Instead of Goals, Try Creating Stoic Rules

Instead of Goals, Try Creating Stoic RulesRules can simply your life. They can make it easier to live virtuously. To develop as a person. To strive to become better. In this post I explore a few ideas to base your rules around key Stoic principles. Rules for living a virtuous life. Something that Stoics were especially interested in.

Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself abide by them as they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them. Don’t regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the distinctions of reason? You have received the philosophical theorems, with which you ought to be familiar, and you have been familiar with them. What other master, then, do you wait for, to throw upon that the delay of reforming yourself? … Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law.(50) – Epictetus, The Enchiridion (c. 135)

I enjoy creating a handful of straightforward rules to live by. These remove some of the daily decision making which frees my brain for more important thoughts. While these few rules keep my life simple they change from time to time depending on my circumstances. Changes include what I’m working on, who I plan to be with, where I am and what else is going on. I also ensure that if I have to flex ro bend a rule on occasion then I don’t give myself a hard time. Sure, I try to stick to them but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t.

Rules Not Goals

These ideas about rules came from my thoughts on goals. I’ve written a lot on how I believe that, as humans, we love to make goals. Goals which when we don’t meet them lead to disappointment and unhappiness. Despite this fact we just can’t help ourselves: we love to set goals. We all tend to take an optimistic stance when embarking on setting a new goal. This generally means we’re completely unrealistic about what we can achieve. Over time our initial optimism bleeds into a slow realisation that the desired outcome won’t materialise. Perhaps other more important activities get in the way? Or the pressures of life prevent us from doing everything we planned for? Whatever the reason I’d like to propose that to meet our desire for goals, we use rules instead. These are rules for living a virtuous life. Something that Stoics were especially interested in.

Putting It Into Practice

So how would this work in practice? A rule in this context is an activity you do in response to a trigger. A trigger can be a time of day or a specific event which drives movement and action.

Here’s an example:

  • Morning meditation: When I wake up, I make a coffee. When I’m drinking it contemplate that by the end of the day you may lose a loved one. Or a possession that has great value or benefit. Or that people who you care about may suffer in an unpleasant way. Perhaps today will be my last? Perhaps I won’t wake up tomorrow. This triggers feelings of gratitude <link> for that which Nature has provided me with today. Being mindful that it may take it all back at a moment’s notice

So in this example, over time the coffee begins to trigger the desired thoughts. As does the time of day too. While this isn’t a goal, as such, using this simple rule will make you much happier than trying to think positive thoughts first thing in the morning.

Ideas for Stoic Rules

I follow three rules: Do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care - Lou Holtz

I follow three rules: Do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care – Lou Holtz

I recommend basing your own rules around key Stoic principles. Use the core virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and temperance. Or use the following to help guide your thoughts:

  • Assume that all things beyond our influence or control mean nothing to us. Some are nonetheless preferred and others the opposite.
  • The past has gone, the future is yet to arrive. Realise that we command only the present moment.
  • Unless you have a medical condition, then you alone command your judgements and emotions. Give assent to those impressions that accord with nature.
  • Embrace your mortality as part of our nature.
  • Recognise that equanimity comes from within.
  • Base happiness on our thoughts or actions, not on the thoughts and actions of others.
  • Everything that we have is but a flowing stream:

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. – Lao-Tzu

  • Perfection isn’t something that is possible. But we should try to strive for virtue. Don’t beat yourself up is when you fall short.
  • If you have a virtuous disposition then this creates a foundation for good fortune. Good fortune is not created by chance or what other people do or don’t decide to do.
  • Reflect not only on how our minds function but also on how the world work. This assists in being more in accord with nature.
  • Humans are social creatures. Attempt to be kind to everyone, even those who are unkind to us. They are unkind because they are ignorant of the good.
  • All our actions should be resolute. Base actions on reason. Ensure these are measured and dignified.

Tips for Effective Rule Implementation

Slowly you’ll find out which rules work for you and which don’t. Which rules are helpful and which provide little or no benefit. Throw the rules which aren’t helping away, keep the useful ones.

Don’t overthink what rules you should or shouldn’t have. Excessive thinking leads to less action, you’ll get stuck and go round in circles. Of course, some thinking is good. It creates a clear picture of where you’re going but remember, most of the time its better to just do. Too much planning will get you nowhere. Take that first small step and don’t worry about perfection. Perfectionism is the enemy of action.

Also, I don’t think you should put lots of rules into practice all at the same time. I suggest trying one new rule each week. Make the focus of the week putting that one single rule into practice. The following week, try another. Also, make each rule small and easy to do. Some rules may need a change in environment, others might need accountability.

Rules are small steps, small triggers that cumulatively grow to become large positive changes. What one rule can you create today that will have a big impact on your life? Leave a comment below:

Photo credit:
TheeErin via / CC BY-ND

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3 thoughts on “Instead of Goals, Try Creating Stoic Rules

  1. While being a high achiever I’ve done so without setting rigorous goals which contradicts the advice of success coach’s. Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) talks about having systems rather than goals which is similar to your advice. I agree that goals can be rigid & frustrating as well as unsatisfying in that as soon as you reach your desired goal you have to set a greater one. If we live our life by rules or systems that become habitual we will meet most of our expectations without the feeling of always questing after “more”.

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