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Here Is How to Practice Stillness and Increase Focus

Learn how to stay in the present, with advice from bestselling author Ryan Holiday.

Nir Eyal

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Ryan Holiday is the author of ten books which have sold over 2 million copies. His books, including The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the Enemy, The Daily Stoic, and Conspiracy have been translated into thirty languages. In this interview, Ryan discusses his book, Stillness is the Key.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?

Ryan Holiday: Stillness is this timeless idea that appears in almost every religion and every ancient school of philosophy. People have been complaining about how busy and overwhelmed they are for thousands of years–and about the need to slow down. Yet when you say the word stillness, it feels very urgent and timely. I suppose we are actually busier than we’ve ever been before, but it’s a pretty timeless problem. We’re all trying to get to that thing that Cal Newport calls “deep work.” We’re trying to get to a place where, as crazy as things are on the outside, we can be calm and clear on the inside. This allows us to do what’s really important, whether that’s being a father, being an author, or accomplishing whatever it is you are trying to do in this life.

I open the book with a scene from one of Seneca’s letters and, honestly, what he’s describing–the noise and the struggle to write–is pretty identical to what I went through with my open hotel window in New York City this morning. So here’s this thing that people have wrestled with for thousands of years, and they’ve come up with some good strategies for tackling it. We’ve forgotten many of them, yet we need them more than ever. What I wanted to do with this book, why I wanted to write it, was to share those principles and strategies for cultivating stillness.

NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?

RH: Originally, I thought stillness was a most eastern idea. Even with all my reading of the Stoics, I basically missed it. Marcus Aurelius talks about stillness about a dozen or so times in Meditations. But I guess that’s sort of the point–if you don’t slow down, you can miss things. So the most surprising thing was really just how universal this idea of stillness is. The Buddhist word for it was upekkha. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an “evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.” The Greeks, euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians, aequanimitas. Whether you were a pupil at the feet of Confucius in 500 BC, a student of the early Greek philosopher Democritus one hundred years later, or sitting in Epicurus’ garden a generation after that—you would have heard equally emphatic calls for this imperturbability, unruffledness, and tranquility.

NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?

RH: As I was saying, I open the book with a story of Seneca struggling with this exact problem. He’s in his apartment in Rome in the late first century AD trying to write, and there’s a deafening cacophony of disturbances—think New York City construction loud. It was enough “…to make me hate my very powers of hearing,” he said. Yet, somehow he pushed through the chaos and created some of the best work of his life. “I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing,” he wrote. “I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within.”

It’s sort of what you’re talking about in your book. It really takes work and discipline to become indistractable. But if you can, it’s like a super power.

NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?

RH: Each morning, usually after a long walk on my farm, I go upstairs to my office and pull out three small notebooks. In the first one—a small blue gold leafed notebook—I write one sentence about the day that just passed. In the next, a black Moleskine, I journal two quick pages about yesterday’s workout (how far I ran or swam), what work I did, any notable occurrences, and some lines about what I am grateful for, what I want to get better at, and where I am succeeding. And then finally, I pick up The Daily Stoic Journal to prepare for the day ahead by meditating on a short prompt: Where am I standing in my own way? What’s the smallest step I can take toward a big thing today? What blessings can I count right now? Why do I care so much about impressing people? What is the harder choice I’m avoiding? Do I rule my fears, or do they rule me? How will today’s difficulties show my character? The whole ritual takes maybe 15 minutes and then it’s done. By the time I am finished, I am centered, I am calm, and most importantly, I am primed to do the actual creative work by which I make my living.

NE: What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?

RH: About six months ago [at the time this interview was conducted], I was invited to a challenge Spar! to not touch my phone for at least 10 minutes after I woke up. I’d been sleeping with it in the other room for years, but I still usually grabbed it first thing in the morning. The challenge came with a powerful incentive—each time I failed, I’d have to pay $10. But the real draw was that it meant I could focus on being present with my son in my first waking moments. Soon, I started challenging myself to stretch 10 minutes into 30, then 45, then an hour. Now some mornings, if I am writing, I might not touch my phone until lunch. On those days, I’m happier and more productive.

NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading your book?

RH: Just that word stillness is a big one. It’s a powerful word, you know? I write in that book that when “all the wisdom of the ancient world agrees on something, only a fool would decline to listen.” I want people to realize that stillness is not some soft New Age nonsense or the domain of monks and sages, but in fact desperately necessary to all of us, whether we’re running a hedge fund or playing in the Super Bowl, pioneering research in a new field or raising a family. It is an attainable path to enlightenment and excellence, greatness and happiness, performance as well as presence, for every kind of person.

So if they just walk away from the book with the word as a kind of mantra, that’s success to me. But obviously I hope they really get in and do the work I am talking about too.

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This post originally appeared on Nir Eyal and was published December 17, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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