We all try to seize the beginning of The New Year to commit to bold and lofty ideas. We do this of course because we valorize progressive change and action.

With all the hype around this time, Ironically, I find it crucial to remind myself that an emphasis on getting started, though currently popular, is a bad starting point.

I will draw insight from the first-century stoic philosopher, Epictetus, as to what constitutes the good starting point:

In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist.

Epictetus does not renounce action. Yet, he believes prior to action must come a careful inquiry of what it actually takes for accomplishment.

He puts forth Olympic games as an example. Though enchanting on the surface, closer scrutiny of what it requires to partake in the event reveals that you must:

…conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine.

For the most aspiring ancient athletes, Epictetus implies that such prerequisites would perhaps eclipse the glamor of pursuing the Olympics. But not for everyone as he further adds:

When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war.

I am quite fond of this framework for decision making. Mastering the reality before we commit.

My thrill got amplified when I was recently reviewing studies on increasing willpower. Of the many techniques offered, a particularly potent one is quite akin to Epictetus’s advice. Namely, the if-then plans.

The if-then Plan For Liberating Willpower

Sticking to resolutions requires willpower and willpower is known to be an exhaustible resource.

A smart way to go around the willpower is what psychologists call implementation intention.

The idea is to reduce the amount of time and effort you spend controlling your thoughts and directing your behavior.

You make highly specific plans for automatic behavior in certain situations. For instance, you precisely specify what you will do IF you are tempted by a fattening food at a party.

This method takes a form of if-then:

If x happens, I will do y.

This approach is surprisingly effective and is included in every willpower book you read (Willpower instinct, The marshmallow test, Willpower by Baumeister, etc.)

I find the two following reasons powering such ancient/modern advice:

  • You armor yourself by anticipating the perils and pitfalls along the way. Thus you won’t be caught by surprise facing hardships. Hence not being panicked, your subconscious will not dissuade you from continuing the pursuit.
  • The anticipation of pitfalls and planning for them offloads the cumbersome process of decision-making to automatic processes.

Conclusion

When pondering a bold endeavor, Epictetus teaches:

First master the reality that precedes achieving your goal.

This means that you put aside the allures of your pursuit and embrace the reality of what it actually takes to succeed. I often find this process surprisingly difficult and sobering.

If you acutely attend to this matter, you realize that there are many pursuits for which much knowledge of their reality is readily attainable, yet many ignore this step, jump in, and almost always fail (e.g., writing books, getting hired at a certain company, etc.)

Sometimes we don’t want to know the truth because we already like the plan we have (I run into this problem all the time!).

Most undertakings, if put under scrutiny, will be discarded.

To Epictetus, that’s fine.

What holds significance is that if you stumble upon that rare endeavor for which your affection still holds — even after an acute examination — in the words of Epictetus: “Go to War”

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