The Stoics on How to Stop Doing Things

The Stoic Way to Find More Time in Your Day

Philosopher Marcus Aurelius urged people to get rid of ‘needless actions.’ Here’s how to do that today.

“I just didn’t have the time.”

That’s one of the most common phrases I hear from my psychotherapy clients who’ve neglected to do the exercises we talked about — things like keeping a record of upsetting thoughts or practicing a mindfulness meditation technique. Over and over again, people call me and apologize uncomfortably for ignoring their homework, as though I’m there to scold them instead of help them.

I can certainly understand being stretched thin right now. We’re all living under pressures we’ve never experienced before. But in my own clinical practice, I’ve found an effective way to help my clients find more time, and that’s to challenge them to stop doing the things that do not serve their deeper goals in life.

It’s a tool I borrowed from the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In Meditations, his collection of writings, Marcus cites a quote from the Greek philosopher Democritus: “Do little if you want contentment of mind.” However, Marcus puts a Stoic twist on this ancient maxim, suggesting that we should do only what is necessary for achieving our fundamental goals in life:

For this will bring not only the contentment of mind that comes from acting aright, but also that which comes from doing little; for considering that the majority of our words and actions are anything but necessary, if a person dispenses with them he will have greater leisure and a less troubled mind.

Marcus describes a very simple technique for achieving this, one that we all can practice: Before engaging in an activity — at least one that might be of questionable value — ask yourself:Is this really necessary?Pause and consider whether doing it will actually be good for your well-being. He writes:

And we should dispense not only with actions that are unnecessary, but also with unnecessary ideas; for in that way the needless actions that follow in their train will no longer ensue.

It’s a powerful strategy that’s not unlike ones we use today in cognitive-behavioral therapy. (I recently wrote about Marcus’ influence on cognitive psychotherapy in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.) Here’s how to do it in practice.

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