Everyday Systems

Systematic Moderation for Sustainable Good Habits

What is an everyday system?

An everyday system, TM, is a simple, commonsense solution to an everyday problem, grounded by a pun or metaphor.

What is an everyday problem?

A common, personal problem that is amenable to self-discipline.

I know my problem, where's the system?

In this convenient problem index.

Contemporary Euphemism Biblical Term System(s)
Overweight Gluttony No S Diet
Out of shape Sloth Shovelglove, Urban Ranger
"Multitasking" Idleness Weekend Luddite
Problem Drinking Drunkenness Glass Ceiling
Litigious (no one was this bad in the bible) Really Boring Disclaimer

Don't see your problem here? Check out the Everyday Systems Lab to see what's in progress or request a new system on the bulletin board.

What is the relationship between the systems?

The systems are independent but compatible. I do all of them. But you don't have to. Pick and choose just the ones you like.

Are there any guiding principles shared by all the systems?

Yes. Here they are:

Systematic Moderation. Everybody from Aristotle to your Grandma agrees that moderation is a good idea. It's the wisdom of the philosophers and the virtue of the common folk. At least, it used to be. These days it's no longer held in such high esteem -- and even more rarely practiced. Instead, people look for ways to get around having to moderate their desires and inclinations: with pills, miracle products, even surgery. Or they simply ignore their desires altogether and embark on impossibly ambitious and restrictive programs of self-discipline. But if there's a way around moderation, we clearly haven't found it yet; as the relentless rise in obesity rates and other depressing metrics make plain, our modern workarounds simply don't work.

In fairness to ourselves, it's not as easy as it was for our ancestors. They had little choice but to be moderate. Sheer scarcity kept them in line. If they didn't behave moderately they would die. Powerful traditions formed an additional line of defense. We, on the other hand, live in an age of material superabundance and declining traditions. We are the first generation that can afford to be immoderate (at least, in the short term).

So how, in the absence of the external pressures of scarcity and tradition, can we give moderation the teeth it needs to be effective? With systematic, "extremist" techniques.

Thinking in terms of Habit. Like moderation, the concept of habit isn't as popular as it used to be. For Aristotle, virtue itself was a habit. We moderns tend to prefer to think in black and white terms of irresistible addiction on the one had, and total freedom on the other. But that's neither accurate as a description nor useful as a prescription. Habit, with its varying directions and degrees is a far truer and more powerful concept.

Compliance with rules requires willpower, and willpower is a very limited commodity. A good system of moderation will utilize this resource efficiently by focusing on building habits: semi-automatic behaviors that require little willpower to maintain once they've been established.

Sustainable Minimum of Compliance. Habit isn't about one-off acts of heroism. It's about establishing a consistent, almost automatic pattern of behavior over time. Much of the challenge of successful self-discipline is throttling your enthusiasm so you don't burn out. Keep the focus on meeting some clearly-defined, rigorously un-ambitious daily "good enough."

"Sustainability" is the buzzword of the moment when applied to macro issues of agriculture or energy. But it's just as important with respect to your purely personal habits of eating, moving, spending, and getting things done. Overdoing it is a far bigger danger than under-doing it -- because it inevitably results in your not doing anything at all. Sustainability has to be the first thing you consider when evaluating a habit you want to acquire - not the afterthought it usually is.

Maintenance is more important than progress. Progress is intrinsically temporary; maintenance is what you'll be doing for the rest of your life.

Habit Branding. A good system should be "branded" with a striking image, pun, or metaphor. That way you'll be much less likely to forget or ignore it, even when things get stressful. A brand gets you irrationally fired up about what you're doing. Some Everyday Systems are little more than a striking brand. Others have significantly more rules or back-story, but even these systems are well served by a brand: the brand gives you a handle, all you have to do is have the brand flash into your mind and you can easily retrieve all the rest. If your system were just a bunch of prosaic rules, however sensible, you'd have to continuously keep the whole thing in conscious "RAM."

No keeping track of things. The system shouldn't require you to keep track of anything beyond the day of the week, what planet you are on, etc. You have too many things to keep track of already. Sometimes it's interesting to keep track of things for a week or two. But it gets unbearably boring and onerous fast. If you feel you must keep track of something, use my free online Habit Calendar to keep track of your daily compliance with the system's rules.

Small temporal footprint. Ideally, the system should free up time, not take more of it. If your exercise routine, for example, competes in any significant way with your social life or even with your favorite television show, sooner or later your exercise routine is going to lose.

Socially Unobtrusive. Unless you're planning to become a hermit in the desert, you need to consider whether your habits are going to be unbearably irritating to the people around you. It's not simply a matter of common courtesy: the consciousness of others' disapproval will quickly wear you down.

Free or cheap. If you need anything at all, it should be nothing you can't pick up at your local hardware store. Wasting money on some infomercial clutter is bad, but the worst part is that inevitable feeling of being a sucker. Make "free or cheap" a point of pride, and you'll never feel this way again.

Simple but specific. Common sense is great, but too vague to be a practical guide. Behaviors that involve complex decision making, on the other hand, might be precise, but can never be automated into unconscious habit. A good system finds the happy medium: unforgettably simple but unambiguously precise.

Comic pragmatism. Self-help tends to take itself dreadfully seriously, I guess in the hope that other people will. But crazy is a great mnemonic device. If something is a little nuts, you'll remember it. I call this the principle of comic pragmatism. It's a joke, but it's also serious. It's effective because it's a joke.

Enjoyable. Successful self-discipline requires plenty of carrot as well as stick. Too many systems of self-improvement programs treat pleasure as a necessary evil, to be reluctantly doled out in pitiful little doses. Everyday systems make pleasure integral.

I encourage you to use these principles to come up with your own systems. It's fun, and there's nothing like founder's zeal to get you motivated. Let us know if you do.

How can I connect with other everyday systems practioners?

Visit the bulletin board.

There is also an archive of older posts from the previous bulletin board system.

So what's next?

I've got several more systems in the oven, but it may be another age and a half before I'm sufficiently satisfied with them to give them their own web sites. Until then, you can examine their progress or lack thereof at the everyday systems lab.

Does it cost money to run these sites?

Yes! If you like any or all of these sites, help me pay for them. Buy anything from amazon.com through this link, I get a tiny cut, and you don't pay anything extra.

In particular, feel free to buy (multiple copies of!) my No S Diet book. Even if no-s isn't the system you're most interested in, two of the seven chapters at least are directly relevant for any everyday system (general advice on habit building, etc.) -- and if I sell enough copies, your preferred system may be the subject of the next book.

By Reinhard Engels

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