How to live by design and not by default — The Stoic Way

Raphael Reiter
July 16, 2023

We all have our defaults, and it doesn’t really matter if they were created by us in the past or by the surrounding influences that guide us to x or y direction. It is time that we take control of our lives, starting with our decisions and our management of time and energy, so that we don’t let ourselves be the victims of whatever “life” imposes on us.

Yes, to certain things we must surrender (mainly events and outcomes of events that are outside of our actionable control), but that surrender, must be also, by design and not by default.

Living by design does not necessarily mean that you cannot put anything on auto-pilot. That would be exhausting and not very effective. We need to design our auto-pilots, as well as design our awareness to our mental and physical actions.

If you don’t design your own life, someone else will

To be clear, if you do not work actively on designing the course of your life, someone else will. That someone else might be a boss, a colleague, a family member. It can be someone that has your best interest at heart, or not. That is irrelevant. That person might even be you, when you fail to act as the best version of yourself, making cowardly and unwise decisions in the course of your life.

Reflect on your mortality

The reason why I am very interested in the way stoic philosopher ponder daily on their mortality, is partly because when we do so, when we deeply internalise the fact that today might be our last day, and this action, this task might be the last thing we do, we completely change our mindset towards what is really important, what is really essential. And so, by reflecting on your mortality, you start feeling the agency needed to start designing your life (or re-designing, improving, self-actualizing). You start having the urge to say no to certain defaults that you would not accept, if you knew you only had 24 hours left to live. That’s a really good thing.

Every breath you take is a near death experience

We often see, in movies or in novels, a hero that lives past a near death experience and starts living his or her life on their own terms, doing what is most important to them: spending time with their families and friends, leaving the soul sucking job with the micro-managing boss, going into nature to breathe in deep the smell of flowers and trees.

Remember, that every breath you take, is a near death experience. That breath might be your last. If you’re young and healthy, sure, the chances are very slim, but they are there anyway. You might choke, your heart might skip an extra beet, you might fall and break your neck. It doesn’t matter how slim the chance, the risk of dying is still there. Use this to your advantage. Take in the momentum of this fact. Of course it’s freaky, and scary. Face that fear, because there is no other choice. If you don’t, then you choose to fight against reality, and I can guarantee you, that you will lose 100% of the time.

“the risk of dying is always there, use this at your advantage” — Raphael Reiter

Take a nap on your death bed today

You don’t have to wait until the very last moment to take a nap on your own death bed. Fluff that pillow and choose your favorite sheet fabrics, because that’s your last stop. Lie down there, right now, just for a few minutes. Close your eyes and imagine what it would feel like. Chances are, if you have lived your life by your own design, there will be fewer regrets than if you have followed every single default imposed upon you. I know that it’s easier said than done, and I also acknowledge the fact that very few people take the time to do this kind of exercise. But you have taken the time to read this article, and I believe that you know the reason why you’ve read so far already.

Remember the wise words of Krishnamutti that once said:

“It is no measure of health to be well adapted to a profoundly sick society.”

Use these words wisely, every day, as you design your life. Take the decisions that are in sync with your values and virtues, and not to what is common in our society. This goes with easy things, such as nutrition and filtering input, to more complex tasks such as designing a lifestyle that might not be the norm to today’s rat race, always on, always faster society, as well as committing to respond to stimulus with virtue, no matter the circumstances, and no matter the repercussions.

Let me know, either in the comments or on twitter, what your first step will be in designing your life, and how the exercises above felt to you.

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