Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 13


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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. All the systems I've been talking about involve following simple rules. Today I'm going to talk about the importance of strictness in following these rules.

Strictness sounds so old fashioned. Unpleasant. Like a mean schoolmarm. It also sounds hard.

And it can be all off those things. But it can also be a great and necessary help if you're strict about the right things in the right way.

There are three issues related to strictness. 1) how strict should you be? 2) what should you be strict about and 3) does strictness involve punishment or restitution of some kind

The first issue, how strict should you be, is the most basic, because it includes the question should you be strict at all? Right, the least degree of strictness, is 0 strictness.

The basic case for strictness, to take you beyond 0, is this: strictness builds habit faster. If you are strict, your appetites learn fast that it's not worth testing the boundaries all the time. Your habits are like children, or animals. If you are not strict, or inconsistent, they'll constantly be testing, seeing how far they can go, and you'll actually have to use more willpower to resist them. So paradoxically, strictness makes it easier. It's being lenient that's hard.

So how strict should you be? Well, the stricter you are, the faster your habits learn.

The most important time for strictness is at the beginning, when you're habit is new. When your habit is old, strictness isn't really much of an issue. The habit does what's right automatically. It's internalized the strictness.

OK, issue number 2. What should you be strict about?

There's a Jewish expression, "Fence around the Law," which means don't do anything that might possibly be interpreted as giving even the appearance of violating sacred law. The idea is that sometimes it's hard to know precisely when an important moral or religious line is being crossed, so draw another line farther out. That far out line may be a little arbitrary, but it's very clear, and if you stop things at that level, you can be confident they haven't crossed a more important, but more ambiguous boundary. And because the far out line is very clear, it's easy to make fast, snap decisions. A scholar might have the luxury of contemplating the deep subtleties of the underlying law, but for ordinary observant Jews in daily life, that "fence around the law" clarity is critical because otherwise how could they make the hundreds of decisions they have to make every day.

I hope no one will consider it blasphemous that I apply this principle to profane matters like weight loss and exercise, because I think it's a profound and useful psychological insight, and it's with great respect that I re-purpose it here.

The real problem we're trying to deal with is often very murky and hard to put our finger on. Overeating, if you want to think about it forever, is infinitely complex. We need to build clear unambiguous fences around that problem so we can quickly make sharp distinctions about how to behave to avoid it. Because otherwise it's like 40 times a day you have to be a Talmud scholar to know what to do. Which is, more or less, what many diet systems demand of you.

So be strict about things that are very clear. The literal rules of the no-s diet, for example. It's both easier to be strict about things that are clear, and it's more effective. You don't have to agonize so much about what you have to be strict about, it's obvious, and dumb habit learns simple rules faster.

In some individual cases, the literal rules may seem silly. Like not eating an orange between meals. Or that mountainous single plate of junk food you're about to eat. But big picture the rules make a lot of sense, and you don't want to trade the big picture "good enough" for little picture perfection. Because when you make exceptions you sacrifice clarity. And when you sacrifice clarity you sacrifice habit. And without habit, the whole enterprise is hopeless.

Issue number three: punishment and restitution.

Strictness does not mean punishment. Nor does it mean making up for it when you screw up. It just means being very clear as to what constitutes success and failure, trying your best to meet the criteria for success, and being honest with yourself when you mess up.

Punishment and restitution are actually bad and counterproductive. I don't say this from some kind of mushy "love yourself" "I'm OK, your OK" persepctive -- on the contrary. I say this because when you punish yourself or try to make amends for having messed up, what you're really doing, at a deep psychological level, is saying, "it's OK to fail because I can make up for failure later." You think you're just paying off a debt, but you're also, and more importantly, opening up a line of credit. That line of credit, that idea that you can make up for failure in the future, will make you much more likely to fail. You've lowered the stakes, you've lowered the incentive to succeed.

If, on the other had, you know that you have just one chance to behave correctly, that there is no make up test, you'll take your behavior much more seriously, and you'll have much better odds of succeeding the first and only time around.

So when you fail, the strict thing to do is just get up, brush off the dust, pause to consider what you did wrong and how to avoid it in the future, and move on. There's a pseudostatistic floating around on the internet that it takes an average of 12 failures before you can establish a major new habit like dieting. So don't be discouraged if you wipe out a few times.

If that pseudostatistic is insufficiently inspiring, I'll close on a more eloquent note with a quote from Winston Churchill (not, admittedly, the thinnest man in the world, but he did have some pretty serious problems that he managed to overcome, thank God):

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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