What’s the best way to kick a habit? Is it gradual steps – restricting your social media use to three hours a day, then two, then one; gently reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke; monitoring how many bags of crisps you eat? Or going cold turkey: deleting your accounts, throwing your cigarettes away, clearing the cupboards of anything tempting? However you try to resolve habits which dominate, it’s always easier said than done: when Epictetus advises us to ‘adopt new habits…consolidate your principles by putting them into practice’, it’s tempting to admire the sentiment while being daunted by looming practicalities: an ostensibly short attention span, withdrawal symptoms, or a lack of real conviction.
Perhaps another way to break a habit – or, perhaps more realistically, to work with one – is a relatively short period of abstinence. Christians are known to often use the period of Lent to give something up, essentially in order to get in touch with Christ at Easter time and, as told in the Gospels, his temptations in the desert by the Devil for forty days and nights. Lent ends on Easter Sunday; hence, of course, what has become the modern secular tradition of eating chocolate eggs over the Easter weekend (without, presumably, the previous forty days of abstinence).
Giving up a habit or an indulgence for forty days might seem pointless. What happens on Easter Monday? Do you simply continue to overindulge in chocolate, recommence nail biting or take up losing your temper again? The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak: a condition of existence so universal that Jesus’s words in the Gospel of Matthew entered our idiom long ago. However, perhaps some lessons linger and can spark that desire for change.
Forty days of cold turkey – or whatever works – can foster a renewed sense of perspective. We might realise we don’t really need to have a drink every weekend, or discover ways of better restraining impatience. We might even feel different, or feel better; any time taken to step back from life and consider it anew has the power to suggest ways of reconsidering what you value – or even the very fabric of your existence. After all, Easter Sunday is when Christians call to mind the resurrection of Christ; it’s a day of celebrating new life and new beginnings.
The values of self-examination and the desire to form good habits and kick the ones that drag you down are, of course, central to Stoicism and not exclusive to practicing Christians (you might be both, for one thing). As Seneca wrote in Letters from a Stoic (from Richard Mott Gummere’s translation):
I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil — that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.
And Epictetus again, in his Discourses:
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.
Whether it’s a habit that helps or hinders, it will take root if we practice it. One to start with might be what Seneca counselled – to ‘look back upon our own lives’. This is what Lent can allow us to accomplish this Easter: to consider our lives anew after gently prompting ourselves to try out doing things a little differently for a while.
If you feel the need for some extra Stoic assistance, or giving Easter gifts is up your street, here are some gift ideas exclusive to our online store – perhaps to celebrate the end of Lent and exciting beginnings:
Journals: setting aside time every day to write out your thoughts, feelings, and intentions fosters greater self-insight, helps you track habits and gives you a fresh angle on life’s challenges. Our range of lined notebooks are the ideal Stoic companion for yourself or an Easter gift for a creatively minded friend; their encouraging and uplifting quotes can help you write with intention. This notebook features Epictetus’s words: ‘First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.’
Posters: these posters from our Practical Stoic collection are so beautifully designed that you’ll always want to have them in view – all the better to keep their motivational Stoic quotes in mind. Can you imagine a more encouraging gift than this poster exhorting you to ‘Begin at once to live’ (courtesy of Seneca)?
Water bottles: if you’re struggling to find motivation to exercise or stay hydrated, our water bottles are the ideal self-gift, emblazoned with helpful prompts from Stoicism’s greatest minds to give you that extra lift. Our stainless-steel bottle with Seneca’s apt message ‘We suffer more often in imagination than in reality' should always do the job.