Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 62

State of the Systems 2021, Part 1 (Body & Spirits)

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Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems.

Well, it’s been another pandemic year. And beyond the depressing news, it’s been a personally difficult year for me and my family, as I’m sure it has for many of you,

But, on the bright side, it’s been another fantastic opportunity to test the true mettle of Everyday Systems. At the end of 2020, with just hours to spare, I put out a state of the systems podcast, a quick check-in on the state of my thinking about and personal practice of 14 of the habit systems I’ve developed over the years. I hadn’t done such a thing since 2016, but 2020 seemed to demand it. And so, alas, does 2021, so here I am again – though a couple of weeks late this time.

Despite or maybe because of the world going crazy, I somehow managed to devote more time to experimenting with and thinking about my habits and Everyday Systems in 2021 than I have in many years. I put out 7 podcast episodes, covering six new (or at least, previously undescribed) systems. A pretty heroic output, by my standards at least for the last decade or so. I’m hoping to be able to keep up a cadence of one new episode a month, as I have for the last few months, for all of 2022. But as you know, “loose lips sink ships,” so pretend you didn’t hear that.

I’ll stick with the organizational system I used last year in my review, dividing the systems into three categories: body, soul, and spirits. As you’ll see during my review, I use this division, the tripartite self, a riff on plato, in a bunch of the systems themselves. I’m finding it, like “N and S days” or “14 minutes of schedualistically insignificant time” to be a useful reusable system-building sub-structure. I’ll also add a fourth category for meta systems, systems for managing systems. I should warn you that some of the systems have shifted around a bit, in terms of where they fall – so brace yourselves.

I just counted and it looks like I’m going to check in on about 17 total systems. That sounds like a lot. But consider that even the flagship system, the No S Diet, is just 14 words. Brevity is the body, spirit and soul of everyday systems. That being said, it’s still a little too much to fit into a single episode. So today I’ll cover Body and Spirits systems. Next episode, Soul and Meta.

Before I dive into individual systems, here’s a quick lay of the land, so you know what you’re getting into over these next two episodes:

There are Four body systems: the No S Diet, Shovelglove, Urban Ranger, and Lawful Good Biker. Last year I classified Lawful Good Biker as a soul system but I think it makes more sense in body (also soul is getting really crowded).

Two spirits systems: glass ceiling and low smoking.

Seven soul systems: Audiodidact, Demogorgon vs. Asmodeus, G-Ray vision, the Study Habit, Timebox Lord, VC Cat and Weekend Luddite.

Finally, the four meta systems, systems for tracking and managing other systems: the Life Log, Loose Lips Sink Ships, Mantrafication, and Personal Punch cards.

Starting with the body systems, if rough chronological order of invention:

The No S Diet: No snacks, no sweets, no seconds – except (sometimes) on days that start with S. This is my original everyday system, revealed to the world in 2002, and one I have very little personal trouble with, over 20 years into it. My habits are really strong. I’m not even tempted by anything, except once in a while, the temptation of taking a dubious S day. If I’m clear it’s an N-day, and an S is being dangled in front of me, I’m like John the Baptist. I don’t even have to exert willpower. And the results, my weight, have been very stable as well. I’m still down (on average) those initial 40 pounds I lost.

I’m not saying this to brag. It would be ridiculous for a diet guru to brag about being about to stick with his own system. That should be a given. I’m saying it to maybe encourage those of you who are still at the pre-habit stage that the day may come when you don’t obsess about it anymore.

I know I was surprised when I first noticed this. I was also surprised that my fretful mind went right on to obsessing about other things, that solving the problem of diet (and exercise, with shovelglove) didn’t solve all my problems, as I’d sort of naively hoped they might, back when they seemed impossible to solve. That part is maybe less encouraging: you’re still going to have problems even when you stop overeating! But I mention it as a powerful illustration that it really is possible to get over this particular set of problems with such resounding thoroughness that they no longer even seem like problems anymore, and you start to forget that they ever were problems – and (this is the downside) you then move on to other problems.

As I mentioned in my last state of the systems in the context of Urban Ranger, I’ve been using a fitbit step tracker for several years now. This year I also got a fitbit scale. And I have to say I like it. By making it just ever so slightly easier to track weight, it makes it happen more regularly, and though it saves me maybe just seconds every morning vs manually recording, every second on a scrambly weekday morning when you’re fighting with the kids over who gets the bathroom first  is precious. More importantly, it makes it ever so slightly easier to focus on the big picture in terms of weight, on the moving average rather than any individual measurement, because the app auto generates and prominently places a moving average trend chart. I’ve always been pretty good about focusing on the big picture in terms of weight, I didn’t weigh regularly for my first few years on the No S Diet and was perfectly happy and successful not weighing, but I think for those of you, and I know there are many, who have the tendency to get flustered by an unexpected individual number on the scale, a device like this can be helpful. I hate to admit it, being a Weekend Luddite and all, but technology can sometimes be good.

There is a story that Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) weighed exactly 153 143 pounds for his entire adult life. He was an avid swimmer, and he weighed himself every day before doing laps.  And every time he weighed himself, he saw the same number, 153 143, not a pound more or less, a fact that he loved not because this skinny, saintly man was worried about his BMI but because those three digits were the number of letters in each word of his favorite phrase: “I love you.”

I believe this, because the man was so clearly a saint, and miraculous signs are to be expected in such cases.

Mere mortals however, should expect some fluctuation in their weight, however perfectly they are adhering to No S or any other diet. I personally see big fluctuations. I gain and lose several pounds every week, sometimes in a single day. I mention this NOT because it troubles me, but because I’m hoping I can reassure some of you who see similar fluctuations and are stressing about them. I highly recommend, if you are given to fretting about the number on the scale, that you only permit yourself only to fret about the moving average. As long as that number is stable, or moving in the right direction, you are golden. Fitbit and many other apps today and devices, including good old excel or google sheets, make this very easy.

I did an experiment this year with limited food logging. Partially because I was curious what it’s like, since I know so many people do it, partially because I was curious as to whether the act of logging itself would have any impact on my own behavior. I’ve been on a fermented food kick and I thought it might be a good way to nudge me to eat more sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and what not. I called what I did “BLD” logging, as in Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. I didn’t count calories or anything, just the names of the foods I ate, and those pretty laconically: “2 hardboiled eggs, “oatmeal,” etc. Food logging with good no-s behavior is easier than normal food logging because you have less input opportunities to log, and the B,L and D prompts are reminders to try to eat in a meal oriented way. I’d record my BLD entries and anything in-between on the back of my daily personal punch cards, then transfer everything to my life log spreadsheet at the end of the week, one column for each letter, with rarely used columns in between. S-foods would be bolded and get a star, borderline foods and behaviors would be bolded and get a tilde, and a combination of the number of stars and tildes and eating events would give me a “crude intake score” for each day, 3 being the goal for an N-day. Everything (each meal, each S) was worth one point except a “funny stuff” tilde, which was half.

Ultimately, after 11 months, I decided BLD logging was too much work, even if it did possibly improve my dietary choices in some small way. I mention it here because 1) I want to assure any food loggers among you that now from experience I feel your pain 2) BLD logging is a simpler mechanism than other food logging mechanisms I’m aware of, and fits well with No-S so if you’re a No-esser looking to do food logging perhaps as a temporary measure, it could be a good approach and 3) though inactive for me for now, I will keep it in my arsenal as a backup option, as a potential “negative tracking” tool – basically using the threat of breaking it out again as incentive to to behave well enough that I won’t feel the need to, say if my moving average weight were to climb above some threshold.

I’m considering an even simpler form of food logging, which is basically just counting “S events” and “funny stuff.” Instead of writing down individual foods, which is just too much work, I’ll just mark on my daily punch card how many esses and borderline behaviors I indulged in, maybe marking an S event (snack, sweet or second) with an asterisk on my daily punch card in the no-s box, and a borderline behavior (virtual plating, excessive tasting while cooking, etc.) with a tilde. And then adding it all up and scoring in a weekly lifelogging session. But I haven’t started doing this and I’m not sure I will.

On to Shovelglove, my second oldest system. I ran into some difficulty with Shovelglove for the first time ever in October 2021. In almost 20 years of shovelglove I’d never taken more than a day or two off for soreness or discomfort. And then, whether it was because I decided it was a good idea to drag 5 air conditioners to the basement in one day, or because (as my personal trainer brother suspects) I developed some kind of RSI from swiping and mousing all day long in my day job, or from hubris from having just bragged on facebook about how I’d never gotten a shovelglove-relevant injury before, or because I’m just getting old, whatever it was, I started feeling a sensitivity in my right arm, a pain by by my inner elbow when doing certain kinds of movements. From extensive youtube self diagnostics, I’m fairly confident this is “golfer’s elbow.” And it didn’t affect just shovelglove, but all kinds of lifting movements: holding my beloved heavy cast iron pans, tossing my son around. I wound up taking over a month completely off of shovelglove, which I’d never done before, and even that wasn’t enough to make the discomfort totally go away. I’ve started up again, but with a lighter hammer for some moves, dropping one move entirely (“arm wrestle”), doing few reps, and holding the hammer very close to the head with my right arm and doing the movements in slow motion. I also made some other lifestyle changes: I got  a vertical mouse and ergonomic keyboard in case the underlying cause is some kind of work-related RSI thing, I cobbled together a standing desk for myself, and I’m consciously using my uninjured left hand more with my phone and for other tasks (so as a bonus from this injury I’m becoming a little ambidextrous), I’m almost entirely laying off pullups. It’s getting better, but golfers elbow can take months to heal, and over three months in I’m still far from 100%.

One of the tricky things with an injury like this is you never really know what caused it so it’s difficult to know even what you are responding to, much less how to respond to it. There’s often a trigger event (for me, carrying all those air conditioners) but there’s also usually an underlying repeated behavior that weakens you to the point that the trigger – the straw that breaks the camel’s back – can push you over the edge. My brother suspects some kind of computer related RSI, but I can’t be certain, and I can't help but fear it’s shovelglove itself, or some shovelglove move or moves.

After a fair amount of trail and painful error, I settled in to an incredibly slow ramp up of 1 extra rep per movement starting from 1 rep per movement, using a 6 pound hammer I got for my children instead of my usual 20 pounder for most movements, holding the hammer very close to the head with my injured arm, and doing the movements almost in slow motion. The restraint is harder than the exercise. But this seems to be working. I’m up to 7 reps per movement again, and haven’t had to backtrack in several weeks.  

Throughout, I’ve tried to keep the time sacred, that block in the morning devoted to shovelglove. When I couldn’t swing the hammer at all, or to round out my reduced rep-count routine, I’ve been doing stretches, cross fiber friction massage, more squats. Many, many times over these months my impatience has led me to try to ramp up again too quickly and I’ve felt a pang of discomfort, sometimes delayed, and then had to back off again.

It’s been frustrating, and there’s a part of me that’s scared I won’t ever get back up to my former cruising altitude of 14 reps of 14 movements with a 20 pound hammer. In 2020, I had to give up running, which I really enjoyed, due to repeated injuries. That I can live with, as long as I can keep urban rangering. But shovelglove I love too much. It’s almost part of my identity. So I really hope this progress, however slow and fitful, continues.

And I think it will, at this point. It’s been getting better with this one extra rep per week etc. ultra slow ramp up. I think as long as I can restrain my hubris and not rush ahead and re-injure myself, I’ll be OK.

Urban ranger, my inspirational metaphor to walk as much as possible,  is going strong – but I have a new challenge here too. Since November, I have a new job, which is fully remote, permanently. Like many people I did a work from home stint during the pandemic, but it was brief, and until now I’ve always had a walking commute, which gave me a fair amount of steps built in automatically as part of my daily routine. I’ve had to be much more intentional about my walking since my office has moved to my basement. I make myself get out in the morning after the kids leave for a mini walk around the neighborhood, even if it’s just 15 minutes. It’s a great way to start the day. I take my voice recorder with me to get my thoughts together (audiodidact). I take another walk at lunch, often combined with some errand. Even so, my fitbit tells me it’s less steps than I used to get, so I’m still figuring this out. If I’m under 10,000 steps by evening, I’ll “table walk,” aka pace around the dining room table, a  technique pioneered (in our family) by my oldest daughter, to make my minimum quota. Not ideal – it feels more than slightly ridiculous and I vastly prefer outdoor walking, but provisionally better than breaking my streak.

One nice thing about urban ranger during the pandemic is that I’ve gone on a lot more social walks. Often there wasn’t a lot more one could do, in terms of socializing. Restaurants and bars were closed, or outdoor seating was available but it was too cold, people were rightfully antsy about meeting inside, a walk to catch up, even in brisk weather, was perfect. And my family got a little more adventurous about finding nice nature walks around here to take together.

Lawful Good Biker, my Dungeons & Dragons inspired system for comically strict obedience to traffic rules when bicycling, didn’t get as much play as in 2020, when streets were more traffic-free and we were biking all over the place. But I’m still mindful of it. And shout it at my children whenever we’re out biking together. I am often tempted to shout it at other bikers as well, but I restrain myself.

So much for body systems. On to spirits systems.

Just to clarify: this is “spirits” as in strong drink; for “spirits” as in spiritual, you’ll have to wait for soul systems.

Glass ceiling, my main system in this category and also one of my oldest overall,  is still very much in effect. In 2021, I’ve lowered my ceiling from a maximum of two drinks a day, to two drinks just on S-days, and zero on N-days, because even though I mostly stuck with it, the ceiling was becoming more or less equivalent to a floor, I’d have two drinks almost every day, and those two drinks were often generously sized. I started doing this in 2020 (2019?), and I’m surprised to say I’ve been able to make this transition to a lower, variable-height glass ceiling. I thought it would be much harder.

 Non-alcoholic beers helped. I’m surprised by how less awful some brands are than I expected (apparently the state of the art has advanced considerably in recent years). Also kombucha, which is irritatingly trendy, but actually rather good, and has a champagne-like quality, especially when poured into wine glasses. It also has some tiny amount of alcohol from the fermentation, which is psychosomatically powerful. It’s on a par with the non-alcoholic beers, half a percent or under.

Most of all, I’ve been helped by the fact that I’ve so hammered the N and S day structure into myself with the No S Diet and Shovelglove, that I had something really solid to lean on.

From what I read on the news, I may be the only person on the planet who has wound up drinking less over the course of the pandemic, but it’s definitely not from inclination. If I didn’t have a system like this, glass ceiling and now variable-height glass ceiling, to lean on, I would have been in big trouble.

Low smoking is my system for reducing smoking to next to but not quite nothing, inspired by the scene in Goethe’s Faust where Faust traps the devil with a notched, slightly broken pentagram, so he can get in but not out, and in deference to this famous literary incident, is symbolized by a no smoking sign with a little gap in it. Low smoking has  also been going strong, though pandemic stresses have made it more challenging than it’s been in a while. I can’t say, as I could with glass ceiling, that I’ve actually improved in 2021. Part of the difficulty was that I had a partner in crime at my last job who, though I love him dearly, didn’t make this system any easier. But there’s no question it was a helpful limiting factor, and 2022, with my new work-from-home job, should be structurally easier in terms of this kind of temptation (if lonelier).

Well, that was a weird system to end on, a system I can’t actually recommend to others, but do practice myself. But that’s it for spirits systems, and end, for today, I must.

Next episode: soul system and meta systems. If you’re thinking “that doesn’t interest me, I just want to get thin and/or ripped!” Well, they might help you even with that. Especially in the meta systems, there is some relevant stuff about tracking and managing and damage control for no-s and other systems that could be quite helpful, even for body focused people.

That’s all for now. Part 2 very soon. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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