Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 51


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Everyday Systems Podcast #51 : Mantrafication

Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.

It’s been a while, an unconscionably long while, for a podcast.

But sometimes the truly enlightened self help guru needs to wander around in the wilderness for a bit in order to attain the next level of wisdom.

Why start up again now? Well, honestly this corona crisis has given me a bit of a jolt

And though I don’t have any specific advice to offer on that subject -- I’m just as bewildered as anyone -- I hope maybe I can be helpful in my usual way, or in my former usual way, by sharing thoughts on sustainable good habits. And with the big world around us falling apart, maybe it’s more important than ever to get our little personal worlds in order.

Today I’m going to talk to you about what to do when things get hard, really, really hard, with whatever system of self discipline you are following. Say you’ve had some initial success with the No S Diet or Shovelglove, but now you’ve stalled, or are backsliding, or find it’s not enough, that you need to take it up a notch.

This system I’ve come up for this is really an amalgamation of two older everyday systems, it combines elements of personal punch cards, that system of keeping a daily punch list of your tasks on a 3 by 5 index card, and audiodidact, listening to and speaking into a recorder for autodictactic study.

The combined system is called matrafication. It’s a system for boosting other everyday systems by turning them into highly personalized mantras or slogans that you repeat to yourself over and over again (or more precisely, listen to yourself repeating over and over again).

The process of mantrafication has four steps. I’ll list them first very briefly, then go over each in greater detail.

Step One, Reflect. Reflect on the difficulties you have been having with a particular system or issue.

Step Two: Write contract. This is how it’s like personal punch cards. Think about targeted responses to those difficulties. And formulate each response as a succinct commitment, so you have a sort of written contract with yourself with about 4-10 of these commitments or articles of the contract. Each commitment should be no more than a couple of sentences. The shorter the better. Some of mine aren’t even a complete, grammatical sentence.

You don’t have to write your contract on a 4 x 6 index card, but I think it helps, and that’s about the length you're going for. I would definitely hand write it vs. doing it electronically.

If you do use index cards, think of them as your contract cards. Personal punch cards, if you remember that system are punch lists, tasks, one-off-todos (they’re also smaller). Contract cards are higher level, a step back. Still specific, but strategic.

Step Three: Record. Make an audio recording of yourself reading these commitments aloud. You can use your phone for this, like the voice memos app that comes with iphones.

Step Four: Listen. Listen to this recording every day.

1. Reflect

2. Write contract

3. Record

4. Listen.

Let me go through each step now, in detail, with examples, and some thoughts about why this process is helpful.

Step 1: Reflect on your difficulties

The key word here is “your.” This isn’t about people in general. It’s not about what some self help guru has decided is best in the abstract for everyone. It’s about your particular difficulties.

Mantrafication works best with systems you’ve been struggling with for a while. You need to have some failures under your belt in order to be able to reflect on why you’ve failed. You need data in order to see the patterns in that data, the repeating situations that keep messing you up.

You might be surprised, when you sit down to do this, at how small this list of gotcha patterns is. That it’s the same old handful of challenging situations that is responsible for the majority of your difficulties.

For example, the everyday system that has given me the most trouble over the years is glass ceiling. This is my two drink a day limit on alcoholic beverages. I’ve been practicing this thing for about 15 years now, and it’s been very helpful, but it hasn’t quite been enough.

One of my repeated challenges with glass ceiling is that I have that first drink too early. When I come home from work, I really want a drink to unwind, and often, all too often, I’ll pour myself a generous glass of wine while I’m making dinner. If I can delay that first drink, it’s far easier to avoid a second. Or even the first sometimes.

At this point, you don’t want to jump to coming up with a solution. You just want to put your finger on the problem. To identify your triggers and problem situations. So time, having that first drink too early, was one of my problems. I’m not going to think of possible solutions yet. That comes later. Another problem was size, though I was pretty good about sticking to the number of drinks, they tended to be too large. Another problem was a combination of time and size. That if I made my first drink too big, it befuddled my judgement and all too often led to a second, also too big drink. If I made that first drink small, it was far easier to stop there, or to keep the second also small. I called that problem pace.

You’ll notice these labels, time, size pace. I find it’s helpful to have a label for each problem.

When I was done reflecting on glass ceiling, I had a total of 8 problems identified and labeled. No solutions yet, just problems.

The labels were: Time, size, pace, bullshit, break, ceiling, process, exception.

This is actually a lot for a mantra. Most of my others (I have 5 active mantras now) are in the 4-5 problem range.

Though you don’t want to rush this step of reflection, I was surprised by how quickly I was able to come up with a list that felt right. It felt complete, like I’d gotten all the main culprits, but not overwhelmingly long either. I think, in order to cover for ourselves, we often rationalize, and imagine that our problems are more mysterious and harder to pin down than they really are. Sometimes, a lot of times, it really is something as simple as that first too-early drink that causes a huge chunk of our difficulties.

When you reach this point, when you feel OK about your list of problems, and it can take a few reflection sessions to get to this point (don’t rush it), you can move on to the next phase.

Step 2: Write out a contract with yourself

You’ve got your list of problems. Now you need some succinct commitment you make to yourself about how to deal with each of them.

For example,

For Time, I wrote, “not before 6, unless socially.”

Now that’s pretty clear and pretty attainable.

You want it clear, so you can’t wiggle out

And you want it attainable, so you can actually do it.

Require of yourself the minimum required willpower to solve the problem at hand. No more. More is counterproductive.

Waiting till 7PM might be better in some sense than waiting till 6. But how much better vs. how much harder? And if it’s too hard, how much likelier am I to stop doing it or to fail?

There is a concept in medicine, the minimum effective dose. Take less than this dose and you stay sick, take exactly this dose and you get better, take more than this and at best, you waste a lot meds, and maybe even have a bad reaction, and side effects start to predominate.

A less ambitious goal that accomplishes just enough is what we are going for here. More is not better. More is worse. The minimum effective dose of will power, of change, is what we’re going for here.

Continue going through each of the problems you identified when reflecting until you have a “Minimum effective dose” commitment specifically targeting each of them.

You now have a sort of contract, a series of promises you are making to yourself, of short, clear, attainable promises, precisely targeted to your personal problems.

It may take a few sittings till you are happy with them. But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t put off recording them for more than a few days.

You can always revisit and revise and re-record the contract later if you wish. I’m now on my third version of the glass ceiling contract. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a fourth and a fifth were in my future.

When I write out each commitment, or article of the contract, I give it a number and a label. I generally keep the labels for the problems I identified during reflection attached to their corresponding commitments, unless something about the commitment, the process of how I’m dealing with the problem, is striking enough to make me rethink this. So: TIME, SIZE, PACE, etc. The reason I label each article is I want to be able to recall it to mind instantly if I’m in a situation where it might apply. Right, I’m being tempted, I need to think really fast, like one word fast.

I number them to make them feel more formal and impressive. And to remind myself that there aren’t that many, that this is doable. So 1. Time 2. Size. 3. Pace etc. Also then when I’m trying to remember them all, I’ll know if I’ve left one out, because I know how many there are.

I stick my contract cards in a special filing box just for them. When they’re in that box, they’re live, they’ve valid. It’s like the ark of the covenant. I had better respect whatever commitments are in that box.

It’s possible you could stop here, stop with the contract card, and the ark of the covenant, and get a lot out of systematically reviewing what you’ve written down here and committed to. That could be really valuable in itself. But I find the next steps of recording and listening to build on this in a big way.

Step 3: Record yourself reading the contract out loud

Before I hit the record button, I put a date on the top of the contract, a title “Glass Ceiling Contract” in the case we’ve been using, and a version number, since I fully expect that many contracts may require a few iterations to get down right. V1, v2, etc.

Then, very slowly, in as commanding a voice as I can muster, I read each contract.

Why record the mantra rather than just read it from the page every morning?

2 reasons.

It’s more impressive receiving injunctions from an external voice (even if that external voice was just last week’s version of you). You are more likely to listen to that voice with obedience and respect.

It also enables you to do something else while listening to this mantra. You can multitask. You can brush your teeth, flosh, shave, maybe all three. You can do it on a run, or while driving, or doing the dishes. You can never make the excuse that you don’t have time to hear the mantra.

When I’ve recorded the full mantra, I make a separate recording of just the numbered labels of each article, and then a third pass where I list just the labels, no numbers.

So for example:

Time. 2. Size, 3. Pace 4. Bullshit etc.

And then, when that’s all done, for eight of them:

Time Size Pace Bullshit etc.

So I wind up with 2 audio files containing three increasingly compressed versions of the mantra.

And the reason I break it up into two files is, if I make a change, I’m less likely to change the labels, or the order, so I don’t have to re-record that part. If you want to stick it all in one file, God bless you.

All together, a typical mantra including both files, all three “compressions,” winds up being about 2 minutes in length, give or take 30 seconds.

Step 4. Listen to this recording every day.

This is important.

Not because you are likely to forget all the great things you are supposed to do in your contract, what you are supposed to be doing (because honestly, that isn’t so hard to remember).

The important part is to remind yourself that you are supposed to be doing it

That you are on the hook.

That you have signed up for this.

That you have made a commitment

And that this commitment is still live, and still binding and still applies today.

This is the part people have trouble remembering. Not the what, but the that.

So the first step every day in your newly mantrafied system, whatever that system is, is listening to the mantra you’ve made for it.

If you’re doing mantrafied No S, your first no-s action of the day not avoiding ice cream before breakfast or whatever, but listening to your mantra. Accepting your commitment. Performing this ritual reminder and re-affirmation.

Given that it’s the first step in your system, it’s best listen to your mantra first thing or close to first thing in the morning.

I listen to mine (I’m up to five of them now) while I’m doing my morning ablutions: brushing my teeth, flossing, shaving. That way, by binding it to this existing morning routine, I ensure that I get it in first thing. And it doesn’t take any extra time, since I have to do these other things anyway. And it’s harder to forget to do it because I start to build a pavlovian association between these activities.

Well, that’s mantrafication for you.

Write Contract

So what if after listening to your mantra for a while you notice that some bits aren’t quite right and should be cut, or modified, or that you have something new to add?

Make a note of these changes. And when you’ve gathered a few of these notes (you don’t want to be rewriting the mantra every day), and slept on these changes for a couple of days, rewrite the mantra, give it a new date and version number, and re-record. I have five mantras now, that I’m listening to. About 10 minutes total. One is on version 3. Another is on version 2. Two other mantras I pretty much nailed the first time. And one, the newest, I know could use some revisions but I’m still in the process of collecting them.You don’t want to be constantly changing these things. You’ll lose your respect for them.

I’d love to share some of my personal mantras in their entirety with you all, to make it fully clear what they are like. But the thing is they’re all intensely personal, not just in a private TMI kind of way (though there is some of that), but they’re also full of very personal references and jokes and acronyms, and so, much as I’d like to share an actual mantra of mine, I have two easily mortified teenage daughters I must be mindful of, and they would take forever to explain.

But I can share a little of what some of them are about. Some of the labels at least. There’s glass ceiling, which I’ve discussed bits from already, and has been very successful, by the way, it’s helped me enormously, the mantrafication. This was my first mantra; I realized I was onto something. This was my first mantra. Then there’s Defense against the Dark Arts, psychological countermeasures for when I am low in spirits or throbbing with anxiety -- also very helpful. More recently the Social Contract, to deal with what an amazing doof I am in social situations while channeling Jean Jacque Rousseau. That one may need a little more time to sink in.

Maybe in a future podcast episode, when I present or revisit the systems each mantra is dealing with, I can go into a little more detail. Maybe I’ll be more daring then.

For now, I hope this was helpful, despite my inability to share completely what I’ve been doing. Please let me know on facebook or the bulletin board, or if there are any other issues you’d like me to podcast about now that I’m back from the wilderness. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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