Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 56
Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems.
Often, in our self-improvement efforts, as elsewhere in life, we are concerned about efficiency. Minimum effort or attention for maximum result. One unit of effort does five things rather than five units of effort do one thing.
And this is good. Efficiency makes use of limited reserves of resources, like time and willpower. It moves us forward quickly.
But it’s not the only thing we should be concerned about.
There’s also the opposite: redundancy.
Normally, redundancy is bad, right? It’s doing the same thing twice, repeating yourself. It's inefficiency. It’s wastefulness itself. In the UK, “to be made redundant,” is a euphemism for being laid off.
But there is also such a thing as good redundancy, intentional redundancy you build into a system to make it more resilient if one of its components fails, to make it “fault tolerant.” You do things twice or three times in order to make sure it happens at least once.
In tech, this is done all the time. If you were purely concerned about efficiency, you’d have just one server, say, to host your app. That would be the most cost effective and simplest way to get your app working. And it would probably work fine, for a while, until the server goes down. And so what most tech operations these days do is introduce redundant, backup servers, sometimes a lot. Amazon web services advertises what they call “eleven nines” of uptime, that their infrastructure stays up 99.999999999% of the time (I lost count there). And the way they achieve that is through massive redundancy -- “the cloud.”
You can see this intentional redundancy in older tech than computers, too, take airplanes. Now there are many reasons why multiple engines are useful in airplanes, but a big one is that if one engine goes out, the plane doesn’t drop like a stone.
You can even see it in ancient tech. Take the famous Latin proverb: “destitutus ventis, remos adhibe” (“if the winds fail you, use the oars”). The Romans built their galleys with sails and oars, redundant systems for locomotion.
And it’s even built into nature itself, natural systems, our own brains. We have something called neural redundancy, where different physical neurons can fire in the same patterns to route around damage (among other things).
So how do you engineer good redundancy into habit systems? And how do you keep it from being bad redundancy?
Well, let’s take the No S Diet as an example. How might you add “good redundancy” to this habit? Additional behaviors or reminders or supports besides the bare system to keep dietary excess in check? So that if one system or more of these systems or supports fails, you can still catch yourself and avoid or minimize the excess?
Well, first, to start, you’ve the system itself, the simple rules, those 14 words: “No snacks, no sweets, not seconds, except (sometimes) on days that start with S.”
That’s one layer. The primary system itself.
You might also identify some good intelligent dietary defaults, convenient, reasonably healthy no-s compatible meals with simple, easy to prepare ingredients that you make sure to have on hand, that you can reach for on days when you’re feeling uninspired. Having one or more of these identified and available might help you resist the temptation to reach for a convenient but less ideal alternative.
That’s two layers.
You might also decide you want to track your compliance with No S as an additional support. Say, using some form of habit calendar or spreadsheet lifelog. Knowing that you are tracking your habit like this gives you an extra motivational nudge, an extra feeling of accountability if only to a piece of paper or an electronic spreadsheet. The knowledge that you’re going to have to mark a failure in red might help you catch yourself when you’re about to reach for that bag of chips. You might think “this chip will taste good. But not as good as it’s going to make me feel bad to have to mark it in red in my habit tracker.”
That’s three layers.
You might also build it into your daily planning tool, say personal punch cards, that physical one index card per day todo list system I’ve spoken about several times over the years. However you manage your daily todo lists, consider making no-s compliance a task on that list to cross off. Crossing off tasks feels good. Not being able to cross off a task feels bad. It will make you pause before doing something that will prevent you from crossing off that task.
That’s four layers.
You might also include an admonition to practice No S in the recorded mantra you mesmerize yourself with every morning as I explained in my semi-recent podcast on mantrafication. Besides reminding yourself of your commitment to the basic rules, the mantra might contain notes about particular situations that are giving you trouble. For example, “no picking food off your kid’s plate to keep it from going to waste.” Or “remember how bad nighttime eating makes you feel. It’s never worth it.” I find variations on that last theme, “remember how bad it makes you feel” particularly helpful. Because almost always, when I violate a no s or other habit system rule, whatever sensual or other pleasure I obtain is overwhelmed by disappointment and shame and reminding myself of that fact in advance really does help. Strange, vivid and highly personal, idiosyncratic mantras can be particularly effective. For example, you might elaborate on the nighttime eating by recording something like “imagine, when you open the fridge to raid it at night, that it’s that scene from ghostbusters, when Sigourney Weaver opens the fridge and there’s this glowing orange, demonic world inside, the temple of Zuel.” Simultaneously terrifying and ridiculous -- very effective!
Mantrafication. That’s five layers.
You might also do some kind of food logging, noting in your lifelog or elsewhere, not just whether you complied with the no s rules, but what you ate each meal or between meals. If full food logging is too much (and it can be a lot), you could just do a negative food log, logging only infractions and borderline “funny stuff” you’re not sure about, like “virtual plating.” For more on this look up my podcast ages ago on negative tracking. Either version of food logging, full or negative, will make you think twice before excessive eating because you know you’re going to have to write it down. That’s not only potentially embarrassing, but work. The less you eat, the fewer infractions against your system, the less you have to write down. You are enlisting laziness to help you fight gluttony.
That’s six layers.
One should probably think about some kind of policy around how frequently and how to track weighing oneself on the scale. Once a month, once a week, twice a day, never. Do you record this number? Where? Do you track a monthly or moving average? Whatever it is, you should think about what your policy is so the scale doesn’t just ambush you and you’re shocked and surprised and disoriented by the number you see there. I’ve semi-recently become a convert to frequent, regular scale stepping (twice a day at set times), mostly because having so many data points prevents me from taking any one of them too seriously, and then being thrown into irrational exuberance or despair by some outlier, but also because knowing that that next weighing is coming in just a few hours is an additional disincentive to stuff myself silly and risk bumping that number up. A smart scale (I use a fitbit scale) makes this easy to track.
That’s seven layers.
I could go on -- but I think you get the idea.
Now I don’t know whether even following all of these will get you eleven nines of uptime like Amazon web services, but frankly, you don’t need eleven nines of uptime to succeed at the nos diet or other everyday systems. You don’t even need two nines. One nine, 90% compliance is probably enough for most habit systems. What each layer might buy you, if you are having trouble, is some extra support without dangerously meddling with the core system, without changing the sane and solid foundation of No S under your feet.
Do you need to do all or even any of these layers? Of course not.
Redundancy is by definition unnecessary. It’s backup. It’s plan B and C and D.
The fewer layers you can get away with, the better. Though you might want one more layer than you think you need.
And even if you don’t think you need any now, it can be helpful to know that these redundant systems are available if you should. Just in case. There are even more I could think of, and I’m sure you can too. This list is just a starting point, inspiration.
Many of the systems I mentioned you’ll notice are not diet specific. You can use a lifelog, personal punchcards or mantrafication for example to buttress almost any habit you are practicing. You can journal not just about food but exercise or meditation or whatever. Whatever habit you are working on, good redundancy is available, and you should consider your options.
I will wrap this episode up with a kind of summarizing benediction/zen head scratcher: whatever system you are practicing, may you have just as many unnecessary layers as you need, maybe one more (if you can wrap your head around that paradox).
That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.
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