Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 35

The Mods and Tweaks Trilogy Part I: To Tweak Or Not To Tweak

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Hi this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com.

It's been a year, just about, since my last podcast episode. That's pathetic, and I apologize.

But I'm going to refrain from going into excuses because, as I think I've pointed out before, there seems to be a strong inverse correlation between how apologetic I am in these intros and the subsequent frequency of new episodes.

Plus I used up all the really good excuses the last few times -- having another kid, publishing a book. It's going to be a while till I can top those.

Instead, I'm going to try to make it up you by releasing not just one one solitary episode, but three, in rapid succession. A trilogy of podcasts.

The subject of this trilogy is going to be: mods and tweaks. The mods and tweaks trilogy.

Before I go any further, it occurs to me that it's possible that some of you listening may not be familiar with the term "mod."

It's just short for modification.

You'll usually hear it in the sense of some one modifying or customizing some standard piece of software to suit their personal preferences.

Since one of the central metaphors for everyday systems is that it's kind of like psychological software for human beings, I think it's appropiate to use the term here -- and not too baffling, I hope.

Plus I'm going to be talking about it a lot over the next few weeks, and "mods" is just shorter.

Today's episode, part one, I'm calling "To Tweak or not to tweak." With emphasis on the latter part, "not to tweak."

I'm going to emphasize the risks of changing an out of the box everyday system.

The subtitle could be, "in praise of vanilla."

Part two will be what happens if I'm insufficiently convincing today, and you want to know how to tweak anyway.

This is if you've given it a good solid try, but vanilla just isn't cutting it.

I'll discuss specific, concrete examples of mods that people have proposed or reported practicing, mostly focusing on no-s.

And I'll also talk about some more abstract, general best practices for modding.

Part three will be about what happens if even the tweaks I suggest in part 2 aren't enough to solve your problem,

You tried a vanilla system, say No-s or shovelglove, but it didn't work.

And even vanilla with sprinkles, with the sensible mods I'll describe in part 2, didn't do the trick.

And yet you still have this pressing personal problem to solve, and you still find the basic spirit and underlying principles of everyday systems appealing.

To run a little further with this ice cream analogy (probably not all that appropriate given that my most popular system is a diet, but whatever), in part 3 you want to come up with a whole new flavor of everyday system -- not available at any store -- from scratch.

This will be a fun episode because I'll get to go into the more big picture philosophical aspects of everyday systems.

But I'll also be careful to also keep in practical. It's going to be a nitty gritty how to guide on rolling your own systems.

In a way, the trilogy is sort of a degeneration, it gets worse and worse. Each episode assumes the advice I gave in the last one didn't work.

But that's sort of depressing, so you can also look at more positively it as going deeper and deeper into the fundamental principles of everyday systems.

And I think even the most upright, straight laced vanilla every day systems practitioners among you will find something useful or interesting in that.

OK, part 1 proper (I've got a FEW minutes left): To tweak or not to tweak.

I'm going to say flat out that I think most people who feel the urge to tweak should resist that urge.

Tweaking is dangerous.

And it's dangerous for three main reasons, I think.

The first reason is that moderation takes time. Although there are exceptions, it's probably going to take a long while to see results.

You have to be patient.

I know patience is next to chastity on most modern people's list of favorite virtues, but I'm afraid that's just how it is.

You're not going to have enough empirical data to even evaluate a system of moderation based on results until several months into it -- or it wouldn't be a system of moderation to begin with, it would be a quickie system, system of extremism.

And if you keep changing your system before you can even determine whether it's working, you'll quickly lose all sense as to what you're doing at all, never mind whether it's actually working.

Patience and setting expectations is actually a big enough issue that I think I'll devote an entire episode to it at some point, post trilogy.

But for now I'll give just two quantitative guidelines for what you can expect, in terms of how patient you're likely to have to be:

For diet, brian wansink, author of mindless eating gives this figure , that I like to throw around of half a pound a week is a reasonable expectation for sustainable weight loss

That's not a minimum, that's an average. And it's not much, if you're looking at the scale from day to day. You're gonna have trouble seeing this.

But over time, if you give it time, it can add up to something tremendous. And it's sustainable. Which is key.

Obviously this number is going to vary a lot on a case by case basis, but I think it's useful in deflating the crazy expectations a lot of us have thanks to magazines and TV charlatans.

For exercise, here's a quote from Dr. William Kraemer, a kinesiology professor at the University of Connecticut, taken from a New York Times article in Jan 2009:

Here's the quote:

"To make a change in how you look, you are talking about a significant period of training. In our studies it takes six months to a year."

End quote.

Six months to a year. And this is for people on a scientific, carefully monitored exercise program.

That's way longer than most people wait before passing judgement on a diet or exercise program based on results that are extremely unlikely to exist yet -- even if everything is going perfectly.

OK, enough about patience for now.

The second reason tweaking is dangerous is a little more profound. It has to do with the nature of authority.

It's kind of like this: the rules of a system (like no-s) are like the United States Constitution.

You CAN change the constitution, in fact it's got a whole well-defined legal process for making amendments, but it's not something you want to do lightly.

Because if you do make changes lightly, the constitution would cease to mean anything. It would no longer have any authority.

If there's no difference between the rules and whatever you feel like doing, you become like some petty dictator in the banana republic of yourself.

The laws, if they exist at all, don't govern anymore, they just legitimize your arbitrary actions. They're NOT really laws.

That might work fine if what you feel like doing always happens to be right, but I assume you wouldn't be in the market for a system of moderation if that were the case.

Every change you make diminishes the authority of the law, to some degree. I'm not saying it's never worth it, and in fact next episode that's pretty much the whole subject matter, how to make those rare worthwhile changes, but you want to be very careful. Because this dilution of authority is a real, significant cost.

And I think it's a cost that gets easily overlooked and underestimated by a lot of people these days, because the whole concept of authority, at least here in the People's Republic of Cambridge, is so profoundly un-cool.

But cool or not, if you want self-command, you're also going to have to learn self-obedience.

The third reason tweaking is dangerous is that it's actually kind of hard to get right.

I think at this point it's safe for me to say without too much hubris that I'm pretty good at coming up with and improving systems of moderation, but even for me, wrong ideas come much more frequently than right ones. The voice recorder I carry around with me is full of neat ideas that never quite make it. You guys see only the cream of the crop on the everyday systems sites. You probably have a very distorted idea of quality of my inspirations on average.

The reason it's so hard is that there are a lot of tradeoffs that aren't always obvious when coming up with new behavioral rules.

I'll go into what these tradeoffs are in the next two episodes, but even if you're aware of what the big ones are in general, there are always unanticipated ones. It's the nature of novelty. Something new is something unexplored.

It's safest (and most accurate) to assume that any given tweak is probably a bad idea, that isn't going to work. Even if it seems sensible at first.

Don't get me wrong. Self-experimentation is great. You could hit gold with your tweak. I wouldn't have come up with any of these systems to begin with if I hadn't "tweaked" in a big way.

But you want to limit your experiments to stuff that is really promising and then contain them, so they don't unduly risk "production" behaviors.

You don't want some new out of control rule to run three other established and successful rules off the road.

OK, so just to recap the three reasons NOT to tweak:

1) Moderation takes a long time so don't jump the gun

2) Every time you change the rules you diminish their authority

3) Your change is probably going to suck. I hate to put it so bluntly, but it's true. My changes usually suck, and I'm the guy advising you on this subject.

If you still want to tweak after all that, tune in next time.

Till then, thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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