Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 63

State of the Systems 2021, Part 2 (Soul Systems)

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State of the Systems 2021, Part 2 (“Soul Systems”)

Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday systems, and welcome to the state of the systems 2021, part 2.

Last episode, I reviewed body and spirits systems.

This episode I was going to talk about soul and meta systems, but guess what? It’s not going to fit. Not remotely. So I’m going to have to break this state of the systems up into three episodes instead of just two. Soul systems today, meta systems next time. I know it’s a little goofy to devote a third of my episodes in a year to review, if I’m really going to do this one episode a month pace, and that we’re going to be well into 2022 before I finish this 2021 retrospective, but that’s the way it’s coming out. I apologize in particular for the “meta” review delay because I know some of you were especially interested in that. I think it was over 4 months ago now when someone on facebook asked for an updated personal punch card and I’m afraid you're going to have to wait one episode longer. On the bright side, I’ll be thorough.

OK. So today. Soul systems. What are soul systems?

Soul systems are systems for detaching yourself from the frenzy of everyday life to reflect, for learning, for recovering, for devoting more of your limited time to what’s important, for figuring out what’s important to begin with.

Audiodidact is maybe my oldest soul system. It’s a two part system for teaching oneself with audio, auto didact via audio. It has an input side – listening to audiobooks whenever possible, doing dishes, taking walks, vacuuming, etc. And an output side, speaking into a recorder as a kind of diary / idea incubator / know thyself auto therapist.

These days, it seems like everyone is doing the input side. Everyone listens to podcasts. Audible is so big that some big name authors are releasing new books there first as audiobooks, before they even make it to print.

So I’m not sure I really have to convince anyone as to the utility of that part of audiodidact anymore. You all get it.

In terms of my own practice, where I’ve made progress is in integrating it with other modes of learning, via one of my newest, or at least, most recently described systems, the Study Habit. When I properly read a book these days, it’s a four stage process. First I listen to the audio book. If it’s really good, I’ll then also read the physical book during dedicated, timeboxed reading sessions, marking up interesting passages. Then I’ll make a third pass turning those marked up passages, or some of them, into anki flash cards. Then finally I’ll review those flash cards during opportunistic scraps of time, when other people might be checking their social media or playing video games on their phone. There aren’t many books that get that full four stage treatment. There just isn’t time. But during the course of a day, almost every day, I’m practicing some or all of these four stages somehow, perhaps on four different books, each in a different stage in the audiodadact/study habit pipeline.

Listening to audiobooks, audiodidact, the first phase of the study habit, is like reconnaissance reading. Advanced recon reading. Reading with the ears may be slower than reading with the eyes, but I have a lot more time for it. I can do it during “scraps of time,” while doing the dishes, walking, driving, etc. So this is where I can cast the widest net. I can trawl for wisdom, knowledge, humor, truth and beauty. Then I narrow in with the other study habit stages that require more expensive sit-down total focus time. This “recon reading” with audiobooks helps me be more open to books I might not otherwise have been interested in listening to. It’s expanded my horizons quite a bit. And it means when I devote that precious little sit down time I can spare to reading with my eyes, I know I’m focusing on something that’s really worth engaging with.

The output side of audiodidact is going strong too. Most of my recordings I make during my urban ranger walks. And looking forward to reflecting into my recorder is another incentive to take those walks. I use a dedicated recording device rather than my phone because the iphone recorder app, especially because they keep changing it, and weird syncing issues were just too annoying. I’ve played around with other apps over the years, but one simple separate physical device that does this one thing very well still wins. I currently use a Sony ICD-UX570 Digital Voice Recorder in case you’re curious. It’s nothing fancy, no bluetooth or internet connection, you just plug it into a USB slot to get recordings onto your computer. But it’s simple to operate and the quality of the recordings is good. It was $80 in July 2020. Every few years the recorder breaks and I buy whatever the latest roughly equivalent model is.

This kind of audiodidact is very helpful getting my thoughts in order, brainstorming for work or personal, creative projects, preparing for and processing difficult conversations, dealing with bottled up thoughts and emotions without having to overwhelm another human being with my raw fear and negativity. It can seem weird and antisocial, walking around talking to yourself into a recorder, but a) nobody notices because everyone is talking into a device these days and b) I find it actually helps me have better conversations with other people because I’ve taken a first pass at thinking things through and sounding them out. There are things you can think in your head that sound quite different when you – or God forbid anyone else – hear them. Talking things through into my recorder also helps me process conversations I’ve had with other people after the fact, to consider what they said, and I said (or didn’t say), and reflect on what I could learn, or follow up on, or do better next time, or simply savor. So for me, at least, it’s a pro-social practice.

Each recording is usually very short. 10 seconds, 20 seconds. It’s rare to go over a minute. Once a week (on Saturdays, “self-reflective” Saturdays) I listen through the week’s recordings to review them. There are typically about a hundred and it takes 20 minutes or so. I often do it while driving to get groceries. Or any of my usual audiodidact input times, those scraps of time, doing the dishes, etc. I’m almost always surprised. What a different person I was just a few days ago. How thoroughly I’d forgotten that incident, that intense emotional state I was in. And there’s something about hearing my actual voice speaking that conveys something beyond what it would have if I’d just written the words down.

Every once in a while I think “I’m going to listen to some recordings from way back.” I have them going back 20 years now, to 2002, when I was using a microcassette tape recorder. I rarely do. But I like to know that I could, and maybe I will, more methodically someday. It would be nice to have them searchable, and in the beginning, I’d transcribe them manually, type them out, that was my review process. But I haven’t had time for that in many years. Listening while doing something else is all I can spare, and it’s enough. I’ve always thought, one day automatic transcription will get good enough that I can just run some software on the lot to turn them into text. Recently I had a bunch automatically transcribed by uploading them to otter.io. It wasn’t terrible. But I think I’ll wait another few years for the AI to get even better before spending too much time fussing with it.

When I have listened to recordings from long ago, I’ve sometimes been struck by the opposite sensation, compared to what I get during my weekly reviews: I’m struck by how fundamentally the same I still am, after all these years, and not always in a good way. I hear the same anxieties, the same obsessive preoccupations. I could be, and sometimes am, bummed out by this evidence of lack of progress, by the feeling that I’m inescapably the same old flawed person, that all my current efforts to fix myself, really fix myself, are doomed. This is one reason I don’t listen to these old recordings often, but then I think, you know, maybe it’s good to realize this. Maybe it’s healthy. Maybe it’s a way for me to get some humility, some self-acceptance, and be a little less hard on the silly self who made those recordings and is now listening to them.

What a good segue to Demogorgon vs. Asmodeus! This is a Dungeons & Dragons inspired image I use to try to knock myself out of the Manichean catastrophizing I am prone to. Demogorgon is the two-baboon-headed, tentacled demon who represents the appetitive part of me, the part that wants a cookie, another drink, another episode, a cigarette, cheap praise from other people, lusts of every kind. Asmodeus is the sadistic judge who condemns me for yielding to or even feeling tempted by Demogorgon. They’re like Freud's Id and Superego, except funnier. Yes, they’re embodiments of cosmic evil. But they’re also goofy characters out of a role playing game. The comic element is the active ingredient in this medicine: it makes me laugh at myself, and snap out of my tragical wallowing. Not always – my powers of tragical wallowing are formidable – but sometimes, surprisingly often, I’m finding.

Now what if these names, these particular characters, don’t mean anything to you, if you didn’t grow up playing this nerdy game? That’s the problem with this system. It’s very specific to a narrow “cultural” experience. What I’d suggest then, is to think of a different, analogous pair that represent these two mutually hostile but codependent psychological forces. Jungian archetypes for the Freudian Id and Superego. They have to be evil, because these forces are bad and dangerous, but ridiculous, so you can laugh at them. Granted, it’s not that easy, and for me, nothing else that I’ve come up with resonates like this pair, but it’s worth an attempt, I think, if you suspect you’ve got a similar dynamic going on inside you. If you’re a Star Wars fan, for example, maybe Jabba the Hut vs. Darth Vader. That actually works pretty well: gluttonous Jabba with his chained dancing girl for chaotic appetitive evil vs. the organized, disciplined, quasi religious lawful evil of the Sith Lord Vader.

What I might recommend, as a concrete way to get yourself to brainstorm about Demogorgon vs. Asmodeus alternatives, or any other system or problem you are considering or wrestling with, is my next soul system: Timebox Lord.

Timebox Lord is basically using the practice of timeboxing, setting a timer to focus on a particular task, but for very short periods, and for reflection as well as tasks. It’s inspired by Dr. Who and his Tardis time machine but that image isn’t so important here. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get that. It’s nice that the name conveys “wow, I am taking this really seriously, I’m a Timebox Lord” and at the same time that you have a sense of humor about your awesome power and responsibility. But it’s really the mechanics that are important for this system. And the mechanics are very simple.

Any time you have a task that is not 100% clear in some way. Or that you keep putting off. Or that could take forever but you don’t have forever so you never start. Or is by its nature open ended, like keeping a journal, or creative work, or study, or meditation. Or that is so amorphous that it is not even really a task but more of a vague question or anxiety. Set a timer for some relatively short amount of time (I prefer 14 minutes – it’s short enough, it’s long enough, it’s absurd enough), and totally focus on your task or prompt until the timer goes off. If you keep a todo list of some kind, like personal puch cards that I’ll talk about when I get to meta systems, instead of writing down discrete tasks to cross off, write down timeboxes of effort to cross off, labeled by whatever your prompt is. Like “Taxes 14,” “podcast 14,” or “respond to obnoxious email 14.” I draw a little box around the 14 to make it more symbolically impressive to myself.

14 minutes may not seem like enough time to get much of anything done. But it’s very brevity, the smallness of the commitment, lowers the barrier to getting you started, and that is the hardest part. And then once you’ve started, you can stay focused, without anxiety about all the other things you should be doing, because you know, it’s just 14 minutes, and the timer is going to let you know when they’re over. I continually surprise myself with what I can get done in just 14 minutes of focused attention. And once you’ve primed your mind like this for whatever you’ve engaged with, you’ll find your mind returning to it throughout the day, in what I call “eureka time.” Say, in the shower, or while driving or walking. Often that’s when I’ll get the real dividends of my focused timebox. The aftereffect is bigger than the thing itself.

And of course, you can throw larger or multiple timeboxes at a task or problem any given day. But I’d caution against making any individual timebox too long. The liberating pressure of the short timebox is what gives it its motivating and focusing power.

I use Timebox Lord for so many things. I use it for shovelglove. That was the original everyday systems timeboxing, “14 minutes of schedulistically insignificant time.” I use it for the Study Habit, for blocks of focused reading and the generation of new anki cards. I use it for meditation. That everyone does, even if they don’t call it timeboxing or Timebox Lord. I don’t know how the monks in the himalayas meditated before timers were invented. I use it for creative work, like writing the scripts for these podcasts. I use it for reflecting in a sort of written diary I keep on top of my spoken Audiodidact diary. I use it for work, for diving into the “escalated tickets” I get that can seem daunting because I have no idea how difficult they are going to be and how long they are going to take. I use it for brainstorming and reflecting on personal and professional problems and creative ideas, with a notebook and pen – this is a particularly fruitful application of Timebox Lord. I use it not just to accomplish tasks, but for coming up with the tasks I should be doing, or maybe not doing.

TImebox Lord is less about time management than overcoming procrastination, convincing yourself to get started and focus. It will not magically make enough time, there’s never enough time. But it will help you stop procrastinating and dive into something that needs doing or considering. And then, later, as an unscheduled aftereffect, start the wheels of your mind turning in a different direction: from negative feelings of anxiety and self-recrimination about not having started this big, murky, terrifying thing, to positive, productive ruminations about and engagement with the thing itself, “eureka time.”

Another pop culture inspired system is G-ray vision, my mock super power for not looking at certain things on the internet, let’s say, vast tracts of the internet. It’s getting easier and easier for me as the habit grows stronger and stronger and, from what I can gather at a great distance, more and more important given the increasing multitude, magnitude and sophistication of temptations that technological progress is making available to us.

I read a fascinating book on addiction recently called Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke. I don’t love the title, but it’s got a lot of everyday systems relevant wisdom, and I find the author's approach both compassionate and bracingly tough – embracing pain rather than fleeing from it is a recurring theme. I’ll probably be coming back to this book in future episodes. It covers addictions of all sorts, and the importance of moderation given that abstinence isn’t always an option given all of the hyper addictive stimuli in our environments. The book contains an extremely disturbing and also rather poignant account of a man whose life was, I’m not going to say ruined, because he did claw his way back to a degree, but severely compromised by his addiction to porn. It made me grateful that I’ve been spared such a destructive battle perhaps by a little simple clear rule, a jokey comic book reference, and years of the compounding effect of each little act of compliance making the next one easier.

VC Cat, Victoria Cross Cat, is an image from a more elevated literary source than role playing games, comic book heroes, or sci fi, though Oxford Don C.S. Lewis was no slouch when it comes to sci fi and fantasy either. This system’s point of inspiration is a sort of parable or thought experiment of his about how a neurotic who overcomes his phobia or cats to pick one for some good reason might be doing something more heroic and courageous and cosmically important than a hero on the battlefield performing some obviously grand and great deed, because he’s coming from such a different place, because his “psychological” raw material, his traumas, his bad habits, his bad digestion, his bad genes make everything that much harder. I call it to mind when I’m struggling not particularly successfully with what seems an embarrassingly small problem. And it motivates me to struggle harder, to feel like that struggle, however small and compromised, might be worth it, I’m in no position to judge. I might be winning a glorious celestial battle by not eating another cookie or by refraining from another glass of wine.

VC Cat pairs well with Demogorgon vs. Asmodeus because it short circuits their destructive feedback loop. Instead of allowing Asmodeus to ruthlessly slash off Demogorgon’s tentacle for any infraction, and thereby goading him into repressed revenge, and then another tit-for-tat tentacle slashing, this image helps you take a step back, look for a way to catch yourself before falling into that vicious circle. Imagine yourself in a stuffy old British military uniform, stiff upper lip, holding a cat and getting the Victoria Cross pinned to your chest. It’s irresistible – even to a demon and a devil.

I’ll end this episode in the same way I end my week: with weekend luddite.

Weekend luddite, when I largely go offline, and avoid screen time beyond a few whitelisted activities between breakfast and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays, feels more important than ever.

My major tweak to this system is that I’m combining it with posifactive. Posifactive, you may remember, is all of self-help distilled into one word, a portmanteau word of the three self-help tropes “think positive,” “fake it till you make it,” and “be proactive.” Individually each of these tropes is overused and somewhat repugnant and most of us probably bristle at them – but like this, combined in this charming and amusing way, our aesthetic immune systems can tolerate them and digest the kernels of genuine wisdom they contain.

The idea with posifactive weekend luddite is that It’s hard to just turn off. I used to think just making the space was enough to get some tranquility. A not doing. A “no goal” goal, to use a term from my family’s favorite board game, Wingspan. Don’t look at screens, don’t think about work. But I discovered, yes, I can turn off the devices, but I can’t so easily turn off my churning mind. And if I’m composing emails in my head, or feeling anxious about not checking slack or facebook or whatever, that’s not exactly ideal either. It sounds paradoxical, but it can take active effort to truly relax, and that’s where posifactive comes in.

One thing I do in terms of furthering the “no goal” mentality on weekends are “no goal” activities, instead of just passively cordoning off blocks of time. Often this means a long walk, longer than I’d be able to take during the week, and if possible, less “urban” than my weekday rangering, along the river, around the reservoir, etc. A little structure for my aimless meandering.

“Off switch” activities are very helpful too. Board games with the family (like Wingspan) knock me out of my work day concerns much more effectively than trying not to think about them. They’re not exactly meditative or contemplative activities, but they break or at least slow down the anxious churn of work thoughts. They’re enjoyable in themselves, and good family time (these are important!), but they’re also useful in preparing the mind to be able to relax by differently engaging it. There are a million other activities in this “off switch” category, some of which we can actually start to do again as we emerge from covid. Going to museums, concerts, county fairs, whatever. They’re enjoyable and don’t need all that much selling. We’re really far gone if a self help guru has to tell you “do fun things!” But I find it’s helpful to remind myself of this “off switch” benefit when I’m doing them so I can appreciate them even more.

Another posifactive thing I do on weekends now is pre-emptively throw the work anxiety monster a bone. I try to get one work or life-chore thing done before breakfast, in the hope that this will allow me to take the rest of the day really off, without feeling like I’m being hunted and haunted by undone tasks that I’m just trying (never very successfully) to ignore. It’s a tricky balance, because you want to throw the achievement monster a bone, and have it be content with it, and not then come right after you for your arm or leg or soul for a second course. Clarity helps, a clear dividing line. And consistency. Breakfast is my dividing line activity. And I’ll do the bone throwing task in a separate, worky location, the basement, where I hope, like a naughty pet, the anxiety will stay when I go upstairs to eat. It’ll whimper maybe. But it knows the drill and usually stays put. It knows I’ll be back to give it another bone (or more) tomorrow.

Well, that’s it for weekend luddite and soul systems. Next episode (and I promise I will contain myself to a single episode!) meta systems, systems for tracking and managing other systems: including the life log, personal punch cards, and mantrafication.

Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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