Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 34

S-days Gone Wild

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com. Once again, It's been a LONG time since the last everyday systems podcast episode, and once again, I've got a great excuse: as I hope you all know, the No S Diet book came out in March. It's not exactly a bestseller yet, but it's been doing pretty respectably. For about two hours (the memory of which I will treasure forever), it was the 8th best selling diet book on amazon.com (this was after the Woman's World article hit).

But I'm sure you're not all that interested in my impressive excuse... So to make up for this long delay I'm going to do an extra long, a supersized podcast episode this time.

The subject I'm going to deal with today is S DAYS GONE WILD (to use another venerable pop culture trope) -- : What to do, if you're on the no-s diet, and finding that excessive S-days are giving you a hard time; you feel like you're eating way too much and undoing all your hard work during the week.

I think this is hands down THE MOST frequently cited problem people have with no-s. And I probably should have given it more attention in the book. I did give it some, but not enough. I think it's been pretty satisfactorily addressed in a million different posts to the bulletin board, but it's hard to find all those million little posts. So today I'm going to make amends and treat the subject of excessive S-days in exhaustive, possibly exhausting detail. I'm going to gather up up as best I can the S-day wisdom that until now had been scattered all over the place. Apologies in advance to listeners who do not have a problem with excessive s-days.

Just a little disclaimer before I continue: some people who have problems with S-days might have serious eating disorders. I am not remotely qualified to advise such people. If you suspect that this is you, please stop listening now and talk to your doctor instead. I'm a computer programmer. I have 0 medical credentials. You should not listen to me.


For the rest of you, before I discuss S-days in themselves, I'd just like to emphasize that you should not worry about S-days AT ALL until you've got your N-days down. If you can't go a month without having more than 1 or two botched N-days, that's where your focus should be. Don't let S-days distract you from this far more basic, far more important issue. Because without a solid backbone of N-days, S-days don't even have any meaning. Use the online habitcal, or a paper habit calender to help you get a handle on what your compliance is like if you're having trouble guesstimating.

Also, even long time no-s pros, people who've been successfully no-essing for years, even I, still have over the top S-days now and then. I don't worry about this at all. I don't berate myself or feel guilty. I don't try to compensate for this excess by being extra good after the fact. I know that big picture, it doesn't matter, and that's all I care about. The biggest danger of an occasional excessive S-day is not the excess calories of that one day, but that it will psychologically unhinge you, that you get depressed and/or overreact. So do not jump to conclusions from one or two times.

OK, so assuming your N-day compliance is good and it has been more than a few bad S-days, I think there are three different kinds of problems that people have with s days. In order of increasing severity (and, thankfully,decreasing frequency):

#1) You don't actually have a problem in terms of excess calories, but THINK you do. It's this thought, this fear, rather than any underlying physical reality, that causes the problem. Now I'm not saying this ISN'T a problem, I'm not dismissing this fear. If you think there's a problem and so you give up or heap on unsustainable rules to compensate for it, that's a real problem. It's not JUST in your mind. Or rather it is, but the JUST doesn't diminish its importance. The core premise of the no-s diet is that psychology, what's in your mind, is the most important part. So we have to address this. We can't just say, oh, get over it, figure it out somehow.

#2) You do have an actual problem in terms of excess calorie consumption, but not so serious a problem that additional prohibitions are required. A little bit of attitude adjustment and maybe some informal positive tips are all that's needed.

#3) You have a problem with excess calories on S-days, and one that's serious enough to require additional rules. I don't think many people fall into this category, and I'd be very cautious about jumping to the conclusion that you do, but it is possible to add new rules on top of no-s in a way that's reasonably humane and simple and compatible with the rest of the system. And even if you don't wind up needing these, it can be a comfort to know they exist, that you have sensible options that build on what you have instead of forcing you to tear everything down and start again from scratch with a totally different system. That being said, extra rules bring extra risk, and I'm probably going to spend more time warning you against adding these or other extra rules than I'm going to spend describing them.

Now that I've briefly mentioned described these three levels of problems, I'll go into each of them in a little more depth.

First off, the imagined problem. There are two things you may think are true on S-days when you are starting out that are not in fact true. You may 1) think that you are eating way too much food or 2) you may actually be right that you're eating too much food, but wrong in thinking that you're going to continue eating this much food S-day after S-day. You're falsely extrapolating. In other words, you assume that the amount you eat on you first few inevitably excessive weekends is how it's going to be forever unless you pile on more rules.

One of the most powerful things the no s diet does is it makes excess seem excessive. It does this right away by limiting your intake to 3 single plate meals during the week -- if you eat a lot, it looks like a lot, piled up there high on your plate, all in front of you. That's embarrassing, so gradually you pile less on your plates. That's pretty straigh forward. But then something else happens. Not just your eyes, but your body comes to expect less. It's like when someone who used to be a heavy drinker, after he lays off the sauce for a while, finds that his tolerance goes down (and I speak from experience here), that a single drink can now give him a buzz, as compared with the the 6, or 8, or 10 drinks it used to take. During the week, you're training your body to have a new understanding of what excess means. And that is a lesson your body doesn't forget on the weekends. The point at which you feel like you're eating excessively is gradually going to become much lower. What used to be just par for the course will now seem like a shocking excess. This might be disturbing at first, but it's actually a good thing. You want that excess alarm to go off early. So don't be depressed by it. Though it might feel like it, it's probably not nearly as excessive as it would have been pre no-s, when you had a really high tolerance for excess.

OK, so that's the first thing to keep in mind, that the excess probably isn't as bad as it seems. That it's expected for excess to seem worse, and that this is actually a good thing, if you can get over the initial shock and not let it derail you.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the first few weeks are almost inevitably really going to be much more excessive than subsequent weeks. It takes time to train your habits and your appetite, to lower your tolerance for excess. The really powerful thing about the no-s rules is not how well they work as conscious rules (although they do), but how well they train your unconscious behaviors. And that takes time. During the week it's like you're riding a bike with training wheels. On S-days the training wheels come off. Of course you're going to be a little wobbly. Of course you're going to fall flat on your face a few times. You don't give up trying to learn how to ride a bike because of that.

Now I realize that this is profoundly different way of looking at things from what most other diets do it. When you count calories or carbs or whatever, it's a purely conscious activity. There's no training involved. It starts out pretty easy, in fact. You're as good as you'll ever get at counting stuff or reading labels on day one. The problem is that conscious activity is very expensive. It gets tedious very fast. You want to use it for other more important things. And eventually you do. And that's the end of your diet. That's why no-s is about habit, instead, about training unconscious behaviors. And it can be hard at first. And slow. But it gets easier and easier. And I think "starts hard, gets easy" is ultimately vastly preferable to "starts easy, gets hard."

OK, on to problem two. This is the situation in which, for some reason, you really are eating too much on S-days on a regular basis, and your N-day habits aren't making it better. It's been a while, your weekday compliance with the rules is close to perfect (the focus should always be on that), but you're not losing weight and you don't even like S-days because you feel like a glutton. You're worried that perhaps you're binging on S-days, that you've got an unhealthy mentality about them.

It may seem paradoxical, but the key to successful S-days is enjoyment. If you can get yourself to enjoy S-days, to enjoy some well thought out special treats, to enjoy the feeling of freedom that you have, I can almost guarantee that you will also wind up eating less. But it can be really hard to do this. A lot of people come to no-s so crippled by other diets and yoyoing back into gluttony that they arent' really capable of enjoying food anymore, at least initially. They have these hangups about food, they nolonger associate food with pleasure, but with guilt, or with this desperate pathetic shadow of pleasure, this rushed sense of "must eat as much as possible ASAP before guilt kicks in." Long term, I think no-s is a fantastic cure for this kind of mentality, that may even be the best thing about it, how it gets you to enjoy food again, but initially, at least, there is the danger, that this binge mentality is going to map onto S-days and abuse them. I think the best way to get around this is to proactively plan something really nice for yourself every S-day. Not to just hunker down and hope you don't get too hungry, just passively wait and see what happens, but to consciously, actively reward yourself, to pamper your appetite with something it really wants, some luxury you might never have even permitted yourself before no-s for misguided diet reasons. When your appetite sees how well it's being taken care of, it's going to relax. It's not going to feel resentful, brooding and waiting for the first opportunity to lash out and gorge itself on whatever trash is lying around as soon as your guard is down. By preemptively rewarding yourself: you nip the two main motivations to binge in the bud: resentment at having to put up with rules, and the the random crap you would normally binge on, it just isn't going to seem very tempting after you've given your appetite a taste of real quality.

Reward isn't just about what you eat, it's about how you eat. So make the presentation nice. Instead of spooning ice cream from the carton directly into your mouth, put it in a nice glass dessert bowl, or walk over to a fancy ice cream shop and get a cone. Eat a piece of cake or a pastry at a cafe, sociably, in the open, instead of hiding by yourself in a corner in front of the tv. Don't sneak. You have no reason to sneak. This is legitimate reward. So make it seem legitimate. If you start sneaking for no reason, pretty soon you'll have one.

On S-days you're free. And freedom is a good thing. But freedom can also be abused. Ask yourself who do you want to use your freedom for? For furtively permasnacking all day long? Do you really enjoy that? When you catch yourself reaching into a bag of stale popcorn, ask yourself if this is really the most enjoyable use of your freedom? Put the popcorn down, think of what you really want most and go get it. If it requires leaving the house or spending some extra money, even better. The more fuss the more your appetite will be impressed.

Freedom doesn't mean chaos. You shouldn't wake up on an S-day like some tormented character out of doestoyevski thinking "everything is permitted!" and not having the slightest idea when or what to eat. Start with the basic single plate three meal structure you've established during the week. Why not, right? Then add conscious rewards -- a fancy dessert after dinner, or french toast with maple syrup for breakfast, or a multi course meal at a fine restaurant. The criterion for going beyond the basic three meal structure should be "will I REALLY enjoy this?" You will weed out a huge amount of excess this way at no cost in terms of pleasure -- if fact you'll gain in terms of pleasure.

I think these three little positive attitude adjustments -- proactive reward, no sneaking, and using the structure of 3 meals as your basic starting point -- should be enough to turn most people with actual S-day problems around.

But some people really might require more. Now we're at problem number 3: extra rules required. Again, I strongly urge you not to jump to this conclusion, before piling on extra rules try vanilla no-s and give habit a chance to kick in first, try the attitude adjustments I just described. But if you've tried it and it still doesn't work, don't give up hope. There are reasonably moderate and no-s compatible extensions to the rules that you can resort to, that other people have successfully used. There's always a risk whenever you add new restrictions. It adds complexity. It adds potential for resentment and rebellion. You know all that. I've told you all that. But if you're still interested, I'm going to tell you about the best of the lot, that I've heard of. The risk reward balance may be worth it to you.

I'm going to call these add-on rules to no-s "mods" , which is short for "modifications." This is a common term for software system extensions that get posted to the web, say if someone adds a new optional piece of functionality to the phpbb bulletin board software, which is what I use on everydaysystems.com. Since I think of everyday systems as a kind of human behavioral software, it makes sense to repurpose the term here.

All the mods I'm going to talk about build on the idea of S-events. You've heard of S-days, now there are S-events. An S-event is every incident in which you have a snack, a sweet or a second. So if I have 3 meals on Saturday, plus a twix bar between breakfast and lunch, and two courses at dinner, plus desert, that translates to 3 s events -- 1) a sweet snack (the twix bar) 2) a second (seconds at dinner and 3) a sweet (dessert, which I guess could technically count as a second as well -- S-events can fall into multiple categories, but every incident still counts as just one event). Thinking in terms of discreet eating events like this is helpful even just in itself, without even adding any rules about how to limit them. Because the bigest danger is permasnacking, eating "one big meal all day long." S-events chop that up. There's a cost, a realization, a little bit of mental friction every time you reach for yet more food. And that alone can reduce the number of times you do it.

OK, so how do the mods use these S-events?

The first mod, is the simplest, it consists of limiting yourself 1 s-event per s-day, interpreting the "sometimes" (in the explicit 14 word nos formula) as once. Or some similarly small predetermined number. The pro of this mod is that it's very simple. And you still get some kind of reward on S days. The con is that it's still pretty constricting. It might be very hard to get yourself to do this long term.

The second mod is to simply resolve to log or count S-events every S day. You have no hard limit, you can eat as many snacks, sweets and seconds as you like, just as with vanilla no-s, but you have to write them down. And maybe then post them on the bulletin board, sort of a confession, though hopefully more of a brag. This is an example of the power of negative tracking. It's a pain to track stuff. And it can get embarrassing fast. Even if you're not posting it online. This pain of tracking will exert pressure on you to keep the number of s-events down, even without a hard limit. The downside is that, well, tracking is a pain. And S-events aren't,or shouldn't be intrinsically negative, as they are cast by this mod. And even though you're technically just as free as before, can can eat anything, you have no privacy, you feel like you've got eyeballs on you all the time and that is a kind of freedom you're giving up. Still, it can be interesting just as an experiment. A way to gather data about how many S-events you actually take on S-days before coming up with a hard limit.

The third mod is my favorite, though I have to admit I don't do it myself (I don't do any of these mods myself, vanilla no-s out of the box, with totally unrestricted S-days works great for me). The third mod divides s days into two classes: ordinary lowercase s-days, like weekends and minor holidays, and extraordinary capital S-days, major holidays like thanksgivings or Christmas or your birthday. On lowercase s-days you have a hard limit on S-events, just like with mod #1. But on capital S days you are totally free. I like this mod best because it's simple (and cute) but sophisticated in terms of how it balances the costs vs. benefits. You have useful, clear limits most of the time, but you still get that great feeling of total freedom now and then, just when you need and value it most. The other two mods, even though they keep the physical food reward aspect of S-days to some degree, take away or compromise that feeling of freedom, which I think is as important as the cookies and cake or whatever.

Whatever you do, do not get rid of S days altogether. That's not a mod, that's a cruel and unusual butchering of the system. You don't only need s-days in a negative way, as a safety valve to keep you from going crazy, you positively deserve them, you deserve to enjoy them. They can be a great wonderful thing, the best thing about no-s. If it takes some tinkering to get to the point where you can enjoy them like this, then tinker. But don't get rid of them.

If you come up with any other S-day mods, please post them to the everyday systems bulletin board or email me. As usual, there will be a discussion link right under the podcast transcript, so that page can be a kind of a one stop shopping nucleus around which our ever increasing S-day wisdom can accumulate, instead of being spread out all over the place. If we come up with any significant breakthroughs, maybe I'll do another followup podcast on the subject.

Hope this helps someone and thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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