Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 36

The Mods and Tweaks Trilogy Part II: How To Tweak

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Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday systems.com

Welcome to part 2 of the mods and tweaks trilogy.

If you didn't listen to part 1, you're going to have no idea what I'm talking about today so please go back and listen to that first.

Last time, I tried to discourage you from tweaking a system you have in place unless you've given it a good long time and really feel it's not working.

I used this legal analogy, of an "everyday system" being like the constitution. And I emphasized the AUTHORITY that this analogy is supposed to invoke.

The constitution is the law of the land. You have to respect and obey it.

This time I'm going to be talking about the other thing suggested by the constitutional analogy: the fact that you can make amendments.

And how to do it.

With some specific examples, taken from no-s.

But enough about analogies already and on to the practical details.

I think there are two questions about making amendments to your habit systems.

One is "what kinds of amendments should I make? Are there any common characteristics that good mods and tweaks tend to have?"

I'll talk about this at the end of this episode.

And it'll also spill over into the next episode, when I'll talk about design principles for coming up with new everyday systems from scratch.

There's significant overlap.

The second question is "what should the process for making these amendments be?"

And I think this question of "process" is the more important of the two.

Because if you come up with a good process, then you can afford to be wrong about the first question now and then.

If a particular mod-experiment fails, you can recover from it.

The ammendment process I'm going to suggest builds on an idea that I've talked about before, of making monthly resolutions.

It works like this:

You adopt the system I described before in a previous episode, monthly resolution.

If you missed that episode, don't worry, it's very simple.

The basic idea is that instead of making big new years resolutions once a year, as many people do, not very successfully, usually,

you make up to 1 smaller scale resolution every month.

The episode on monthly resolutions goes into more detail as to why this is a good idea in general, and I encourage you to listen to it,

but for now I'm just going to focus on how to apply it to the system amendment process.

Which is also very simple. A mod counts as your resolution for the month.

You only get one resolution of any kind, mod or otherwise, so this makes you consider whether your tweak is worth that one opportunity.

It puts a cost on your tweak, which forces you to think about it more carefully than you might otherwise: "artificial scarcity."

It also puts a limit on how fast and furious your tweaks can be.

Even if you're like, "whatever, I can't think of any other contenders for resolutions this month, might as well blow it on

whatever random crazy tweak that pops into my head,"

You only get one a month, so there's a limit as to how much dangerous novelty you can introduce. Only one random crazy tweak.

One can be plenty bad, don't get me wrong. But it's better than 3 or 5 or 10.

So on the positive side, with Monthly Reslution governing your ammendment process,

you get qualitatively better tweaks, because of the pressure of artificial scarcity.

And on the negative side, you get quantitative protection from potentially bad tweaks, because they're limited in number.

So what do you do at the end of the month?

You decide whether or not the mod was helpful.

Were you able to comply with it? Was it reasonable humane? Did it mess up your compliance with existing rules?

Were the results at least not the opposite of what you'd expect?

Because you only change one behavior, it should be not exactly easy, but easier to get a sense as to the impact it had, if any.

If you'd changed multiple behaviors, it would have been very difficult.

If the mod doesn't pass muster, drop it. Don't feel guilty. This was an experiment. You committed to a month, that was it.

Any contractual obligation is at an end.

Go ahead and give it the 21st amendment. Repeal it.

What if you find yourself having trouble with it DURING the month?

I think it depends on the level of trouble.

If it's a minor pain, I'd say try to tough it out.

Sometimes, usually, even a good tweak will take some initial toughing out, and you might be surprised that it gets easier after a bit.

But even if it doesn't get easier, toughing it out for a month has some advantages. First off, it's an exercise in willpower. It'll buff you up.

Secondly, it'll make you think twice about your next tweak.

If you know you're going to have to struggle with something for a solid month, you're going to take it more seriously.

Where I'd draw the line is if the tweak is messing up your compliance with previously established rules.

If you were doing vanilla no-s with good compliance, added a mod, and then find your compliance with vanilla no-s going to hell, drop the mod immediately.

Pre-existing rules always come first.

A few clarifications:

I don't mean one tweak per system per month.

I mean one tweak per month period.

I mean one resolution of any kind per month period.

So if you're doing no s, shovelglove, and urban ranger, you have to choose which one you're going to tweak.

The others have to get in line for a future month.

And If you're adding a whole new system in a given month, don't also tweak an existing one.

Or if you have any other kind of monthly resolution that's going to be your primary focus, don't pile this on top.

It's ok to wait till next month. You're not going to be able to solve all your problems now.

For now, you want to keep the number of innovations you're adding in any given month to a manageable level.

That way you can more clearly see if your tweak is having an impact,

and you can give your tweak (and your existing rules) the attention they need to have a chance of succeeding.

Novelty, a new behavior, is not just risky, in that it might not work.

It's also expensive, even if it works out eventually, because no new behavior starts out as a habit.

It takes weeks or months of practice to automate a new behavior into habit.

That means weeks or months where you have to spend precious willpower and attention on it.

Willpower and attention are very finite commodities.

If you change or add more than one behavior a month you run a very real risk of overdrawing your available funds.

Sure, you might sometimes be able to pull it off, but look at it from the perspective of a lifetime.

All you have to do is overdraw your fund of willpower and attention once and all your systems come crashing down. You do not want to risk that.

So get into the habit of budgeting your willpower and attention within your means.

Also, you don't HAVE to tweak something every month. Zero tweaks is fine. Zero tweaks is better than one.

Use your monthly resolution to get some project done instead. Or experiment on a new habit system.

If at any point you run into serious compliance trouble, consider REMOVING a rule rather than adding one.

Even if your rules are all individually good, the sum of them can be way less than the parts -- even something negative --

if you don't have the energy and attention they require.

The priority should always be compliance with existing rules.

If your compliance starts suffering after adding something new, the solution isn't to add yet more,

but reduce your total "rule burden" back to the point where you could deal with it.

If the precise details of the "monthly resolution" amendment process I've just described don't do it for you, that's ok,

I think it's totally fine to come up with different precise details.

But I do think that it's important to have precise details of some kind worked out.

That it is, in fact, a defined process, and not just a smokescreen for whatever you feel like doing.

And that these details somehow or other, take into account the importance of "willing within your means" and "paying attention within your means."

OK, before I completely run out of time, some characterics of good mods, with examples -- and counter-examples.

Almost all the mods I touch on here are described in far greater detail by the people who actually thought of them on the "No S Mods"

sticky thread at the top of the bulletin board or elsewhere on the boards.

So look there if any of these mods sound intriguing, or to find mods I won't have time to go into here, or to share your own mods.

I've divided the characteristics of good mods into 5 rules.

Rule #1. You should know what kind of problem your mod is going to address.

I'm talking very high level here.

Is it a results problem or a compliance problem?

A results problem is when you have no trouble following the rules -- they just don't seem to be getting you the results you want.

Your habitcal is solid green (with specks of yellow) but your scale hasn't budged in months.

A compliance problem is when you can't even quite get yourself to follow the rules to begin with.

There's a lot of red in your habitcal.

This will obviously also quickly become a results problem. But you can't jump to worrying about results before you even get compliance down.

In a way, compliance mods address a more fundamental problem.

But I think results mods are more dangerous. Because it's so easy to get overambitious with them.

Before you proceed any further, you should be clear in your head which of these problems you have, and whether, after listening to the last episode,

"to mod or not to mod," you still want to run the risk of making an amendment. Especially if you're considering a results mod,

9 times out of 10, patience is better than any mod

Ruler #2. A mod should make the smallest possible change that might actually be effective. The bigger the change, the bigger the risk.

Don't oversolve your problems. That never works. You have to solve them just enough, or it's unsustainable.

And the surest way to do that is to take tiny steps.

Rule #3. A mod should work with the existing rules.

Part of this is for the sake of clarity about what you're doing, part is just stylistic.

The aesthetics of your rule systems actually do make a motivation difference.

So on no-s, don't just not contradict the existing rules, but work with the ideas of "s-things" and "s-days" for stylistic consistency.

One very common no-s mod is not really a mod at all: change the number of meals.

No-s doesn't actually REQUIRE 3 meals, though it's what most people do, and a good default.

But people who find themselves getting too hungry between meals can add a 4th mini meal, for example.

There's a risk to this, in that it makes it easier for excess to creep in, but if you can't comply with 3 meal no-s,

then it's a risk worth taking, because the alternative is simply failure.

This is an example of a compliance inspired mod.

Other people find they have no problem with 3 meals and think they could manage with just 2.

This would be (presumably) a results inspired mod.

Some people have had fantastic success with 2 meals no-s. James, I think has lost over 100 pounds doing this (and shovelglove).

But I'd be very careful. A mere 2 meals could easily turn into serious deprivation and/or a total compliance collapse.

Another natural opening for mods in no-s has to do with those "no seconds" plates.

Some people have a rule for how big their plates (or at least, the plates they normally use at home) should be.

The idea being that plates have gotten rather enormous these days, and that eating off a smaller, say 9 or 10 inch plate, would make excess stand out more.

I don't do it myself, but it makes intuitive sense that this might help.

And it seems like something you could implement with a single shopping trip rather than incessant hand wringing:

just buy those 9 or 10 inch plates and get rid of the rest.

I guess the down side is that's an expensive gamble.

Another family of plate-mods involves plate division. What fraction of your plate to devote to veggies, protein, and starch, for example.

I personally find that my eyes are sufficient to detect any gross imbalances in terms of what's on my plate,

but this is something a lot of people have mentioned as being helpful.

When to take S-days is another natural opening for no-s (and shovelglove) mods.

In one sense, everyone customizes no-s in this regard because no two people celebrate the exact same holidays, vacation, etc.

But some people take their regular weekend S-days on other days to match their work or religious schedule.

Or take a single regular S-day a week.

Kathleen has a very interesting mod that involves accumlating non-weekend special days, sort of like employees accumulate vacation days at work.

Every month, she accumulates 2 special days that she can take whenever she chooses -- even retroactively after a failure.

As long as she has some special accumulated, she can't fail. A failure day just comes out of her reserve of unused s-days.

The advantage to this is that she has a buffer from the potentially demoralizing sense of failure.

The downside is a little extra keeping track,

and potential confusion about what I think is a real difference between planned exemptions and unplanned slip ups.

But it seems to be working great for her. And it's been a while now, so, maybe something worth considering if it appeals to you.

Another results inspired mod is to add a forbidden S: like "no starch."

Some people have had great success with this (Davestarbuck, I think, has lost 65 pounds doing this at least part of the time). But I'd be VERY careful.

Because 4) a mod should be also be clear and humane.

And I think it's easy for "no starch" to become confusing and cruel.

Starch is in a LOT of food. And it's not immediately obvious where. You have to start checking ingredients, etc.

A painful process even apart from the deprivation aspect of it.

I do not want to knock the success some people have had with this, obviously you have figured this out for yourselves,

but just to issue a general warning to the uncommitted against diet hubris.

If you want to do something like this, I think it's safer to maybe tighten up your definition of "sweets,"

by counting some previously borderline substance like say orange juice as a sweet,

than to add a whole new category of restriction.

It's a smaller, safer change, and doesn't actually change any of the existing rules -- it just interprets them a little more narrowly.

Don't jump to this, of course.

Only tighten the no-sweets rule if you think you're really having a problem with some borderline Sweet. Even small tweaks have their risks.

Other people do the opposite of tightening restrictions.

For the sake of compliance, they allow some precise, reasonably healthy kind of food to be "exempt" from the no-s rules,

promoting it to the OK status that caloric beverages like orange juice have on no-s.

"Too Solid Flesh" has reported great success doing this with cottage cheese.

Others have reported doing this with fruit, though I'm not sure how that's panned out.

I suspect fruit, though it sounds like the perfect exempt food,

may be a problem because then bulky healthy fruit will tend not to make it on your meal plates,

where it competes for space with less healthy, more fattening stuff.

Another common family of no-s mods is to add some, shall we say, clarity to what your S-days should look like.

Although a tempting opening for mods, this too, can get dangerous fast.

I covered these in the S-days gone wild episode I did on the subject last year, so for now, I'm just going to refer you to that.

5) Never add a mandatory restriction when a positive default will do the trick.

Restrictions are risky. They demand attention, and it's demoralizing when you fail to follow them.

They're necessary, to a degree. But they can quickly become overwhelming.

So consider supplementing your rules, if they need supplementing, with positive, optional defaults instead.

These can be intelligent dietary defaults, like I've discussed in a previous episode, or a habit of intentionally rewarding away resentment on S-days,

like I discussed in S-days gone wild.

You can even consider re-spinning some of the restrictive mods above as defaults.

The plate size rule, for example, is a terrible rule if it requires you to carry around your own plate with you wherever you go.

Or if you have to bust out a tape measure before you can decide whether to accept your hosts hospitality at a dinner party.

But if get a few smaller plates at home and say, "when I'm at home, on N-days, this is what I'm going to eat from by default."

That's a lot more humane and realistic, and there's not a lot of downside risk.

There are many, many other mods I could discuss here. But we're in serious overtime as it is.

Next episode: the conclusion of the mods and tweaks trilogy: what to do when a mere mod isn't enough,

how to come up with a new everyday system from scratch: the fundamental principles of systematic moderation.

Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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