“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.” —Epictetus, Discourses, II.18.4
Here’s a quote from Epictetus that bears repeating: 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… If you don’t want to be cantankerous, don’t feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry.
Marcus Aurelius, like most great men with great responsibilities, was often disappointed by the people around him. They could be frustrating to say the least. Marcus had a problem that many of us have: he had trouble understanding that not every man he came into contact with had his great talents. Heck even most of the emperors before him weren’t worthy to shine his shoe (or sandal, as the case might have been).
But instead of yelling at them or berating those beneath him, more often than not (and yes, he would fail sometimes), Marcus chose control over his temper.
What he did to replace the yelling and screaming was to journal. He would remind himself constantly that the issue at hand is not worthy of his ire. Even the person who may have created the problem was not worthy of his wrath.
How did Marcus come to this level of self-control?
Ernest Renan tells us that “Marcus had a single master whom he revered above them all, and that was Antoninus.” That is who Marcus was striving to be like. As he wrote of his adopted father, “He never exhibited rudeness, lost control of himself, or turned violent… Everything was to be approached logically and with due consideration, in a calm and orderly fashion.”
Marcus learned from Antoninus to take a bad habit or a bad impulse and replace it with a good habit. Marcus never completely got past his own temper. He was, after all, human just like all of us. But he developed the habit of pausing and relaxing his body and mind for a moment to consider the logical and rational response that would elicit the best outcome.
What bad habits are you working on? What can you replace them with? What if you want to smoke? Can you replace that with 10 pushups? What if you want to raid the fridge? Can you replace that with a large glass of water and a 15-minute ‘time-out’ to see if you’re actually hungry?
Epictetus says, “The vice begins to weaken from day one until it is wiped out altogether.” In a nutshell, this won’t be a miracle cure, but it will work, slowly but surely over time.
If you haven’t yet read Marcus Aurelius’ journal, “Meditations”, you should. It is filled with short reflections from Marcus, sometimes only one sentence long. But it is worth the read!
NEW TASK: Figure out what good habit you are going to use to replace a bad habit.
NEW HABIT: Perform that new habit every time you feel like doing a bad habit.