Stoicism: Day 16 – Were the Stoics Masters of Willpower?

I’m beginning to run out of things to say regarding my ice baths. It’s a very predictable routine now. I do it approximately at the same time every day (at least during weekdays) and it has now reached the point where I consider it a habit. Perhaps the more interesting experiment will be when I end the ice baths. Will I be more irritable? Will my work anxiety come back? Or will the benefits I received from consistently doing something mildly uncomfortable pay off in the long term?

I chose the ice baths as part of my Stoicism month as a way to include discomfort in my daily routine. Apparently, this is a technique to build willpower recognized by modern psychologists.

In the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, the authors describe how willpower can be depleted and lead people to lose self-control and make bad decisions. However, they also describe techniques to build willpower and use it judiciously.

One of the most interesting concepts the authors mention is something called the hot-cold empathy gap, which is “the inability, during a cool, rational, peaceful moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during the heat of passion and temptation.”

For example, if you just ate and are completely stuffed, it’s easy to say “I’m going on diet and will give up junk food for the next six weeks.” However, the next time you walk into a grocery store while you’re hungry, you’ll find yourself loading the cart with white corn tortilla chips, peppermint jo-jos, frozen spinach pizza….ok I’ll stop….lest I make an impromptu trip to Trader Joes.

Dan Gilbert, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, calls this concept “Presentism.”

More simply said, most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today, and we find it particularly difficult to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now.

We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing that this is the inevitable result of the Reality First policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it.

Anyone on a diet has experienced this phenomenon, but I find it is especially strong when you are tired.

When my alarm wakes me up in the morning, I am groggy. The last thing I want to do is get out of my nice warm bed and I couldn’t possible imagine putting on my clothes, running out in the 17-degree weather, and going to the gym. Just thinking about my afternoon ice bath is enough to make me curl up in blankets and go back to sleep.

Basically, I project my fatigued state onto my future activities.

Seneca recognized this was true with “diseases of the soul.” When you don’t feel sinful, you can’t imagine that you’ll behave sinfully in the future.

The opposite holds true of diseases of the soul; the worse one is, the less one perceives it. You need not be surprised, my beloved Lucilius. For he whose sleep is light pursues visions during slumber, and sometimes, though asleep, is conscious that he is asleep; but sound slumber annihilates our very dreams and sinks the spirit down so deep that it has no perception of self. Why will no man confess his faults? Because he is still in their grasp; only he who is awake can recount his dream, and similarly a confession of sin is a proof of sound mind.

The Stoics, and the authors of Willpower, had several techniques to help you overcome the hot-cold empathy gap and other failures in willpower.


This technique suggests that you recognize that a future situation may be so overwhelmingly tempting and draining that you find ways before you are in those situations to lock yourself into a “virtuous path.”

The simplest technique is to avoid malicious environments altogether. If you are avoiding gambling, don’t go to the casino. If you are avoiding drinking, don’t go to the bar. Seneca advised staying away from people who partake in vices you are attempting to avoid.

The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue. 

Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world.

This is consistent with the idea that you become like the people you hang around with.

Habit Formation

Habit formation and system building is trendy right now. In Willpower, the authors advocate using willpower to establish good habits, so that when you’re in a situation that requires extraordinary self-control, you can rely on these habits to get you through those situations instead of further depleting your willpower.

Self-control turned out to be most effective when people used it to establish good habits and break bad ones. People with self-control were more likely to regularly use condoms, and to avoid habits like smoking, frequent snacking, and heavy drinking. It took willpower to establish patterns of healthy behavior – which was why the people with more willpower were better able to do it – but once habits were established, life could proceed smoothly, particularly some aspects of life.

It won’t always be a struggle to maintain a health diet or avoiding debauchery. You just need to exercise willpower long enough to establish the habit.

The Stoics advocated establishing many habits, including fasting, imagining the deaths of loved ones, not-responding to insults, etc. in order to prepare yourself for more severe situations should they occur. 

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”  It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

Here’s another one:

Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practised how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen. And since things are all the more serious when they are unfamiliar, continual reflection will give you the power, no matter what the evil may be, not to play the unschooled boy. 

For over a year, I have only eaten one meal per day during the work week. I don’t have breakfast or lunch, but I have a big dinner. I also routinely do a 48-hour fast and I even did a 4.5 day fast.

When my friends skip breakfast or miss lunch, they find the hunger unbearable and become grouchy and can only think about food.

Because I routinely go without food for an extended period of time, I’m much more calm about the experience and know I can endure it.

Seek a Higher Power/Focus on Others  

We are  self-centered creatures. We think about ourselves a lot and what we want and how we can get things.

Unfortunately, focusing on the self can make you weaker.

In fact, I realize that one of the mistakes I made when I was in SEAL training was that I focused too much about myself. I didn’t put in enough effort to focus on the other guys in the class and what they needed from me. I was selfish.

Appropriately, Willpower has an anecdote from a SEAL Officer about this exact thing.

In recalling the fellow survivors of his Hell Week, he points out their one common quality: ‘They had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the ‘fist’ of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart long enough to think about others. 

This attitude is incorporated into the SEAL ethos.

Seneca said as much:

There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common. And no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself. 

Focusing on others is important, but you can also focus on a higher good or higher calling.  The Stoics felt philosophy was the highest calling of man, and felt living according to philosophy was noble. The Stoics often talk about living according to “Nature,” which is a form of something higher and noble.

Whether the truth, Lucilius, lies in one or in all of these views, we must be philosophers; whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defence. She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.

But it is not my purpose now to be led into a discussion as to what is within our own control, —if foreknowledge is supreme, or if a chain of fated events drags us along in its clutches, or if the sudden and the unexpected play the tyrant over us; I return now to my warning and my exhortation, that you should not allow the impulse of your spirit to weaken and grow cold. Hold fast to it and establish it firmly, in order that what is now impulse may become a habit of the mind.

While I love that the US embraces individualism, we must also recognize that individualism has its limits and real-world consequences in terms of your self-control.

Willpower is a quick and interesting read that is a good modern companion to the words of the Stoics. It has furthered my belief that the ancients had a more intuitive understanding of the flaws in human nature and found ways to improve them, without the help of modern science.

But, the science is still interesting, so  pick up a copy if you have time