Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 54

State of the Systems 2020

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Hi this is Reinhard from everyday systems. Happy new year -- and apologies in advance for worse than usual sound quality, my maybe strange whispery tone of voice, and possible interruptions. I’m recording under less than ideal conditions in the hope that I can actually get this episode out before midnight.

So, the big question everyone is wondering about as 2020 wraps up: how pandemic proof are the everyday systems? The no s diet, shovelglove, etc. Can they be done even in times of mega crisis? What has the evidence been?

Well, I’m just one person, and pretty heavily distracted by my own family’s issue, but I can at least report on my own experience.

Four years ago in the innocent time of 2016 I did a state of the systems podcast, describing whether and how well I personally had been practicing what I preach.

So I figure it is time for a reprise. It took me two episodes then, one physical and one (what I called) spiritual. This time I’m going to divide the systems into three categories: body, spirits, and soul but I will see if I can be more concise and jam them all into this one episode.

First, the No S Diet. The original everyday system, the mother of them all, born circa 2002. Not much change here. My compliance rate is very high. It’s more and more automatic. The biggest somewhat recent development that occurs to me is that I’ve been tracking No-s compliance (along with compliance for other systems)[a] in a spreadsheet I call my Life Log. It’s kind of like an updated habitcal on steroids. I’ve been doing this since 2016. So this will be year 5. Expect a separate episode about the Lifelog shortly. It’s a bit too much to cover as an aside here.

Shovelglove, conceived a few months after no-s, also in 2002, is also still going strong and largely unaltered although I did have a period of about 6 months earlier this year when I switched from doing it every weekday to just 3 days a week, alternating with running. I made the sessions correspondingly more intense to keep the total shovelglove work the same (i.e, the same total number of individual movement repetitions), just concentrated into three days. I had to stop doing this and go back to 5 days a week ordinary intensity shovelglove because it turns out running is way more dangerous than swinging a sledgehammer around and I can’t seem to do it for any length of time without injuring myself. Usually it’s my IT band, but this time it was my knee, and I think I may have ended my running ambitions for good. It’s been almost 5 months of no running, a doctor's visit, and stretches every weekday, and still everytime I go up stairs my knee makes this horrible crunching sound.

It’s a shame because I discovered to my surprise that I really enjoy running. I’m not particularly fast, and I can’t go particularly far, and I always seem to injure myself after a while, but I find it very meditative. I am a lousy “sit down and meditate” meditator, so that’s a big benefit, to be able to get something like that from running. That being said, my experience, these injuries in particular, have made me appreciate what a great, surprisingly relatively safe routine I have in shovelglove. I’ve still never injured myself doing shovelglove in almost 20 years now. Nor have I smashed any furniture or inflicted any collateral damage on innocent bystanders, human or feline. I think this perhaps counterintuitive safety record is due in part to how obviously dangerous it is to swing a sledgehammer around your living room. That obviousness forces you to be careful, there is no room for naive hubris. Whereas running seems safe, partially because it involves nothing resembling a medieval weapon of war, partially because everyone around you is also doing it, and that apparent safety can lull you into dangerous complacency. That at least has been my experience.

So what is my current shovelglove routine like?

As I mentioned, I do it weekdays, 5 days a week. Mornings, not first thing, but early, usually 6am. No new movements. I still do the same series of canonical movements, in the same order, that I recorded in the “routine of 7s” youtube video in 2016. As I mentioned then, I’ve so internalized my routine that I no longer bother with a timer, instead I just count out 14 reps of each movement, each side. Because I always do the same exercises in the same order for the same number of repetitions, it’s pretty much totally automatic.

Before shovelglove proper, I do a set of pushups (aka degraded beast), squats (aka fertilize the field) and stretches for my running related knee injury. After shovelglove I do some shadowboxing with 10 pound dumbbells. Uppercuts, hooks, straights, etc.

While I shovelglove, I watch either German news or netflix shows to practice my German and infotain myself at the same time. Recently: Babylon Berlin, Dark, Biohackers, Charite, Charite at war. I’m always astonished at how many people prefer to watch boring exercise videos when they could be watching something intrinsically interesting and/or edifying. It’s motivationally helpful to couple exercise with something enjoyable, and if you can have fun while learning something, you get to feel productive on multiple levels.

I’m using the same 20 pound sledgehammer I’ve been using for over a decade, having started with a 12 pounder, then jumped to a 16 pounder. At this point, I’m far more likely to go down in weight due to old age than to add more.

The other thing that my repeated failure at running has made me appreciate and double down on is Urban Ranger: my 2003 “inspirational metaphor” for walking whenever possible. Unlike when I started, I now have a step tracker, a fitbit. I got one for myself a couple years ago because after I got one for my oldest daughter, I thought us both having one would generate some productive friendly competition, to nudge her into moving a bit more, and boy did that turn out to be right. She now routinely gets more steps than me. But I’ve come to enjoy the quantitative nudge myself. At first I was simply curious: about how many steps do I get urban rangering? My phone gives me a basic idea, but my phone also misses a fair amount. At this point,  the fitbit is no longer simply informative. It’s definitely motivational as well. Focusing on a daily minimum rather than heroic achievements has been helpful. My daughter and I are currently both keeping an over 50 day streak of over 10,000 steps going, with an average substantially higher than that.

Sometimes this involves furious pacing around the dining room table, which I thought was ridiculous when my daughter first started doing it, but now I’m a convert, if it’s what it takes to make my daily quota. It’s no more ridiculous than using a treadmill. It’s less ridiculous, because I haven’t been suckered into paying for an expensive piece of machinery. And as covid friendly as it gets. No mask required. No lockdown however severe will mess with it.

Although I hadn’t of course had the dream of a suspicion that we’d ever be facing anything like the covid pandemic when I came up with shovelglove and urban ranger, I probably couldn’t have developed an exercise system more ideally suited to it than these. It continues to amaze me how little is actually required to get and stay fit and what a monumental distraction the multi billion dollar fitness industry is. You don’t need gyms. You don’t need machines or equipment. You don’t need spandex or “Luon”. You don’t need videos.  If any of these things actually help you, great, but my sense is that for most people they simply serve as excuses. People think, I don’t have the right gym, machine, video. If I did, I’d be fit. They put off fitness because think they’re missing something they don’t actually need. It’s like these things are exercise antimatter.

But let me tone the righteousness down a notch. As I mentioned I now own a fitbit and find it helpful and fitbits are not free. I fully acknowledge that treadmills and other gear can be helpful to other people. I just wanted to point out a psychological danger if you’re in wrong relationship with this stuff.

OK, so much for the three body systems. Onto spirits. Glass ceiling, my two drink a day limit on alcoholic beverages is still very much in effect, going strong since 2006. This, as I’ve mentioned before, is a harder system for me personally. My compliance isn’t quite as perfect as it is with the no s diet or shovelglove and big drinks can be a tempting way to bullshit myself into excess while still adhering to the letter of the law. I’ve recently (since May) taken it up a notch by limiting drinks to S-days. It’s a struggle. But so far mostly so good. Non-alcoholic beer has been helpful in this new S-day-only version. Some of it is surprisingly less bad tasting than I’d thought. And it genuinely deceives some lizard brain portion of me into thinking I got my fix. I like Run Wild IPA and Upside Dawn Golden ale from the Athletic Brewing company -- a little hard to find but I now subscribe to it. Having a lot of the stuff on hand enlists one vice, the miser (can’t waste!) to do battle against another, the drunkard. Keep your non-alcoholic beers conveniently in the fridge (and alcoholic beverages inconveniently out) and you can even get sloth in on the action.

Low smoking my 2010 Faustian system for reducing cigarette smoking to next to nothing I can barely take credit for anymore because my environment doesn’t really allow for much in the way of smoking but I’ll mention it because it’s still officially in effect and I still don’t have a problem with this particular vice, whether due to the system or not.

Body, spirits -- time for soul systems.

Audiodidact: I still since 2007 listen to audiobooks and audio courses every spare moment. Doing dishes, tidying up,  while urban rangering. With breaks for talking to myself into a recorder and then listening to what I’ve said once a week. I no longer have the time to transcribe it, as I briefly attempted to do when I started years ago. I go through at least two books a month, my audible subscription level, which is less than I wish I could manage, but pretty much the only reading I can squeeze in these days, given how little time I have between work and kids and other obligations. It’s great how much foreign language material audible has. I try to make every second audiobook German language and am able to get close to that. The talking into the recorder is both therapeutic and genuinely helpful in terms of problem solving, brainstorming new ideas, etc.

Chain of self command aka personal punch cards aka (as I usually call them to myself) yellow cards is my system for writing daily todo lists on an index card, one card per day, that I first podcasted about in 2007. I practice it with every increasing obsession and refinement. I have boxes of old index cards going back to 2006. My life would be chaos without this system. I should mention that it’s only the daily card version of this system that has survived. Despite many attempts to apply it to longer stretches of time nothing ever stuck. Though I have made progress on non-index card based bigger picture thinking that I’ll discuss when I revisit this system in more detail soon. Another note, unlike what I documented earlier, I now (and for several years) have been doing a simplified 2-column version (vs. 3 columns): “life” tasks in one column, “work” tasks in the other column. Built in work/life balance.

G-ray vision, my 2009 superman-inspired “mock super power” for not seeing certain things on the internet continues to be totally successful and surprisingly easy to practice. Amazing what clarity and a little bit of humor can do. Though I suppose I have to give fatherhood some credit as well.

Lawful Good Biker my 2010 system to remind myself to obey traffic rules while biking using the technique of enlightened self mockery has been more challenging during lockdown because it’s been confusing at times what the rules now are and in any case the temptation to do whatever on relatively carless streets has often proved overwhelming. Nonetheless, I still consider myself a practitioner, and Dungeons & Dragons continues to be a fruitful source of inspiration for Everyday Systems thought -- c.f. my recent podcast episode Demogorgon vs. Asmodeus. My 8-year old son (finally) learned to bike this year so the system was certainly discussed a lot.

Mantrafication, a system for reminding myself that I am on the hook for certain resolutions by recording myself making commitments and listening to them every day is off to a good start, even though it’s still a baby system only about a year old. I find that even if my mind wanders and I’m not actually listening to my commitments as I brush my teeth or whatever, the fact that I’ve listened to them adds another layer of psychological defence. Having paid attention or not, I know what I maybe wasn’t paying full attention to and that ritual recommitment is reminder enough.

The Study Habit is a system for, I guess, assimilating wisdom that I mentioned in 2016 but still have never discussed in detail. I will say nothing more about now besides the fact that I am actively engaged with it, and commit to recording an episode about it in 2021.

Timebox Lord, the newest system, revealed to the world only this month, is still very much in the honeymoon period. So I can’t tell yet really how durably useful it will be, but I’m optimistic. As I  mentioned, it plays very well with personal punchcards, which I’m finding to be mutually reinforcing between the two systems. In case you missed that episode, in a nutshell, Timebox Lord is a system for using the technique of timeboxing, applying yourself to a task for a set, short period of time, say, 14 minutes, both for implementational tasks where you have a pretty precise idea what needs to be done, and for bigger picture brainstorming and goal setting.

Finally, Weekend Luddite. After some years of lackadaisical compliance, it’s back in force. And more necessary than ever. First conceived in 2005, it works like this: between breakfast and dinner on weekends I don’t allow myself to use a computer or phone to do email, spreadsheets, microsoft teams, web browsing, coding, anything resembling work on one hand or aimless procrastination on the other -- the scylla and charybdis of the digital age. The geniuses in silicon valley keep on inventing new ways to challenge the boundaries of weekend luddite, but so far I’m managing to beat them back. I do allow myself to use devices for certain whitelisted tasks: GPS, texting to coordinate social events, recipes, shopping lists, music, movies.

Well, that’s 13 systems in total that I’m still practicing, 3 body systems, 2 spirits, 8 soul. +1 to make my favorite number 14 if you count the lifelog which I mentioned just in passing. For 2021, expect new podcast episodes on the lifelog, the study habit, and personal punch cards revisited. And please let me know if there’s anything else you’d like me to address. Thanks for listening. And may we have to worry less about systems or anything else having to be pandemic proof next year.

By Reinhard Engels

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