Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 50

2016 State of the Systems Check-In (Spiritual)

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Mind Body Problem

Hi this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems.

Last time, to celebrate the 14th anniversary year of everyday systems, I gave a brief update on how some of the systems -- the systems having to do with physical activities, eating and exercise, are doing for me personally and (to a lesser extent) in the everyday systems community. I covered 4 systems: the no s diet, shovelglove, urban ranger, and glass ceiling.

This time I'm going to talk about what I'm calling, perhaps a little too grandiosely, the spiritual systems. You could also call them productivity or organizational systems, though I think they go a little beyond that.

The leitmotif last episode was that not much has changed. I'm pretty much doing all those physical systems plain vanilla, as I'd initially described them. And they've all continued to work very well for me. And based on slow but steady book sales and pretty lively activity on the forums and facebook, they're working pretty well for at least some set of other people as well.

With these spiritual systems that I'm going to talk about today there's been a little more churn...

Let me start with weekend luddite. The initial idea was no computer between breakfast and dinner on weekends. It's become a little more complicated since everything around me seems to be turning into a computer. The internet of things is closing in on me. I still aspire to practice something like the original intent of weekend luddite , but I've had to adapt the rules a fair bit, and it's clear that I'm going to have to continue adapting them as the march of technology continues to relentlessly take us wherever the hell it is going. For the time being, the old expression of the rule still stands as the core of weekend luddite. No "computer" in, you know, the y2k sense, no desktop or laptop, for an 8 hour + stretch each weekend day. Instead of before breakfast and after dinner, which I used to use as my logoff/logon markers, I just record my log off and log on times on my daily index card, which I'll talk some more about in a minute.

But obviously that's not enough anymore. Because laptops and desktops represent only some of my computer use, and a rapidly decreasing percentage at that. The computers hidden inside formerly analogue objects are a lot trickier to categorically ban. I can't completely block smartphone use because, I need a phone, I need to call people, I need to tell time, right, this is my watch now, there are things the smart phone now does that used to be done by non-computers that I'd still like to do: like listen to music or audiobooks, or look at a map to get somewhere in the car. So instead of forbidding the entire device, my entire phone, as I can do with my laptop, I whitelist or approve certain specific apps, or certain specific uses of certain specific apps, and I try to keep this whitelist small. At the moment, my white list of approved weekend luddite apps consists of the following: audible for audiobooks -- this is how I get most of my reading done and I don't want to mess with that -- , music, waze and google maps for driving, evernote (for shopping lists and such), the anki flash card app I'll talk a bit more about later this episode, and I am embarrassed to admit it but, instant instant messaging. This one I don't like. I feel like this shouldn't make the whitelist. But it seems you can't be a parent in 2016 without IMing other parents about which playground to meet at etc. So it made it. But everything else is off limits. Especially email and social networking apps. I'm sure this whitelist will have to change. And there may come a time when I have to rethink it entirely. Like, what am I going to do when super siri or whatever dreadful successor AI is going to become indispensable for modern people, something that's always on, that straddles individual apps, and is always listening. I don't know. It sounds pretty dreadful, frankly. A whitelist probably isn't going to cut it. Maybe I'll have to take a page from sabbath observant jews and take my technology avoidance up a notch simply because there's no alternative beyond that and total capitulation. "Fence around the law" works for the No s diet, maybe it'll be ultimately necessary for weekend luddite, too. But we're not quite there yet. So I'll defer the probably inevitable agony of having to figure that out for a little while longer. For now, weekend ludddite with whitelist still cuts it, if barely.

Now my compliance with weekend luddite is not perfect. If work stress hits the fan, or if I have a 4 hour bus ride to visit my elderly mom with no kids screaming in my ear, I may decide violating weekend luddite is worth it to take this opportunity to get necessary work done. But I record these violations on my daily cards both to guard against self-deception about how often I'm doing it and to provide some disincentive to do it too casually. I would say I'm about 80 maybe even 90% compliant over all.

Audiodidact, my system for listening to and recording spoken word audio in whatever scraps of time are available is still going strong, without much alteration. I would get next to no serious reading done if I couldn't do it while doing the dishes, or vaccuming, or urban rangering, or running, or driving. And audiobooks make that possible. I'd say I get in at least an hour a day like this, which is not bad considering the time pressures of the phase of life I'm in. I have over a decade of voice memos, this is on the output side of audiodidact, some through very rough times, that are interesting, sometimes even a little frightening to revisit. I take my voice memos with my phone now instead of a dedicated recorder and label them with a "T" for "todo" after memos that require follow up, versus memos that are just venting or observations.

Chain of self-command, aka personal punch cards have been the subject of more everyday system podcast episodes than any other and while the daily "soldier" cards have been fantiastically helpful, I'm afraid I just cant make the poor general and officer cards stick, and having gone into and come back out of retirement at least once, I'm afraid they're in retirement again, and I don't think they're coming back. That being said, the daily "footsoldier" card really does continues to be enormously helpful. And I keep leveraging it in new ways. To give you a sense of how consistent I've been in using them, I have one box of index cards per year since I started in 2006, so 10 boxes now with thousands of cards, as a testament to how useful I've found them, and how unwaveringly I've kept writing them.

So why is it so hard to take effective task management beyond the daily level? Why do the daily soldier cards fare so much better than the weekly or monthly officers and generals? I think part of it is just because planning ahead is hard, and we get less accurate in our predictive abilities the farther out we look. But I think another part is even deeper than that. It's not just that were straining our eyes trying to see the same kind of stuff farther out. But rather when we look farther our, we are, or should be, looking for something qualitatively different. And we should be looking with a different kind of eyesight. Not just "oh yeah" there it is eyesight, but evaluative eyesight: of course I see it, it's huge, but what does it mean? Should I go there and persue that? But what about that other thing? Can't do both. It becomes all about tradeoffs where the values of what you're trading off against are very hard to assess, because they're so far away. When we look beyond a day, we start having to think not just about what is feasible to do (which is hard enough) but have to ask what is worth doing (which is a much harder, philosophical question). To exaggerate only a little, you're pretty much jumping from the shopping list to the meaning of life. The temptation is to treat the meaning of life just like a shopping list and keep piling on little tasks. But that doesn't work. Because if you don't know your big picture direction, your tasks are going to be all over the place, and you will have far too many of them. You will make make yourself very busy accomplishing nothing.

Business is not productivity. It is the opposite of true productivity. Or I guess an opposite. Lying around catatonic would also probably be a good candidate but I suspect that's not your problem.

I don't have a satisfactory solution on how to deal with the Big Picture just yet. I think if I do at some point I graduate from self-help guru to straight up guru. But I think at least I'm getting a better sense of what the actual problem is: finding the most important thing, or very small number of most important things. And not letting a crowd of lesser, instrumental goals distract from this ultimate, most important goal or set of goals.

There's a great C.S Lewis quote that I think captures this problem beautifully:

"Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, almost always ends with the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made. Apparently the world is made that way. If Esau really got his pottage in return for his birthright, then Esau was a lucky exception. You can't get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first."

I'm afraid I'm going to have to move on from this topic now, not because I don't have a whole lot more to say about it, but because I'll never finish this survey of systems otherwise. I'll promise revisit it in another episode soon. There's nothing that's occupying my everyday systems thinking and beyond more at the moment than this issue of "First things first."

So on to something more mundane, with, however metaphysical connotations:

This is Low Smoking, my Goethes' Faust inspired system for reducing cigarette smoking to almost nothing while still deriving significant pleasure from very occasional indulgences. I'm still doing, though at very low levels indeed, far below what I discussed on the original low smoking page, which I encourage you to check out, there's a very funny picture there. The thing is, it's a little complicated to have to explain to ones kid's. So it may have to take a total hiatus for a bit as they approach the age where mom and dad are likely to get busted.

G-ray Vision, my superman inspired system for avoiding carnal distraction on the internet has been shockingly easy to adhere to. I don't talk about this system a whole lot, for similar reasons that I'm a bit reticent to talk about low-smoking. But I'm still practicing it, and especially now that I have kids, man am I glad that I do. Despite my reticence about talking about G-ray vision, and the fact that I've hidden it away pretty well on the site, I've been surprised to have heard from a fair amount of people, most of whom don't like it, though for opposite reasons. There are people who don't seem to have much of an appetite in this department and express shock that I do. And there are people who have appetite in spades, but no reservations about it. To the former, I say count yourselves blessed. It can be a drag. To the latter, if you have trouble understanding why a modern enlightened person perhaps ought have qualms about watching this kind of stuff, I invite you to screen the Russian/Estonian/Swedish movie Lilya4ever. Granted, that's about forced underaged prostitution rather than pornography, but the line is fuzzy my friends, and you might do well to ask yourself how much you know about the circumstances behind your favorite amatory productions, how much due diligence you do, whether maybe you know more about the provenance of your locally raised chicken eggs than the welfare of the human beings behind these images. I personally do not want to go anywhere near making myself culpable even if only in the most distance partial sense for the infliction of cruelty and degradation and misery like that.

Monthly resolution is a practice that was very helpful to me for a while, but well, there are only so many new habits I really need to acquire, and rather than regularly resolve to do unimportant or poorly specified things, I just let it drop as a regular thing. These days it can take me several months just to adequately identify and formulate a potential new habit to test. When I've got a promising candidate, great, I use it. Monthly resolution is useful then. But I don't just force myself to go through the motions if not. So I just wait till I'm ready, without this cyclical pressure.

Lawful Good Biker, my system for observing traffic laws with comical strictness while biking, is not only working for me, but I've passed it onto the next generation. My old vintage 1970s dungeons and dragons books, all of which seem to have a picture of what looks like satan dangling a half naked lady on the cover, were irresistible to my now 9 and 11-year old daughers, and appreciate the critical reference to character alignment. They bike a lot, and even though Cambridge is a very bike friendly city, we know several people, experience bikers, who have had serious accidents, and knowing that my daughters ride with the spirit of Gary Gygax hovering over them is some comfort.

The Study Habit is a system I don't think I've talked or written about publicly yet. I should probably dignify it with it's own podcast segment soon, but in the meantime, I'll say it's a way to incorporate long term study of things that I value as ends in themselves, not just as the means to some other end, into my daily routine. The key word is "habit." This isn't about short term cramming to pass a test or solve a problem at work, but about long term retention of really important stuff, and maybe even "retention" is too shallow a work, this is stuff I don't just want to know, but want to deeply assimilate into my character. I've been wrestling with how best to do this for years now. And recently I've been very impressed with a flash card tool called anki. I'll make decks of cards for my phone on subjects like Hebrew or German language and literature that I want to spend the rest of my life engaged with. Or decks of quotes about a moral characteristic I feel I need to work on, at the moment, courage. This is sort of like the 21st century version of Ben Franklins virtue ledger (though strangely enough, courage was not one the 13 virtues he identified as having to work on -- guess that was just not a problem for him). Then I'll review those daily, and anki has a very efficient "spaced repetition" algorithm to show me just the cards I need to see when I need to see them to maximize long term retention. Other decks I've made are to remember people names and work and in various social circles, something I'm naturally retarded at. Or even technical, work stuff that my brain has stubbornly resisted for too many years (for example, the git version control system). Not quite as deep as the Ben franklin virtue stuff and maybe not core study habit, but hey, anki is a great tool for it as well.

Well, I that's it. 8 more systems reviewed, only one of which I'm no longer regularly practicing. So 12 systems total between these two episodes. Did I miss anything important? Please let me know, or if you have follow up questions about some of the systems I did discuss. I do plan to do follow up podcasts on my daily card tweaks, systematically attacking the meaning of life problem aka first and second things, and the study habit. So if those are what pique your curiosity most, rest assured, it shall soon be satisfied. And as I mentioned last time, Glass ceiling is also going to received a full episode reconsideration.

That's all for now. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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