Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 37

The Mods and Tweaks Trilogy Part III: When a mere mod isn't enough

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Hi this is Reinhard from EverydaySystems.com

Today -- at long last -- I'm going to wrap up the mods & tweaks trilogy.

I'm going to talk about what to do when a mere mod isn't enough: How to roll your own everyday system from scratch.

Or more accurately, not from scratch, but stitched together from certain reusuable core components and design patterns,

to use some software engineering terminology, and in particular one core idea, that I'm going to focus on today.

In a way, today's topic of everyday Everyday Systems Design is a bigger subject than that of the whole mods and tweaks trilogy.

So big, in fact, that I'm probably not going to be able to do much more than introduce it.

And I'm kind of sneaking it in by making it part of the trilogy here.

Because wanting to create a new system isn't necessarily step three of a mod attempt.

You might be in the market for a new system, not because one of my "out of the box" systems didn't quite do it for you,

but because you're trying to solve a completely different problem, one that I haven't even attempted to solve.

I only have systems for stuff that I personally had a problem with.

Maybe you're an obsessive social networker. Maybe you have trouble sleeping regular hours.

Maybe you have trouble keeping your credit card debt under control.

I never had a much of a problem with these, so I don't have systems for them.

But I think they'll all good potential targets for systems.

But what do I mean by systems? What is an everyday system?

What do the No S Diet, and Shovelglove, and Chain of Self-Command, the personal punch cards, etc. all have in common?

And on the surface, it may not seem like not whole lot.

One involves cutesy rules, the other one a sledgehammer, the other a pack of (prefereably yellow) index cards.

But it turns out, if you look more closely, that they do have a lot of things in common.

So many, in fact, that I'm not going to have time to go into them all today.

Today I'm only going to have time to go into one. And even that only barely.

Because it's the biggest.

It's the core idea behind all the everyday systems: I call it Systematic Moderation

Now, to be fair, I didn't come up with this term until years after I'd thought of most of the individual systems.

But I do think the idea behind the term was there from the beginning.

People now think of me as this tremendously organized and together person.

My office mate talks about "Reinhard level discipline"

But I was emphatically not like this back in late 2001 when the first everyday system, the no s diet occurred to me.

I was kind of a mess. Not a total disaster. Not rock bottom and all that.

But someone who was constantly making grand resolutions I didn't keep, starting projects I didn't finish,

indulging behaviors I didn't feel good about.

But something clicked with no-s, when I came up with that system.

I got something profoundly right, that was deeper than just the no-s rules, as helpful as they in themselves were.

Because not just did I lose a bunch of weight, and learn to enjoy eating again, diet specific stuff,

but I started coming up with system after system. Knocking off my problems one by one.

And I'm convinced that the thing that clicked, and turned me into this systems factory,

is this idea that I've only recently found a good label for: systematic moderation

And I've also come up with sort of a subtitle for this label.

Two subtitles actually, but I'll save the second one for a future episode.

Sytematic Moderation: for sustainable good habits.

You may remember that I previously did a podcast episode on "Extreme Moderatation".

Systematic Moderation sounds similar, and it is similar.

And you can see how I was onto this idea even back then, in January 2007.

And not just onto it, but using very similar terminology.

"Extreme Moderation" was a great term for an initial jolt, as a rhetorical tool.

But as a general purpose label, I think "Systematic Moderation" is better.

For one thing, "Extreme Moderation" is an oxymoron, a paradox.

And paradox can be powerful, but it's like cayenne petter, you want to use it sparingly.

"Systematic" is a little easier on the mental digestion. And so more appropriate for everyday use, I think.

It's also a broader, encompassing term.

"Systematic moderation" can contain the connotations of extreme clarity and precision that I talked about in

the extreme moderation podcast,

and it ties into the software systems metaphor that I've used before with Everyday Systems.

It even just sounds more like everyday systems, right? They've both got the root word "system" in there.

But more importantly, Systematic Moderation suggests the alternative approaches to self-improvement:

On the one hand, you've got UNsystematic moderation.

On the other hand, you've got systematic extremism.

And I think this is important because I think it becomes very clear what I'm talking about

and why it's so useful when you look at these three approaches in conjunction.

UNsystematic moderation is basicially conventional wisdom, stuff your grandma used to tell you.

"All things in moderation." "Eat not to excess, drink not to dullness."

Or my favorite "Appetite is the best sauce."

Some of it is trite, but some of it is rather beautiful.

The problem with it is not that it's false. It's true. Moderation is good. And by all means, let's continue to praise it.

The problem with it is that it's insufficiently specific to solve concrete problems.

A saying like this can sound so salt of the earth, so homey and solid, but if you think about it,

it's almost ethereal, immaterial, in the way it's detatched from the practical realities of everyday life:

What precisely are you supposed to do? Here at this moment right now?

It's really just a value judgement. It tells you what's good. But not how to attain that good.

It's inspiring, but not instructive.

The opposite approach is Systematic Extremism, which is not at all inspiring, but VERY instructive, dictatorially instructive.

And I think, historically speaking, it's a reaction against unsystematic moderation.

Because I think, to some extent, unsystematic moderation did use to work.

Back in the 19th century and before,

if you ate too much today you'd starve tomorrow,

of if you procrastinated chopping enough wood in the summer you'd freeze to death in the winter.

And society provided traditional structures to buttress your resolve well before it came to that.

You'd be ostracized most likely before anyone died as the result of your immoderation.

Grandma didn't need to be all that precise about moderation because nature and society would give you

painfully specific and immediate feedback.

But today calories are cheap and convenient enough that you can stuff yourself today and tomorrow and the next day.

And so on. For a long time before the results of your behavior catch up with you.

The Grim Reaper, that most persuasive of motivational speakers, is no longer such an immediate presence.

And tradition, is pretty much out of the picture as well.

Immoderate behaviors still hurt you today, but it takes a lot longer to feel their effects.

You're not going to die tomorrow (or even be ostracized) because you were lazy or greedy today.

The feedback loop is a lot longer. It's no longer self-correcting.

By the time you get the feedback, the bad result, it's, maybe not TOO late to correct the problem,

but certainly late enough that the underlying behavioral problem that caused it has gotten really bad in the meantime.

You've given your bad habits a lot of time to get deeply ingrained.

So people started to get frustrated that unsystematic moderation wasn't working anymore.

And some enterprising self help gurus saw its deficiency, that it was unsystematic.

that it was mushy and imprecise. And they corrected that. They added precise rules and system.

But they didn't see it's strength, moderation.

They threw the baby out with the bathwater. Or the grandma out with the bathwater.

There are two basic kinds of systematic extremism.

One relies on an extreme of deprivation. No alcohol. Or, no fat. Or no carbs. Forbidden foods diets.

The other relies on an extreme of attention. Count grams of fat. Or calories. Or carbs. Substance accounting diets.

But I think the difference between them is ultimately superficial.

They both give specific rules and the rules tend to focus on stuff. Stuff that you should avoid. Or stuff you should count.

And I think the problem is not so much the specificity of these rules -- specificity can actually be a very powerful thing

I think the problem is what they're focusing on and the scale of what they're focusing on. Not you. Not behavior. But stuff.

Really small stuff.

Unlike grandma's conventional wisdom, which was too high level, this is too low level. It's microscopic. Literally.

Calories. Carbs. Molecules. Biochemistry.

Grandma's wisdom was immaterial, this is almost reductionistically materialistic.

I like to think of systematic moderation as a kind of hegelian synthesis of these two opposing

but equally doomed strategies.

Systematic Moderation agrees with grandma about the value of moderation, and with the extremist gurus about the value of clarity, system and precision.

And it frames the problem on just the right level of granularity.

It addresses problems not on the level of high level value judgments, or on low level biochemistry,

but on the middle level of behavior and patterns of behavior.

Now all three of these levels are true in some descriptive sense.

You could accurately describe the problem of being overweight, for example,

on the level of a failure of "all things in moderation."

some moral value is out of whack

or in terms of biochemistry. Too many calories are being digested, not enough are being burned, etc.

That is literally, truly what is happening. In both cases.

But it's the middle layer of precise behavior that is, not only descriptively accurate, but prescriptively useful.

No-s, for example gives, you a pattern of meal based eating.

It doesn't obsess about stuff, particular kinds of food. What molecules you are eating.

Nor does it belabor the obvious (I hope) fact that moderation is good.

Instead it gives you a specific pattern of moderate behavior. It's very clear, but it's clear about behavior, not molecules.

Here's another example.

The problem is alcohol. Problem drinking.

UNSystematic Moderation would be just try to drink less. No quantification. Just try not to drink so much.

The Systematic Extremist position would be total abstinence.

Systematic Moderation (for example, you could think of others) glass ceiling, a 2 glass a day absolute limit.

Now all three of these approaches can be effective, and are for some people.

I don't want to suggest that systematic moderation is the solution for all problems for everyone.

Especially with alcohol systematic extremism -- total abstinence -- is often necessary.

But I do think that systematic moderation could help a lot of people who are unsuccessfully struggling with one

of the other alternatives, and might not even realize that there's this third approach.

The distinction between these three approaches is often kind of like you if you asked three people for

directions on how to get somewhere.

Unsystematically moderate Grandma would said, "just be there. It would be good if you were there." Though she'd express it in more charmingly poetic and pithy way.

And extremist Guru would say, "first send an electrical signal from your brain to your foot to make your right foot forward,

then your left foot." Etc. Except I don't know enough about physiology to go into all the detail that guru would tell you.

An advocate of Systematic Moderation would be the only one to give you actual directions, that you'd recognize as directions:

Go 2 blocks. Turn left on main street at the light. Etc.

All three speak the truth. But only the last one is likely to get you where you're going.

Which brings me to the second part of the formula: "for sustainable good habits."

Which is the "where you're going" part. It's a statement of what the output of your efforts is going should be.

Not a results goal, but a habit.

Because you're not practicing systematic moderation to hit some finite result.

Say, lose 50 pounds. Or run a 6 minute mile. Or whatever.

You may achieve these things in the process. But that's not the point.

The point IS the process:

the behavioral structure you put in place that's going to stay there long after you hit these goals.

Goals can be great. They're often necessary. If you have a deadline at work, that has to be a goal.

You don't have a choice in the matter.

But I think in terms of self improvement goals can be dangerous.

Because a goal implies "you're done."

But with most self-improvement, behavioral problems, you're never done.

It's like I say in my no-s diet before and during page:

"After" is a myth. It's "before" and "during." "After" is when you're dead.

Or on the shovelglove home page where I talk about "the Progress Trap."

"Progress is intrinsically temporary -- maintenance is what you'll be doing for the rest of your life."

You want to get out of "Goal-think" and into "habit-think"

And to the extent that you can't get rid of it, and I don't think you'll ever be able to completely get rid of it,

you want to use "goal-think" and redirect it to serving "habit-think"

By making behavior, behavioral compliance the goal rather than some result of that compliance.

For example, instead of focusing on pounds lost if you're doing no-s, or the weight of your shovelglove,

focus on days on habit, or even better, use the habitcal

"Habit-think" is powerful not just in contrast with "goal think,"

but also with this false modern dichotomy that a lot of us believe in,

between irresistible addition on the one had, and total freedom on the other.

"Habit-think" acknowledges that there are irrational forces pushing you to make decisions.

It's not naive about that.

But it's not fatalistic like addiction. These forces can often, can usually be resisted.

And what's more, they can be made to work for you.

The term Addiction has this implication of always being bad and always being irresistable.

The best you can do is avoid it, avoid a trigger situation, hide.

But Habit has degree and direction. There are strong habits and week habits, there are bad habits and good habits.

And it also has dynamism. Habits can change.

It's not only hugely inspiring, to think in terms of habit like this, in the sense that you no longer think you're doomed,

it's also just useful. It opens your eyes to these powerful tools.

OK, what about SUSTAINABLE good habits?

Now I know "sustainablity" is this obnoxiously trendy word at the moment.

So it's with some reservations that I use it here.

But, if you're going to worry about macro political issues like environmental or energy sustainablity,

shouldn't you start by getting your own house in order?

By making sure your personal habits are personally sustainable?

That you can practice them without ruining --not the environment, or the world -- but yourself?

I don't want to say these big issues aren't also big problems that demand our attention.

But it seems funny to me that so many people seem to see sustainablity problems on this big societal level

and not in themselves.

Sustainable habits can be surprisingly hard to come up with. And the biggest reason is hubris. People are overambitious.

And they're overambitious without even realizing they're being overamitious.

I'll give an example.

The biggest opening for this kind of hubris is time.

People think, for example, I want to exercise. Or meditate. Half an hour a day. That isn't much, right? At least to start.

Well, half an hour a day is actually a lot. Maybe not today, when you're making this resolution. But many days.

And remember, this is something you want to do for the rest of your life.

As soon as work gets stressful, or family chaos rears it's head, half an hour becomes an unbearably burdensome commitment.

And then your habit gets interrupted. You can't maintain it. It ceases to be a habit. You stop doing it.

When you're considering a new behavior to add to your routine, come at it like you're allocating some permanent slice of yourself, for the rest of your life.

Not just half an hour today. But half an hour every weekday.

Remember, it's not a finite goal. It's not a step toward something, that's going to be done and over.

It's a permanent slice of something, a slice of you, a slice of your whole life.

Imagine you have your whole life lying in front of you and you're slicing out a cross section.

Half an hour is huge when you look at it that way.

So what you should do instead is come up with an embarrassingly small amount of time to commit to at first.

That's unobtrusive enough that you can stick to it even when things get rough.

I'm fond of 14 minutes, but it might be better to start even smaller. Start with 5 minutes. Or 7 minutes.

If you can actually comply with this tiny amount of time for a solid month, then maybe permit yourself to go from 5 to 10, or from 7 to 14 or whatever.

The extra time is a reward from your sober moderate self to your ambitious, enthusiastic self.

You want throttle your hubris, not let it run away with you.

That's the hardest part about self-disclipline. Not doing more, but doing less. Pacing yourself.

Holding yourself back so you can keep on going for the rest of your life.

Stretching that enthusiasm out over years and decades instead of letting it immediately exhaust itself.

And I'd never go much beyond 14 minutes for any daily or N-daily routine. Maybe 20, tops. Because think about it: you might get much better at

meditating, or French, or exercising as you practice whatever it is you're doing, but that doesn't mean you're all of a sudden going

to have more time to do it in.

It sounds ridiculously obvious when I state it like this, but I'm amazed when I talk to people about their self improvement projects

at how often they fall into this "I'll have more time as I get better" fallacy.

So practice living with that time commitment now, up front.

Progress is going to be about making that time denser, not longer.

And I wouldn't systematically explicitly about making it denser. Just worry about making it happen at all.

Carve out the time, consistently, provide the external frame for your behavior to happen in, and the frame will get filled in.

Focus on the letter of the law and the spirit will come.

Now please don't feel discouraged if you're one of those people who's inclined to be overambitious

Don't think you have to make do with an attainable but uninspiring vision of what you can become,

That you're settling for mediocrity by being moderate.

Because the goods news is, and this is something I've been really amazed to experience,

is how much of a difference even very short blocks of time and small amounts of effort can make if you're

consistent about complying with what you set out to do.

14 minutes of exercise every N-day can transform you.

For example.

It really doesn't take much. It just takes consistency.

OK, so that's the core idea, Systematic Moderation, and the theory behind it.

I think if you keep that idea in mind and nothing else, you'll be a fair way to coming up with your own systems.

I have a lot more specific components and design patterns that extend this core idea of systematic moderation,

but in the interest of avoiding podcast hubris and getting this episode (and this trilogy) done,

I'm going to have to save those for future episodes.

Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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