Those first moments of our waking day are often spent unwisely, lost in a mental murk of lazy enervation. Where’s the snooze button? Where’s the coffee? What is the best justification I can use to get back to bed? I have about one hundred more such frivolous questions in my arsenal.
Not so with Prince Andrei. He gets right to work. In today’s reading he wakes up and immediately contemplates his day. He recalls the previous day’s conversation with Bilibin. He anticipates his meeting with Emperor Francis. He recounts all the individuals he’s met in Brünn so far so that if he meets with them again he will not forget them.
This mental ordering of the day benefits Prince Andrei greatly. He’s able to stay focused despite the many distractions he’ll encounter. To take just one example, he has an early meeting with Bilibin and his friends. These friends, all part of the diplomatic corps, are pretty much just party people. They speak to Andrei of women, wine, and theater. They invite him to join them. But Andrei, mentally focused from his morning meditation, declines and starts out on accomplishing his objectives for the day.
The stoics practiced something similar to Prince Andrei here. They believed in undertaking a thorough morning meditation routine. First, they found a reason to get up:
At daybreak, when loth to rise, have this thought ready in thy mind: I am rising for a man’s work. Am I then still peevish that I am going to do that for which I was born and for the sake of which I came into the world? Or was I made for this, that I should nuzzle under the bed-clothes and keep myself warm? But this is pleasanter. Hast thou been made then for pleasure? In a word, I ask thee, to be acted upon or to act? Consider each tiny plant, each little bird, the ant, the spider, the bee, how they go about their own work and do each his part for the building up of an orderly Universe. Dost thou then refuse to do the work of a man? Dost thou not hasten to do what Nature bids thee.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations
Then they ordered their day, made a mental to-do list. This is important as it helps keep us focused throughout the day:
I want to do such and such, as long as nothing happens which may present an obstacle to my decision.
Seneca, On Peace of Mind
Finally, as Seneca hints at above, they reminded themselves that many things are not under their control and that, through no fault of their own, they might not be able to complete every task on their to-do list.
Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse — people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature — which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’
Epictetus, The Enchiridion