Self-Control and Optimizing Environment by Greg Sadler

In the Facebook Stoic Philosophy Group, Natasha Brown recently brought up an interesting issue that goes to the heart of matters central to Stoic philosophy and practice. Her post spurred some excellent and far-ranging discussion, and led me to set down some initial thoughts on the matter in an earlier post in my own main blog. Here’s what she wrote:

The Stoic virtue of self-control has been the one I’ve found consistently most difficult. Whether it’s continuing long-term exercise, eating healthily and so on.

I’m reading James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. He argues self-control isn’t sustainable, and rather we should seek to modify our environment to make it easier/more difficult to perform certain tasks. He says “make the cues of your good habits easier & the cues of your bad habits invisible,” thus, stimulating the desired behaviour. Thoughts?

I promised to discuss the issues involved in greater depth and detail in another post. Making use of my prerogative (and sometimes obligation) to regularly publish pieces here in Stoicism Today, that is what I intend to do in this post.

Natasha’s post also included a brief excerpt from Clear’s book:

Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster the will-power to master your desires every time. Instead of mustering a new dose of will-power whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimizing your environment. This is the secret to self-control.

Upon a first read, I imagine that at least for some, there are aspects or assumptions to Clear’s view that seem problematic. After all, are the challenges that we face either ones that we have to address once or twice, or those we would have to deal with endlessly, with nothing in between? Can’t we call to mind many examples where we may successfully choose over and over again to maintain a commitment, to resist a temptation, or to keep a potential frustration from upsetting us? Every time I work out at the gym, I exercise what Clear calls “will-power” far more than just twice! Most times I drive somewhere, that’s the case as well. Perhaps he’s just framing matters that way for rhetorical effect, though. Maybe he wants to stress our inability to muscle our way through every situation on sheer resoluteness of decision, or “will-power” alone.

One might also ask – and this gets us closer to why a Stoic might find his advice troubling – is it really such a stark choice we have to make between those two options? Either summon up a “new dose of will-power” each time, or instead “optimiz[e] your environment”?

What prevents us from doing both of these? There is no inherent contradiction between them. In fact, optimizing one’s environment itself requires that one exercise some “will-power”, or at least choose and act, so as to systematically change one’s surroundings.

Or perhaps there is a third option available as well? After all, when we act in accordance with a habit we have at least halfway established – a virtue, say – we have a kind of metaphorical inertia carrying us forwards. We don’t have to make a massive effort of willpower every single time, as if we were starting from the proverbial square one.

Is Environmental Optimizing Problematic?

There are a number of reasons why focusing upon improving one’s environment could seem problematic from a modern Stoic perspective.

A natural first place to focus would be on a distinction referenced in earlier Stoic (and other virtue ethics) thinkers, but which is made explicitly central by Epictetus. This is the famous “dichotomy of control,” which sets the things in our control or power, or “up to us” (ep’hemin) on one side, and the things not in our control or power (ouk ep’hemin). This is sometimes reinterpreted as a “trichotomy” by contemporary Stoics (and if you’d like to learn more about these distinctions, you might read this), but the same basic issue would arise from both distinctions.

Epictetus tells us in Enchiridion 1:

. . . in our power are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and in a word, those things that are our own doing. Those that are not under our control are the body, property or possessions, reputation, positions of authority, and in a word, such things that are not our own doing.

He tells us at multiple points that the things not in our control are externals (ta ekta) and indifferents (adiaphora). An intentional, disciplined, Stoic life requires withdrawing our desires and aversions from these matters. We ought to see that these things don’t – or at least shouldn’t – make any contribution to our happiness or misery, or any difference between an overall good moral condition or bad moral condition.

Attempting to modify one’s environment then seems like an unhealthy and ultimately unproductive preoccupation with things that shouldn’t really matter, with matters that are outside of our control. Instead of looking within ourselves, and fixing what is misoriented, damaged, or off-base there, we focus our attention on things without. And in doing so we reaffirm the mistaken perspective that those external things matter, that they determine how we think and feel. And so, we risk undoing whatever progress we are making along the Stoic path.

One could object, of course, that Epictetus didn’t tell us at all that we should totally withdraw from the world, or even our immediate surroundings, or treat external things with indifference. Instead, he wants us to place all things into their proper perspective. He tells us very explicitly that while external things might be indifferents, the ways in which we “use” or “deal with” (khresthai) those things is not indifferent, and actually matters a great deal. He also cautions against thinking that we are further along in our development than we are. So might it not be a good idea to minimize at least some of the temptations and frustrations that we might encounter?

Here is where the Stoic might shift to a different set of worries. Let’s say that one does thoughtfully examine and then make changes in one’s environment. Getting rid of desire-drawing snacks, candy, or other junk food when one has a track-record of abandoning resolves not to indulge – that might actually work. Minimizing encounters with people liable to be irritating, and eventually infuriating, so that one has fewer occasions for anger – that could help as well. Tidying up one’s domicile and decluttering so as to have a more comfortable place to live, eat, relax, and perhaps even work – that might prove calming to the passions.

But then, isn’t one taking the easy way? Isn’t there a risk of this strategy working too well? Instead of working on oneself, one invests the time, energy, and thought in altering as many other things around one as one can. Perhaps if one has money or other resources, one can actually engage others as substitutes to do that work for one. Insulating oneself away from things, persons, places, or processes likely to present challenges or obstacles seems like a kind of “cop-out”, doesn’t it?

Epictetus himself tends to speak less about the virtues and much more about the need to bring and maintain one’s “faculty of choice” (or “moral purpose”, or “will,” prohairesis) in accordance with nature (for more on that, you might read this). That faculty, which he views not only as self-determining and free, but as being at the core of who a person is (at one point he states “you are prohairesis“) is something in our control. In fact, it is how we exercise that very power.

We are supposed to be exercising it, strengthening it, reorienting it, so that we could get to the point where externals don’t upset us and don’t tempt us – or at least, if they do, we have and exercise the strength to not respond to their promptings. If we make our environment more amenable to ourselves, won’t that deprive us of occasions to develop our own capacities?

Other Stoics would frame this explicitly in terms of the virtues. Let’s clarify what is meant by “self-control”, when we are signifying a virtue by that word That’s a decent modern English translation of the Greek sophrosune, or the latin temperentia. You could also use the old-fashioned term “temperance,” or even more antiquated “continence”, or the term ” moderation” but they all name the same thing, a disposition towards controlling one’s desires, and towards feeling those desires in more measured and moderate manners.

How do we develop the virtues, and wean ourselves away from their opposites, the vices? Through the decisions we make, the actions we take, the practices and exercises we choose and commit to, the models and thought-processes we adopt. We acquire virtues by breaking habits and building new ones in their place. By shifting the focus towards our environment, and making matters easier on ourselves, we could prevent the development of the virtues.

Why develop self-control and deploy it against the temptation to indulge in late-night snacks (one of my own weaknesses, I’ll admit!), when you can simply get all of the possible snacks out of the house? Or at least make it tougher on yourself to get to them? Or whatever other environment-modifying tactic one adopts to reduce or resist the possible temptation? It seems then that this suggestion would be deeply at odds with the approach Stoics should take and apply.

Why A Stoic Should Consider Optimizing

I regularly read discussions in Stoicism-oriented social media, and I see a number of commonly recurring misunderstandings arising with great regularity. One broad class of these involves taking some Stoic doctrine or maxim, and pushing it to the point of generating confusions, precisely because the person doing so doesn’t set it within the larger context of Stoic philosophy. Seneca cautions against this:

you must give up hope that you will ever be able to take just a quick sampling from the works of the greatest men. You must read them as wholes, come to grips with them as wholes. The subject matter is treated along the lines that are proper to it, and an intellectual product is devised from which nothing can be removed.

Letter 33

While a person certainly can parse out little catch-phrases and sound-bites of Stoic philosophy, what they end up with is not Stoicism as the coherent system it is, but just fragments, liable to mislead. Or more correctly, liable to be used by the dabbler to mislead him or herself. So that’s one commonly arising issue.

Another one stems from the assumption that Stoicism is something that one turns on or off like a light-switch. You’re either entirely Stoic, or you’re not Stoic at all. Quite a few people claiming to speak for Stoicism criticize others for not being Stoic enough, or not being real Stoics (I’ve seen poorly informed posters do this even with Donald Robertson in the very Facebook group Natasha’s post is in!)

Stoicism is not just for the legendary “sage” or ideally wise and virtuous person. It is for the prokopton, the person who is “making progress” – something that typically does not follow a nice, neat linear progression, but as Epictetus tells us, involves getting back up after we have been thrown down. Just reading around in the available classic Stoic literature, you’ll find plenty of advice and discussions about how to recover and learn from failure, to follow through on that difficult-to-sustain commitment to improve oneself, to steer oneself back into the right track.

Until we are sages, we will always have to struggle. In fact, there is a certain sort of foolishness – the opposite of prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis) involved in overestimating one’s own present capacities to live, think, and act like a Stoic. The same sort of foolishness underlies giving other people advice that takes no stock of the limited capacities they have for following the lines set out by Stoic philosophy.

It’s quite true to say, along with Epictetus, that “Socrates didn’t give in to X”, and to then draw a conclusions that I don’t have to either. We often labor under mistaken assumptions that we have to respond to things in certain ways, that they make us feel, think, choose, or act what we do. It is a powerful and liberatory insight to realize that by choosing – and then by making that choice repeatedly until it becomes a habit – we can do otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean that, in every single case, we really can in that moment not respond to externals in ways that are counterproductive. Don’t we experience a failure to follow through on our good intentions at some times? Don’t we manage to resist, to endure, to persevere, up to a point, and then you find ourselves with our reserves exhausted? Of course we do, and that’s precisely because we’re not entirely – perhaps not even half-way – where we ought to be. Recognizing that, rather than pretending it is not the case, is integral to making further progress!

So what do we do with that recognition? Here is where the would-be Stoic, the Stoic in-development, has the opportunity to further practice and develop prudence. When you join a gym, intending to get back into shape, and start lifting weights, it would be foolish to try to lift the same amount of weight as the people who have been lifting for years. You take stock of the body you have, you look at its weak points and any injuries, and you start out with the lighter weights. And then you keep at it. Eventually you can start to up the amount, of weight, of reps, or of sets. You can add new exercises. You can lengthen your workouts.

We should look at Stoic practice, at facing temptations, frustrations, and challenges, and at development of the virtues in a similar way. For the time being, for some of us, changing our environment in ways that allow us to start making fairly continual progress makes good sense. We have to start with the faculty of choice we actually possess – and it’s quite likely weaker and in worse condition than we’d like to admit – and use that very faculty to improve itself.

There is much more that could be said about this topic, but I’m going to bring this to a close with one final thought. For most of us, even if we do manage to minimize some of the aspects of our environment that make it more difficult for us to make the right choices and to follow through on commitments, it’s unlikely that we will have thereby deprived ourselves from opportunities to encounter difficulties and to deal with them using Stoic practices and insights. Precisely because the environment does remain outside our control, no attempts to fix it are going to permanently banish problems.

And if you find yourself actually yearning for more troubles to face down, more temptations to resist, more discomforts, more irritations – if you’ve made enough progress to feel like you can take on more figurative weight – then you can certainly choose to engage with them more. You won’t have far to go!

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects

7 thoughts on Self-Control and Optimizing Environment by Greg Sadler

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful and nuanced essay, Greg! I agree that manipulating and modifying one’s environment as a means of achieving “self-control” is ultimately a strategy with limited benefits. As a homely example: I have an inordinate fondness for salted nuts, and I would snack on these many times a day, were it not for their high calorie count and my desire to drop a few pounds. Following the advice of the “control your environment” gurus, I started “hiding” the mixed nut jar on one of the upper shelves in my kitchen cabinet: “our of sight, out of mind”, as they say. The problem is, I know where the nuts are and it is easy enough to get hold of them and start snacking. It is only when I remind myself of my long-term goal–dropping a few pounds–that I decide not to open that cabinet in the first place. And carefully considering one’s long-term goals is, in my view, an implicit (if not explicit) value in the Stoic tradition. Sure, it’s better that the nuts are put away than out in the open. But a “non-tempting” environment will take us only so far, before our rational thinking needs to be invoked. By the way, you are also right in steering the prokopton away from “the counsels of
    perfection”–a point emphasized by cognitive psychologists like the late Albert Ellis. In that spirit, I don’t go too hard on myself when, on occasion, I grab the jar of nuts from the top shelf!
    Best regards,
    Ronald W. Pies MD

    • Yes, ” carefully considering one’s long-term goals” is part of pretty much every virtue ethics tradition I’ve come across, including Stoicism.
      As to the perfection and failure part, I often tell my students that one main part of Ethics is figuring out how to fix things (if they can be) after one has managed to make a mess of them, including one’s own self!

  2. Cai says:

    One problem with minimizing temptation is that one often replaces one temptation with another. Throwing away the candy jar may lead to binge watching TV. Canceling netflix can lead to reading books until 3am. Where’s the end? Can we really put ourselves in an isolated prison cell to avoid all temptations?
    Yes, one should start by changing the environment. But that’s a very tiny step on a long journey.

  3. Mikkel Østergaard Johansen says:

    Dear Greg,
    Thank you for this interesting essay!
    I have a question concerning your remark about ‘self-control’ as a translation of the greek sophrosyne. It has confused me a bit. This may be because I have Aristotle’s nicomachean ethics in mind. Now I am not quite sure about how a stoic would understand this virtue, but, as I have understood Aristotle’s thoughts on the matter, sophrosyne is in a sense about desiring the right things to the right amount. And for this reason, to Aristotle at least, it does not really make sense to speak of the temperate person as self-controlled, because his desires are such that no self-control is really needed in order to do the right thing.
    In short: would it not make better sense to refer to the greek enkrateia as that which we translate into ‘self-control’? – because it is only when you have strong desires that are opposed to ‘right principle’ that we need to employ self-control?

    • In an Aristotelian context, I would not translate sophrosune as “self-control”, since that is indeed what we translate enkrateia as. But Stoicism and Aristotelianism are definitely not the same.
      “Self-control” is just fine as a translation in contemporary Stoic literature, provided we keep in mind that it is referring to a virtue, not something else.

  4. James says:

    I think the important factor here is scale. Optimizing one’s environment is a tool, not a solution. Like a hammer or a car, it’s a tool that is very useful in specific situations, but which is completely worthless in others. One would never use a hammer to write with, or a car to pound a nail! Stoics have no problem using other tools (such as meditation), so I can’t see them having a problem with this one. The problem only arises when one confuses the tool with the end goal.
    Further, optimizing one’s environment is in fact a recognition that one has control over their actions in the realm of establishing their environment. In other words: If you’re capable of removing a temptation, the presence or absence of that temptation is within your power. Epictetus acknowledges this in the case of thieves (his discussion of lamps, and leaving a cheap earthen lamp after two more expensive ones were stolen). This is the same concept, only with the acknowledgement that we are ourselves the thief. It’s certainly not the ideal, but it’s a way to minimize the errors associated with failing to reach the ideal.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.