lot of times when I simply have no intention of trying to be perfectly Stoical, or I can’t find the mindset and can only go through the motions, which leads to resentment and possibly rebellion.

It seems to me that you not only have to practice Stoic alignment in each moment, but you have to cultivate an appetite for practice as the same time. It’s analogous to physical exercise. You begin wanting to just go, go, go – You think you’re willing to run till you drop, and lift till you can’t lift any more. And for a while you might. But to make it sustainable, you have to develop not only the skills and conditioning to exercise that much, but the desire to be that active in the long term, because otherwise you’ll have a day where you’re supposed to run ten miles, but you simply refuse to enact your own plan – the intention is just not there to max out your effort.

Instead, I’ve moved to a different approach that seems more promising. I adopt the Stoic mindset whenever it is available, and practice moment-to-moment as a default. When I can’t locate the mindset or intention to do that, I do short, intentional periods of practice, many times throughout the day. For example, I’ll practice for the time it takes to do the dishes, to walk to the store. After that, I’m allowed to drop intentional practice. Often I keep going anyway, but at least it no longer feels like I’m trying to do something indefinitely that I can’t do indefinitely.

(Incidentally, this is exactly the approach I tell people to use for meditation – practice for short periods and string them together, shrinking the gaps over time, so that you’re repeatedly succeeding instead of repeatedly failing.)

So far this has worked well. I can bridge the gaps in intention with these smaller, more achievable stretches, and soon enough the inclination for perpetual practice returns.

I’ll clarify what I mean by “practicing” because its elements are pretty clear to me now. When I’m practicing Stoicism moment to moment, primarily I am attempting to:

  • Do the thing that makes the most sense to do right now
  • While attending to it fully (i.e. not splitting my attention or thinking about anything else)
  • While practicing equanimity towards the experience of it
  • While appreciating the fact that I am having an experience at all

Practicing equanimity means allowing all aspects of experience (feelings, sensations, impressions, etc) to come and go without resisting the unpleasant or grasping at the pleasant. I’ve written about it here.

There’s a lot more to Stoic practice this, but this summarizes the default mode of operation as I interpret it.  

Days Fourteen to Nineteen

The experiment is still going well, despite some hiccups, which I will discuss below.

On mental quiet

Firstly, I can say that this experiment has brought me to a new place with respect to quiet-of-mind — i.e. absence of mental monologuing and rumination. Even during the times my meditation practice has been the strongest, I’ve never quite had this much mental quiet. The reason is that it is impossible to entertain an irrelevant mental monologue while you are attempting to do something with full attention. The Stoic intention to attend fully to the task conflicts directly with habitual monologuing, so I just drop it.

What’s interesting is that all my years of mindfulness practice did not achieve this effect. There’s no question my practice experience is what is allowing me to have such good results on this front, but novice-level Stoic practice did something veteran-level mindfulness practice didn’t do, at least in my particular brain. I’ve spent a lot of time on meditation retreats with similar levels of mental quiet, but in daily life, the monologuing quickly reasserts itself, because it isn’t as directly necessary.

On health and medication challenges

This week has been a bit weird. My medication is giving me a side effect so I spent some of the week off it, and the difference kind of throws me for a loop, physically and emotionally. At least a couple of days this week came with low mood and a fair amount of “all bets are off” state, with similar results to what I described in the Day 8-9 update. With these kinds of drastic shifts in mood and outlook, it’s hard to settle into a mode of operation with respect to practicing Stoicism. Different kinds of effort are required at different times, and what’s possible behaviorally or emotionally keeps changing, so it’s hard to calibrate.

I have been more successful in bringing the tools of Stoicism to the challenges of practicing Stoicism itself, if that makes sense. I’ve become less strict with myself, with makes it surprisingly easier to practice consistently. The first few days I was managing a pretty strict moment-to-moment commitment to living Stoically, which was incredible, but impossible to sustain. Since then I’ve given myself a much longer leash, which means I drift into a state where I feel like it’s become impossible to “practice” as I know it, and have to bide my time until I locate the mindset or mood to practice more diligently.

On reading and writing Stoic wisdom

Reading and listening to and about the Stoics has been tremendously helpful in keeping the philosophy close to mind. I will often play my audio version of Meditations throughout the day, a few passages at a time. I read at least one installment from Epictetus’s Discourses each day, often on my deck with a cup of tea, and I try to read a daily letter from Seneca. I’m also reading Bill Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life.

I’m also journaling a lot about my experiences, using a typewriter, which really helps me keep my thoughts clear and intentional compared to a computer. This journaling is helping me to articulate exactly what it is I’m trying to do, which helps me remember to do it in the moment. It also helps me work out what my challenges are and what I might try differently. I see why Marcus Aurelius wrote the Meditations. He was reminding himself of what he wouldn’t be able to remember if he kept it in his head.

Days Twenty to Twenty-three

As I round the corner towards the end of the experiment, I want to reflect on its overall arc. I’ve reached what I think is a pretty good cruising trajectory with Stoicism, although I also want to ramp it up. I’ll explain what I mean.

During my first few days of the experiment, I came at the day intending to practice in every moment, and felt reasonably successful in this. I tried to live the whole day in this manner:

  • Doing whatever the moment called for (according to my most honest assessment)
  • Doing it with undivided attention and intention
  • Practicing equanimity with my experience while doing this thing

The results were very powerful. But after a few days I ran into trouble. At first I was struggling to find the mindset of living this way, which seemed so obvious and intuitive at first. My solution, when I couldn’t locate the mindset, was to go through the motions the best I can, periodically asking myself “Is this how I intend to spend my life?” or “Is the why I’m on this earth?” to consciously examine my actions.

Then I started to struggle with the intention issue. You can’t do something you don’t intend to do, and you can’t will yourself to generate an intention, or if you can I don’t know how. As far as I can tell, you can only cultivate and nurture your better impulses, which has the effect of generating intentions more in alignment with your values. This to me is totally in the spirit of Stoicism, although I’m not as confident as the ancients that we have complete control of our will.

Lulls in intention are a major thing with ADHD. The brain is short on the engagement/intention-related chemical dopamine, and it can feel like you’re just on the outside of the possibility of intentional living. It is very hard to describe.

My response has been to use external supports as much as possible, and using practice periods, where I will take a task and practice doing it in the fully Stoic manner, then let up the efforting at the end. I repeat this all day. This has worked well – it’s like interval training for the cardinal virtues.

I said I want to “ramp it up.” If I go back to the “first principles expressed in my blog post, my original goal was to make myself into a quasi-religious devotee of Stoicism, and that’s still my goal. I mean “quasi-religious” in a positive way – devoting myself to Stoicism the way some people devote themselves to athletics, academics, or their church — I don’t mean I want to become a zealot.

To the extent I can accomplish this level of devotion, it makes sense to me, because everything else I truly value flows from the Stoic mindset – social connection, doing important work, mindfulness, appreciating without indulging, and many other (more subtle) habits and personal qualities. Devoting myself to Stoicism is the same as devoting myself to everything that’s important to me.

One thing I haven’t done, which would be an important first step, is establish solid morning and evening routines. The typical Stoic morning reflection involves looking forward to the day, perhaps doing negative visualization, or the view from above, and committing oneself anew to doing the work of a human. The evening reflection consists of three questions: What did I do well today? What could I have done better? What will I do differently tomorrow? I have done this haphazardly but it should be at least as regular as brushing my teeth. (Maybe I should tie it into my dental hygiene routine.)

I have begun adding to my daily plan (I plan each day on a sheet of looseleaf) a little section at the bottom with a variety of Stoic practices and tasks, including readings. Beside each is a checkbox, or really a circle that I fill in, like on a multiple choice test, if I do it. Most of them take a few minutes (do a negative visualization, do a task with end-to-end Stoic intention, read a chapter of Discourses) so whenever I’m not sure what to do next, I do one of them. I really get a lot out of filling in the circles. It has added many more Stoic-philosophy touchstones throughout the day. The mindset stays with me and the momentum keeps up too.

I’m a week away from the end of the 30 days, but I will absolutely continue to live this way. I think I will also continue to update this log, because it helps me sort out my thoughts and people seem to appreciate the updates.   

Really feeling like I’m in a great place for this final week.

***

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{ 42 Comments }

Paulo Roberto Fleury April 12, 2021 at 6:12 am

So, you HAVE to look for activities that are “useful” or “virtuous” regarding society values? I mean, if I like to do stuff alone, wouldn’t it be a good use of my time if I do them anyway? There’s no moral or ethical compromise in not taking everything to the social level. Or is the Stoic approach mainly about relating to others? I’ll read more about it.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 1:51 pm

Hi Paulo. It’s not really a have to — I don’t have to do anything. I just want to live more intentionally. The cardinal virtues in Stoicism are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They are based on the philosophy’s view of what is good, and aren’t necessarily society’s values. I have my own sense of what those virtues mean to me, and I think that’s essential for each Stoic practitioner to have.

If you want to learn more about it, William B. Irvine’s site is great. He has a series of very short posts on what Stoicism is about:

https://www.williambirvine.com/21stcenturystocism

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michael smit April 12, 2021 at 11:11 am

Oh, I like this. I’m starting the first day of university pre-req courses today. I’m an adult student, so I’m going to be building some new habits.

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 1:53 pm

Hey Michael. Good timing! Best of luck in the new term.

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Brian Storey April 12, 2021 at 12:58 pm

I’m with you on this journey David.
Brian

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David Cain April 12, 2021 at 1:52 pm

Excellent! Feel free to post your experiences in the comments on this page, or link to them if you post them online elsewhere.

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Peg April 12, 2021 at 5:56 pm

This resonates with me so much. Especially as my life goes on ever so quickly, it seems. I appreciate hearing some ideas that I can see myself using to feeling more intentional, purposeful, peaceful–in short, living without regret. Doing my best, in the moment, feeling deeply satisfied that I’m living a full and meaningful life. I’ve felt all this fairly often, I suppose, but I am feeling stronger about needing to do better if I want to at least maintain but even more grow stronger in all this. Looking forward to hearing more and I would like to practice this too these 30 days! I’ve been making stabs at all this but you’ve described a process that seems simple and real and possible. I’ll be 68 next month and always loving learning.

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:57 am

I recommend reading a bit about it from other sources too. It’s not complicated but I’ve found that different authors come to it from different angles, which will resonate with different people.

My current favorite contemporary author is William B Irvine, who has written some really down-to-earth blog posts on practicing Stoicism here. Donald Robertson is also excellent. Then there’s the primary sources, namely the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Discourses by Epictetus, and Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. All are public domain and freely available.

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Alexandre Meirelles April 12, 2021 at 9:03 pm

just saw your other post at reddit
i started this month my stoic journal, á lá Marcus Aurelius
answering 3 questions at night – this could guide in your reflections too

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:45 am

One of today’s tasks is to define my evening reflection. There are a few versions out there, but I like the idea of three questions you can ask yourself about how the day went and what I could have done differently. That way it’s simple enough to remember.

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Edith April 12, 2021 at 10:44 pm

This is the first day in like forever that I have not watched videos on my phone during the day. I have fully experienced washing the dishes, going to the bathroom, taking a shower, eating, and organizing. I thought I’d die of boredom but no, I felt relaxed and aware and more alive. I hope I can continue the experiment alongside. Thank you for this post. If I succeed, it can change my life.

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:47 am

Excellent. I have fallen into this habit too over the last year, as I suspect many of us have. Just living really can be enough.

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Edith April 14, 2021 at 10:35 pm

Thank you for responding. I felt a bump in this third day too. And I live in a hot and sunny place. I believe maybe it is due to the very human need for variety that videos used to provide, so instead of working at the computer I worked at networking and enjoyed that quite a bit. I tried not to feel guilty. It felt similar to working past my pomodoro timer alarm and getting distracted due to tiredness, but in 24 hour chunks instead of 25 minute periods. Let’s see if my controlled escape improves tomorrow’s productivity.

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Ak April 13, 2021 at 2:01 am

I’m interested in the “this maybe the last time” idea. I’ve thought that about this before, but I wonder if it makes me (us?) a bit maudlin, particularly when it comes to last moments as my child grows up. What’s your thoughts on this?

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David Cain April 13, 2021 at 9:52 am

I it’s a matter of how you go about it. The point is not to indulge in a kind of teary-eyed sentimentality, it’s to recognize that all of these expected and routine experiences are worth something. You look at the experience before you aware that it is or may be the last time, and its value becomes a lot more obvious. If this were the last time you’d sit at your kitchen table and drink coffee, how would you attend to it? You probably wouldn’t spend it ruminating or reading the side of the cereal box.

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Deirdre April 13, 2021 at 8:07 am

I love this.

I will be a (somewhat) quiet observer and cheering you on from the sidelines.

Once my life settles down I will give this a try but until then I will take snippets of it. I already experience that feeling of complete happiness while doing most of the things that are my life. Thanks for pointing that out now I’ll lean into it a little more.

I have a tendency to get side tracked and waste time.

Thank you for sharing.

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David Cain April 14, 2021 at 10:08 am

Thank you for your sideline cheering Deirdre, it is appreciated!

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Ashley Kung April 13, 2021 at 4:02 pm

I want to try this experiment. I find it very difficult to start and maintain habits over time, so, maybe having you and others doing this at the same time will help me. I’ll be happy if I manage even 5 minutes of Stoicism a day. Unrelated to this, I removed Reddit and Facebook from my phone and turned off Google Discover, so that will probably help too, lol. Thank you for providing resources in your comments above.

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David Cain April 14, 2021 at 10:07 am

Here’s my take, which you can feel free to ignore, because it might just be me. One thing I’ve learned from these experiments is that changing habits works best when I make a kind of dramatic leap rather than wading in. Habit forces are so strong that they will squeeze out smaller changes in a matter of time — 5 minutes of Stoic intentions can’t survive if it is surrounded by 23 hours and 55 minutes of habitual living, at least in my life. When I’ve got something I want to try, I seize on the enthusiasm while it’s still present, and dive in with an experiment like this. Even if I return a lot of the way afterward, the old habits never entirely reclaim the territory, because life was too different for too long to revert completely.

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Ashley April 14, 2021 at 5:04 pm

I appreciate this, I will try going all in on it. After all, Stoicism is a philosophy for living, period, not a philosophy for how to live only 1% of the time. Marcus Aurelius must be shaking his head at me lol

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Calen May 2, 2021 at 4:44 pm

David & Ashley,

This is a really interesting exchange. I wanted to offer a short thought on it.

A couple authors I know of advocate the opposite of what David suggested here. They suggest that if you approach building a habit like stoicism with the intention to do a very small unit of work every day (with permission to do more if you feel like it), it’s actually a very effective route to long-term habit change.

I’ve tried this, in fact – I built a writing habit this way, working my way from a pattern of sporadic note-taking to one where I produce a (mostly) consistent 500-1500 words per day, every day, following that advice. The idea is that consistency itself – even in something ridiculously small – helps to slacken the mental “knot” that holds people back from behavioral change. So, if you commit to an incredibly tiny goal that doesn’t leave you depleted, and couple it with the intention to do *at least* that much each day, and ask yourself afterwards how much more you’re willing to do, then you can organically grow a habit instead of forcing it. Whether it’s 5 minutes a day, or one sentence a day (e.g. my writing), or one push-up a day (for an exercise habit), or one tooth a day (for flossing), if you plant a seed but leave yourself open to do more, you’ll eventually find you do more – often more than you imagined you could.

The thing is, I know that what David says is true, as well, because his description of going all-in has been my experience many times before with many other forms of habit change. Wholeheartedness makes things simpler and makes it possible to get the full experience of something like stoicism, or exercise, or meditation, etc… – but I’ve found that it’s unsustainable (for me) for more than a few months, and isn’t helpful for enacting a permanent change (except in the sense David mentions above, where aspects of it still linger in my life afterwards).

David has actually described incredibly well in his experiment log above what it feels like for me (especially in days 4, 5, 6 and 7). I can often work on something for several months with complete commitment, only to see it fall apart at the three month mark because of a change in my environment. And then it feels impossible to find the thread again, at least for another month or two.

I’m not sure exactly what I’m hoping to communicate with this, except perhaps that there’s more space for you to continue growing if the wholehearted approach burns out after a while. And one of the most important things in all of this is that a good dose of forgiveness makes the process of change much smoother, no matter what method of change you are trying.

Also, to David – the specific way you describe the waxing and waning of your own motivation often sounds eerily like my own experiences. Except it’s probably not eerie, because we’re both human and I think it’s probably a common (but poorly articulated) occurrence. I’ve never seen people try to map out these motivation “modes,” however; yours is the only writing that I’ve seen that really describes, in an experiential way, that sort of “all bets are off” state – which I’m incredibly familiar with. I’m trying to figure out now if there’s a useful way to map that terrain so that it becomes easier for people to talk about and compare their own experiences.

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Calen May 2, 2021 at 4:45 pm

Welp, in retrospect that thought was not short.

Brandon April 14, 2021 at 7:17 am

Hi David,

Cliché that I’m a long-time reader but first time commenter (unless you count an email years back haha).

This is coming at an ideal moment in my life. I fell out of a really good spell of my life that was marked by the interwoven practice of mindfulness and stoicism – letting “doing the work of a human being” be enough (and very satisfying). And it’s been a struggle to get back to it. This post and experiment log sharply articulated my desire, and re-aligned and inspired me just a bit. Unsure if this will make sense, but it brought me experientially back to one of my favorite adages: “everything is everything”. Back to the present, the only place we live our life. Back to the ability to control the inner narrative about the present.

Great read, and I will be here throughout this experiment with intrigue! :)

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David Cain April 14, 2021 at 10:16 am

Hey Brandon. That’s great — I hope we can all benefit from each others’ intentions here.

I think I understand what you mean by “everything is everything” but tell me if I’m missing it. Each thing we do amounts to living the only life we have. Everything that is important comes in the form of a moment to be lived well.

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Brandon Swann April 14, 2021 at 1:24 pm

(Ope! Totally just commented again instead of replying. Feel free to delete my now duplicate and severed reply down below lol).

I think it’s koan-ish, which means you and I could have totally different but meaningful perceptions. I like your approach! Here are my own two cents (but, let me be clear, this isn’t my phrase as I heard of it from the great Lauryn Hill):

(1) Everything is everything, meaning literally all matter in the universe is composed of the same stuff. Ala Watts’ “You are the universe experiencing itself”; (2) Everything is everything, akin to amor fati. Things are much larger than me, despite me being a part of it all, and I would do well to go with the tidal waves of life; (3) Everything is everything, meaning that our life is an omnipresent moment here and now only. The interconnectedness of all time, our time, makes each instant vital. In relation to this experiment, it also means that our approach to ‘menial things’, like taking out the trash or washing dishes, likely has a lot more to do with how we do everything, like working with others, listening, creating, etc, than we may imagine.

The last point part in particular I connect to your writing, “Stoic practice does take a kind of all-in attitude. You have to intend to bring it to all the day’s moments, not just some, otherwise you’re back to the old do-good-vs-feel-good balancing act again.” When I truly feel like I am cognizant and acting on “everything is everything”, I feel almost baptized in the flow state across my experience.

Know this has been rambly and maybe too idiosyncratic. Fingers crossed I made some sense.

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Brandon April 14, 2021 at 1:21 pm

I think it’s koan-ish, which means you and I could have totally different but meaningful perceptions. I like your approach! Here are my own two cents (but, let me be clear, this isn’t my phrase as I heard of it from the great Lauryn Hill):

(1) Everything is everything, meaning literally all matter in the universe is composed of the same stuff. Ala Watts’ “You are the universe experiencing itself”; (2) Everything is everything, akin to amor fati. Things are much larger than me, despite me being a part of it all, and I would do well to go with the tidal waves of life; (3) Everything is everything, meaning that our life is an omnipresent moment here and now only. The interconnectedness of all time, our time, makes each instant vital. In relation to this experiment, it also means that our approach to ‘menial things’, like taking out the trash or washing dishes, likely has a lot more to do with how we do everything, like working with others, listening, creating, etc, than we may imagine.

The last point part in particular I connect to your writing, “Stoic practice does take a kind of all-in attitude. You have to intend to bring it to all the day’s moments, not just some, otherwise you’re back to the old do-good-vs-feel-good balancing act again.” When I truly feel like I am cognizant and acting on “everything is everything”, I feel almost baptized in the flow state across my experience.

Know this has been rambly and maybe too idiosyncratic. Fingers crossed I made some sense.

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Woollyprimate April 14, 2021 at 5:33 pm

Well, day 1 of my 2 day experiment was a total bust! I can’t settle on a thing to do, I have too much to do and don’t know where to start, so I watched YouTube videos and napped while waiting for inspiration to strike, which it didn’t.

So, all my energy right now is going toward preventing my mental chatter death spiral. So far, so good!

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Richard Kerr April 15, 2021 at 3:05 am

This might just be the most powerful post I’ve ever read. It hit me like a ton of bricks. For years I’ve had a vague, background, wandering listlessness feeling that I’m not making the most of my life. I was always searching for the activity or experience that would resolve it. The answer wasn’t to find the right “activity” it was to do everything with the right intention. I’m on day 3 and it’s felt transformative already. Amazing David. You’re a legend!

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David Cain April 16, 2021 at 12:26 pm

Great to hear! Keep us posted.

Yeah I think it is more the motivation behind our actions that matters than precisely what we do. And luckily motivation is easier to figure out than the right course of action in every circumstance.

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Nicholas April 15, 2021 at 6:07 am

Intentionality and intentional living have been priorities for myself and my family for many years now. It is always good to return to it with renewed commitment, as you are doing in these 30 days. I am sure you will reap the fruits, as we have. After just 11 years of married life, we moved into our dream 5+ acre ranch property in the country last week, mortgage free, while living on a single income and raising and homeschooling 6 kids. Looking back, it’s really through intentional living and meaningful and purposeful use of time that we achieved this goal. And I am the same age as you, 40 going on 41. Certainly gratifying in hindsight. I wish you all the best in living a purposeful and purpose-filled life!

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Catherine April 15, 2021 at 3:11 pm

David, never commented before but after reading ‘the ancient art of using time well’ and now following your journey with Stoicism I just had to say something. Been following you years and I just seem to click with your thinking. Have been interested in Stoicism for a long while and was so excited that you were going to do this trial.
I do hope you write a ‘help’ or ‘info’ guide for others once you complete it.
Keep going mentor!

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David Cain April 16, 2021 at 10:02 am

Hi Catherine. I actually just published a “Starter Kit for the Stoicism-Curious” for my Patreon subscribers, and I decided to unlock it for the duration of the experiment so everyone can make use of it. You can find it here:

Starter Kit for the Stoicism-Curious

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Catherine April 23, 2021 at 6:54 am

Thank you for sharing your ‘Starter Kit’. The resources you give have been a great help to start my learning of Stoicism. Donald Robertson’s site is definitely a gold mine! Thank you once again David.

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Nina April 21, 2021 at 4:02 pm

It sounds like this experiment has been transformational for you already. I am definitely a restless, addicted-to-distraction person who would probably benefit a lot from trying this… but I don’t quite know how I’d survive my work days as a bored civil servant without constantly opening unrelated tabs, so…

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David Cain April 25, 2021 at 4:05 pm

Websurfing at a boring job might just be what the Gods intended!

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Bishop April 24, 2021 at 9:24 am

I love how deep you’re diving into your own experience while trying to apply stoicism. It is helping me understand my own struggles with hedonism and procrastination. You bring words to feelings I couldn’t describe.

I’m wondering if your practicing compassion in the nadirs of equanimity? You wrote a great piece on it before (https://www.raptitude.com/2015/09/all-you-need-is-love-seriously/) and I recognize a similar utility in stoicism that you touch on in your compassion piece.

Could love/compassion practice/metta be another tool to use in some of those moments when the logic/rationality of stoicism can’t rescue us from those moments in “the murky water”. I’d love to hear you’re thoughts on this.

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David Cain April 25, 2021 at 4:04 pm

Hi Bishop. I haven’t touched much on the social element of Stoicism, but it is historically a big part of the picture, and compassion is central to that.

More specifically, the technique in the post you linked is something I’ve been doing instinctively over the past two weeks. Not only does bringing love to a given moment soften judgments towards the self and others, but it is a powerful way of keeping you attention where it should be. If I want to really attend to the dishes, for example, doing them lovingly makes the attention/intention element fall into place.

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Girt April 25, 2021 at 7:34 pm

Your insights always bring up so much for me that I usually don’t post since I can’t order my thoughts with enough clarity. But, inspired by your recent posts (which did give me the same ‘aha’ as so many other readers), I will attempt to convey an insight you have given me with this latest experiment.

I am a mother of three children (two now teenagers) and at first I really struggled with the transition of juggling career and homelife. I have known for many years that being the best mother I can be has forced me to develop characteristics which are extremely rewarding but very difficult. You have made me realise that I have had to ‘practice Stoic alignment in each moment’ as a survival strategy for many years.

The consistent attention and task-intensity of parenting is relentless, unpredictable and demanding. Let alone adding in the needs of a job, other interests and life-stuff. Using as much wit as I could muster, I have come up with many techniques over the years to manage the demands and minimise the pain … many engineering-based strategies e.g. substituting capital for labor and developing household processes which require little thought to keep everyone going. But ultimately, there are still so many human interventions required that doing the tasks with absolute intention and commitment was the only sensible option.

Needless to say, these short bursts have become second nature over the years. I intentionally shift to a mode of intense dedication with ease, when there are things to be done. Also, though, I know that I can’t do it after 7pm and I am ‘off duty’ then.

You have given me a new framework to understand this mode … my Stoic mode …. two superpowers in two weeks gifted by you, the amazing David Cain!!!

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David April 26, 2021 at 9:26 am

Hi Girt. Bill Irvine has invented the term “congenital Stoics” to describe people who have naturally found their way to operating in a Stoic manner, even if they were not consciously practicing Stoicism. Then they discover the Stoic framework and get a lot out of it, because it makes so much sense to them.

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RJA April 26, 2021 at 5:18 am

Thanks for doing and writing about these experiments! How does simple enjoyment come into this and isn’t there a risk that something is lost if one’s life is seen as an unending quest for the most productive action in every single moment? Could this heroic view of life lead to chronic stress, dissatisfaction and paradoxically being slightly absent from the many little, non-heroic moments of life? Or can there be a harmony where full attention and the stoic mindset is being brought to bear both on productive action and on leisure and mindless, random life moments?

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David April 26, 2021 at 9:31 am

Hi RJA. It’s not really about being productive in every moment, it’s about doing what makes sense in every moment given your values. That includes rest when rest is appropriate, leisure when leisure is appropriate, and so on. The key is to be honest about what is appropriate.

Harmony is the explicit goal. Living this way is supposed to lead to less stress and dissatisfaction, and greater presence for little moments.

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Cari May 5, 2021 at 1:51 pm

I am reading this with a lot of interest and appreciation for your thoughtful reflection about how your inner state impacts how possible (or advisable) it feels to hold yourself to the plan on any given day. It sparked a thought for me related to how I sometimes try to manage this for myself, which I call “treat yourself like a toddler.” As in: we’re not going to let the toddler eat cotton candy all day, but we’re also not going to yell at the toddler if she’s exhausted and close to a tantrum. We’re going to aim for what’s possible right now.

I’m a therapist who thinks a lot about this question of how we relate to ourselves and our goals, and my stray thought about the toddler thing in relation to what you’ve described here brought to mind an idea used a lot in my field, the “good enough mother” (or parent — this idea is from Winnicott and was coined in the 50’s). The idea is that for a child to internalize a solid, reliable sense of agency as well as trust in others, parental attunement doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be “good enough.” So I think what I’m suggesting by way of analogy here is maybe your goal of looking for that delicate balance between the best / most virtuous option and what is actually possible on a given day with your current human (i.e., non-robot) capacity could already be “good enough.” Maybe it could already be the thing you need to start feeling more agency and to trust yourself and your choices more.

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