Think First Before You Act: Meeting Challenges Like a Stoic

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Discourses of Epictetus" by Epictetus. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you think first before you act, or do you react in emotion? How might you think more objectively about something that’s happening to you?

Stoicism emphasizes calm dignity and inner strength—that you don’t let anything upset or excite you so you can bring reason to bear in every situation. Epictetus teaches how to meet challenges with quiet rationality—to think first before you act.

Read more to learn how to adopt this Stoic practice of rational action.

Think First Before You Act

It’s easy to get carried away by your reactions to unpleasant events. So, before responding, take a moment to control yourself: Consider what happened and what the appropriate response would be. In other words, think first before you act.

(Shortform note: In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach explains why taking a moment to pause and think is so effective: For a short time, you stop trying to control what’s happening. During that moment when you surrender control and simply accept things as they are, you’re also giving up the need to immediately react—instead, you can thoughtfully and effectively act.)

If you find it hard to think logically about an event, Epictetus suggests imagining that it happened to someone else instead. Consider how you would feel if you weren’t personally involved, then recognize that there’s no reason to feel differently just because it’s affecting you directly—the situation isn’t different, only your perception of it is. Also consider what advice you would give to that other person, and try to follow that advice yourself.

(Shortform note: Considering how you’d advise someone else who was in your position is helpful because it lets you take a step back from the problem and disengage your emotions. Recent research shows that doing so makes you more open-minded when confronting a problem—in other words, less likely to latch onto a single, emotionally-driven response—and better able to take your own advice.) 

The temptation to do something you know you shouldn’t is a different kind of challenge, but you can respond to it in the same way—by thinking carefully before you act. Take some time to consider what joy yielding to the temptation will bring you, versus how long you’ll spend regretting it afterward. Weigh that net joy against the satisfaction you’ll get from resisting temptation. Once you’ve considered all of these things, decide whether indulging in the temptation is worth it. 

(Shortform note: Epictetus is suggesting that you overcome temptation through logic and willpower. However, in situations where you find that difficult, it can be more effective to strategically change the situation so that the thing you’re tempted by is more difficult to get—and, therefore, less enticing. For example, if you’re at a dinner party and trying to avoid sweets, you might get up to use the restroom when the servers come around to offer desserts. That way, to get a dessert, you’d have to rush back from the restroom and try to catch your server before he or she left your table.) 

Think First Before You Act: Meeting Challenges Like a Stoic

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Discourses of Epictetus summary:

  • Why you need to understand the laws of nature to be happy
  • Stoic strategies for remaining calm in the face of adversity
  • Epictetus's specific rules for living well

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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