MINDSET – My Mantra

Best-Selling Author Ryan Holiday Explains Why You Need Stillness

By Lashaun Dale

“Stillness is the key to being better at anything you do.” In some ways, it seems counterintuitive to hear Ryan Holiday say these words, considering that at 32, the 24 Hour Fitness member is already a New York Times best-selling author and successful media strategist for top companies such as Google and Complex.

Yet in today’s fast-paced society, where we’re programmed to masterfully multitask and equate busyness with productivity, Holiday says the real key to success and happiness is learning how to slow down.

Over the past nine years, Holiday has written nine books and established himself as a modern-day philosopher, known for taking ancient Greek practices such as Stoicism and transforming the wisdom into 21st century life hacks. The New York Times has dubbed Holiday as “a sought-after guru to NFL coaches, Olympians, hip-hop stars and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.”

In his latest book “Stillness Is the Key” (Portfolio, 2019), Holiday talks about the importance of quieting our minds.

“When I think about where all my best work came from, the best moments of my life, or when I felt happy or satisfied, what all those moments had in common was stillness,” Holiday says.

We asked Holiday to share the philosophies behind his newest book and how he incorporates this wisdom into his own life.

Ryan Holiday

When you define stillness, what does it mean to you?

For me, it’s when the noise turns down and the voice inside your head goes quiet. It’s when you live in the moment and lock in to whatever’s in front of you rather than being pulled in a million directions. Sometimes that could come from a place of movement, while other times, it could mean sitting alone in a cabin in the woods. I don’t think there’s one way to embrace stillness. You hear athletes talk about it when they say, “The game slowed down. The volume turned down.” And then they add, “And then everything came to a head in this one moment.” I know my best work has come from moments of stillness.

How do you incorporate stillness into your own life?

One of the reasons I live in Austin, [Texas], instead of New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco, even though I have business in those cities and I could live anywhere, is I wanted an environment conducive to some quiet and stillness. One way that I achieve this is by waking up early and having a routine. This morning, I was awake at 7 a.m., and my wife, my two sons (the oldest is 3 years and the youngest is 5 months old) and I went on a 45-minute walk outside, purposely leaving our phones at home.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to begin incorporating stillness into their own life?

I always talk about starting really small. A few months ago, I decided I wanted to do 25 push-ups a day, so I used this app called Spar that challenges you to build healthy habits. The app allows you to challenge up to five friends, and if you don’t check in each day and complete the challenge, you’re charged a penalty and the people who don’t miss a day get to split the pot. It’s really fun and helps keep you accountable. Now all of a sudden because I’m doing push-ups, I’m also doing sit-ups and squats and running. So I think if you can just start small and say, “Hey, I’m cutting this one thing out of my diet, or I’m going to start going for a walk every day, or I will wake up 20 minutes earlier and write in my journal,” you accomplish more and build momentum at the same time.

What other practices do you personally integrate?

I try to go outside and walk, and I don’t check my phone for the first hour that I’m awake because I just don’t want to start my day from a place of reactiveness. I want to start by having some quiet time to myself or with family. So that’s the big one for me—wake up early, don’t go directly to the phone, enjoy some quiet time and then begin to tackle whatever my big project is for the day.

I write and work in the morning, and then in the afternoon, I usually run, swim or work out. It seems the ideas I was trying to formulate or the problems I was trying to solve sort of magically unlock themselves in the water or on the treadmill.

Even in the pursuit of fitness, health and wellness, it’s easy to overextend ourselves and feel stressed or overwhelmed. How do you recommend combatting that?

While there are many physical health reasons for going to the gym, there’s also the mental health benefits and the importance of having a practice and routine. There’s a writer I like named Haruki Murakami. He says running is both an exercise and a metaphor. And his point is that the decision to run every day and do it well is kind of part of the practice of being a good writer. I think of exercise that way and remind myself, “You’re not going to the gym to get a six-pack, you’re going to the gym because you told yourself you’re going to go to the gym and taking care of yourself is important.” And it’s interesting because Stoicism teaches us to understand and focus on what we can control. Their point was: You shouldn’t be doing this so you look better in the mirror, you should be doing it because it’s making you stronger for what you’re doing in your life. It should make you better at picking up your kids, less winded when you run up the stairs and allow you to work longer hours at something you love. I know when I don’t go to the gym, I’m in a worse mood because I don’t feel good about myself. And then I take that home with me. So it’s about getting better across the board.

What are your strategies for getting a good night’s sleep?

I use a thing called a chiliPad, which allows you to cool or heat the temperature of your mattress, so even in the summer, you can sleep with a heavy blanket because the chiliPad is cooling you down. I also try to go to bed early, and I don’t sleep with my phone in the room, so if I wake up in the middle of the night or I’m having trouble sleeping, the phone’s not right there to pull me back into the world.

More Tips From Ryan Holiday

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?

Take a walk.

What’s the last thing you do before you go to sleep at night?

Turn off the lights.

What’s the last book that you read?

I just read “The Cost of These Dreams” by Wright Thompson, who’s a reporter for ESPN. It’s a series of profiles of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and other great athletes. It’s very good.

What’s the next vacation you’re going to take?

I’m going to Brazil in two weeks to give a talk, and then I’m going to the beach in Florida with my family to celebrate the new year.

What’s a podcast that you’d recommend?

So we have one for Daily Stoic (dailystoic.com), which is sort of one Stoic meditation each morning that I recommend. But I also like Marc Maron’s WTF comedy podcast (wtfpod.com), Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird comedy interview podcast (youmadeitweird.libsyn.com) and Rich Roll’s wellness podcast (richroll.com).

Do you listen to music? And if so, do you have a power-up song or a favorite song, something you can’t stop listening to?

Yeah, I tend to listen to the same songs on repeat. So I’ll find a song that I like and listen to it 200 times and then never want to hear it again. There’s a song by The Head and the Heart called Let’s Be Still that I’ve been listening to on repeat all day.

Is there a food you can’t live without?

Yes, I’m obsessed with popcorn. I love movie popcorn more than just about anything.

What do you see as your strength?

I think I’m a good storyteller and that I’m good at finding connections between seemingly disconnected ideas.

So you’re in the middle of a presentation or you’re out doing something and things go wrong, what do you do in that moment to reset and handle stress?

I always try to tell myself that whatever I’m going through is practice for that exact experience. So if I’m giving a presentation and the slides stop working, it’s a chance for me to practice doing the presentation without slides. So I kind of try to reframe it as an opportunity rather than some kind of obstacle.

What workout would you do in 24 minutes or less?

I like to swim. I go to 24 Hour Fitness and try to do a mile. Twenty-four minutes would be a little less than a mile for me.

Imagine you have the ability to whisper into everyone’s ears, all 4 million members of 24 Hour Fitness, plus the world, what would you say?

I’d say memento mori, which means remember death in Latin. We tend to think death is far off and that we have unlimited amounts of time. While we don’t want to think about something so morbid, in realizing that we could die at any moment, we find urgency, purpose and perspective.

Check out Ryan Holiday’s Daily Challenge workout in 24GO

Video credit: ros777, Adobe Stock
Photo credit: courtesy Ryan Holiday


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Lashaun Dale

Lashaun Dale loves yoga and fitness and finds magic in movement, music and mobs of people. She holds degrees in International Relations, Philosophy and Applied Anthropology, as well as an MPH from the School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York. With two decades of group fitness programming experience, Dale is former editor-in-chief of 24Life magazine, a regular contributor to SELF and Women’s Health and Fitness, as well as popular blogs and podcasts. She’ll teach yoga anytime she is given an opportunity to get her om on.