Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 81

State of the Systems 2023

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Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems.

Usually I wait until the new year to do my “State of the Systems” episode, in which I give a brief annual update on my thinking about all the Everyday Systems, and report about how they are doing for me personally. But “Spotify wrapped” happened a month ago already, and I figure their marketing people must know something about the psychology of annual retrospectives, so here you go, the Everyday Systems State of the Systems 2023, in December.

Before I do my usual quick review of the individual systems, let me start by considering my last state of the systems. In that episode, I said I would attempt to do three things in 2023:

1) Put together an Everyday Systems e-book of some kind.

2) Upgrade the technical infrastructure of the web sites, in particular, the bulletin board, which is limping along and barely functional anymore, though a bunch of you are still using it despite the state it’s in – thank you and (again, still) sorry about that

3) Continue producing a podcast episode at the rate of about one a month.

So how did I do?

Well, on goal one, on the ebook, I made zero progress, absolutely none. I did some podcast episodes which might conceivably be used as draft material for a book, but explicitly, nothing.

On goal two, I took a stab at the website upgrade but didn’t wind up accomplishing anything except to increase my monthly bills by paying for this new virtual server which I haven’t come close to being able to switch over to.

But on goal three, keep up the podcasting, I did have some success. I kept churning out episodes, at a rate of almost one a month since that late start, 10 for the year total. I’ll count that as hitting one of my three goals. Still pretty poor, but something.

Now I had a great excuse for my shoddy follow through on these goals – don’t we always? Mine was, I got a new job a month after making all those grand resolutions. It’s been going well, the job, but like any new job, it’s been very absorbing – so not much time for my hobby side projects. And given that I had only very finite time, and basically had to pick one out of these three goals, I think I was right to prioritize the podcasts. They’re personally very helpful in sorting things out. And wrestling with new ideas or issues is just more interesting and fun engaging than rehashing old material or diddling with webservers. The podcasts are like the R&D arm of Everyday Systems, it’s what keeps them living and growing.

Now what I should do, probably, is to view this as a case in point of Loose Lips Sink Ships and be chastened. By talking about my resolutions publicly I got to vividly imagine (and enjoy imagining) actually having accomplished them and thereby deprived myself of some of the incentive to actually follow through.

But the thing is, I really would like to write that ebook compendium. And I do think linking it to the podcasts, as I talked about doing last year in a vague sort of way, makes sense – to harness some of the energy of that proven successful effort to carry this one along as well.

So what I’m going to do this year I’m going to make exactly the same three resolutions. But I’m going to adjust my approach a bit: come at these same goals, but with a little more realism, humility, and specificity about the mechanics.

I’m going to do that like this: Again, I’ll aim to push out one episode a month, same as last year, but really one a month this time, so 12 instead of 10, so taking that up a (small) notch.

Then, what I’m going to do differently is to try to hitch my book writing efforts to my podcasting in a very specific way, by making every other episode a draft chapter for the everyday systems compendium book. Starting with the foundational systems I’m going to do a re-presentation of each major system or family of systems or key everyday systems concept every other month. So, let’s say, the No S Diet in January, from scratch, as I would present it now after practicing and discussing thinking about it for over 20 years in one episode. Shovelglove, skipping a month, in March, with the wisdom I’ve gleaned from recovering from my injury two years ago, built in from the start. Maybe Weekend Luddite, with 20 years experience of reacting to new technologies, in May, etc.

I’ll present each system as though you knew nothing about it, as if you were coming fresh to it, but also, because most of you probably do know something about them at this point, in a way that won’t seem completely redundant and boring. That may sound somewhat paradoxical, but my guess is there has been enough sprawling discussion about each of them all over the place (on the bulletin board, on facebook, etc.) that simply drawing it all together in one episode with a tight focus and emphasizing what is most important in the light of all this will be of some use, even to veteran practitioners and the most devoted podcast listeners. That’s my hope at least – we’ll see!

So all I’ll have to do is keep podcasting, more or less like I did in 2023, and at the end of the year I’ll have 6 book chapters. Extrapolating from how many chapters the No S Diet book had, almost an entire book’s worth. Not quite a book, but, I hope, critical mass.

And I think the retrospective re-presentations will be valuable in themselves even if I don’t wind up using them in a book. Instead of having to sift through a dozen episodes related to (say) Personal Punch Cards or the Life Log, following all the bizarre convolutions of their development, to guess at where you should actually start today, you can listen to just one episode, with all the false starts pruned.

I’ll alternate every month between these book chapter retrospectives and new material, so I (and you) don’t get too bored with me just reviewing older stuff, and to keep the creative R&D aspect of this podcast moving forward.

I was thinking, to hook in the technical element of upgrading the websites and bulletin board as well, that I should also, as part of each episode, provide a technical update of the progress I’ve made, but that’s too much to ask you to put up with. It’s boring enough to do, the mechanics of diddling with these old servers; I can’t ask you to listen to it. Instead, I’ll post separately, but as part of my monthly process of pushing out each new episode, in the Everyday Systems bulletin board new everyday systems facebook group (there’s a new Everyday Systems facebook group) as well. That way I can hopefully harness some of the momentum of the podcast/book writing effort for this without hobbling the whole enterprise and punishing you in the process.

I have a glimmer of new optimism about this upgrade not because I have grown any stronger in willpower (and certainly not in technical ability) but because Chat GPT has made this kind of work easier and more interesting. It’s a lot faster to ask it what some obscure error message in some obsolete piece of software means and what to do about it than to scavenger hunt through bulletin boards with search engines. Besides being more efficient, the process is a lot less boring and lonely feeling. As I’ve mentioned before, anything is interesting when E.T. is your copilot.

OK, so enough “loose lipping” about grand resolutions: we come to the state of the systems proper.

Since I will be reviewing each major system this year as part of the ebook compendium project, in a sense, the whole year is going to be a state of the systems episode. So I can keep the rest of this episode nice and short.

Body systems, how did they fare in 2023, just the highlights:

The No S Diet continues to work great for me, no mods – unless you count Surgical Flogging as a mod. I view it more as a separate, side system. This was the second full year I’ve been practicing Surgical Flogging consistently. Basically, it’s minimalistic conditional food logging. If my average weekly weight goes over a certain threshold, I make myself write down what I’m eating, in pen or pencil, on the back of my daily personal punch card index card. It’s just enough of a pain to do it that it’s a disincentive to go over that weight limit and trigger it (and to quickly get back under again once I have) but not so much of a pain that it’s self torture. I use it mostly as a corrective after vacations and barrages of holidays and I can stop as soon as my weekly average weight goes back under the threshold.

I’m not actually trying to lose weight at this point, and even pre-surgical flogging my weight would always go back down again eventually. But doing surgical flogging it went down faster. And stayed in a tighter range than pre-flogging. I’m not sure if this is the most appropriate statistical measure, but I did a quick analysis of my life log data, and the interquartile range of my weights in the four years for which I have complete data before I started surgical flogging was over a third higher than it’s been since. So it’s become significantly less wobbly.

If you are having trouble with vanilla No-S, either trouble sticking with it to begin with, or trouble seeing results even though you are adhering to the letter of the law, you may want to give Surgical Flogging a try. I won’t go into all the details about how it works and my thought processes behind it now, but there’s a link in the transcript. It’s totally compatible with No-S, and despite the name, it’s not that painful to do. It’s very customizable. You can customize the trigger: my trigger is a weight threshold, but your trigger could be a habit compliance threshold, say, some number of red days in a given week or month. You could then log all days, once the trigger is activated, or limit it to just S days, if S days are what is tripping you up the most. You could customize the logging itself, log say, only certain kinds of borderline or problematic eating activities instead of logging everything.

In any case, the beautiful thing about this system is you aren’t adding any restrictions, you’re just forcing yourself to pay a little bit more attention in a tightly circumscribed way, and only for a limited time. And, uniquely, among Everyday Systems, the not doing it (because you are successfully avoiding the trigger conditions), is as important as the doing it. The successful practitioner of this system will practice it very rarely.

Shovelglove I have good news about, personally. You may recall that I injured myself in Fall 2021, after over 20 years of injury-free Shovelglove. I got golfers elbow, and I’m still not sure what caused it, whether it was Shovelglove itself, or carrying too many air conditioners downstairs in one day, or overdoing with the pullups (my most recent prime suspect), or middle age finally asserting itself, or some combination of all of these. Whatever the cause, the golfer's elbow definitely impacted Shovelglove, made it painful, and I had to seriously back off and adjust my approach.

I’m happy to report that I’m back up to my maximum sledgehammer weight, 20 pounds. I’m only doing it 3 days a week instead of 5 to allow some time for recovery between sessions, and I’ve had to discard two movements (“armwrestle” and “row the boat”), but still, I appreciate that I’m able to do this at all, and feel proud of myself that I had the flexibility and persistence to stubbornly keep doing something every morning even when I couldn’t do full-on Shovelglove, keeping the time and habit structure sacred, and to patiently experiment with slowly adding more and then backing off again as necessary in response to pain signals.

My full shovelglove plus stretches and PT exercises morning routine takes about half an hour. It’s a little annoying having to spend as much prepping for the exercise as actually doing it, but I’m trying to view it as the necessary cost of staying in shape in middle age and beyond. On days I don’t do Shovelglove (Tuesdays and Thursdays and sometimes also Sundays) I go for a short run. As I’ve mentioned before, running is an even more injury prone activity for me than Shovelglove (by a lot, actually), so I’ve had to undergo a similar process of slowly ramping up, backing off as things hurt, and coming to terms with my limitations. At the moment I refuse to allow myself to run more than 5K ever, and I’m OK with never going beyond that. As with Shovelglove, I appreciate that I can do it at all.

I’ve decided to stop doing pull ups for the time being, which I enjoyed throwing in as a kind of benchmark exercise to measure and communicate my shovelglove-powered strength in a way that might be comprehensible to other humans. I’d gotten up to 13 full range of motion no-kipping reps in 2021, and was eager to hit my favorite magic number,14, when my “uppy arm,” my golfer’s elbow, kicked in, and I suspect, the more I think about it, that the pullups may have had something to do with that. I’d given up chinups many years ago because I noticed they seemed painful. Pullups weren’t as immediately, obviously uncomfortable, but I think there’s a connection there as well. It’s a shame, but if it’s a choice between shovelglove and pullups, no question I am going to choose shovelglove.

Urban ranger is going strong, and much easier to keep up consistently since I’ve started my new job, which is hybrid instead of fully remote. I’d actually done a job compensating with intentional walks while working remotely, so my average step count hadn’t slipped that much during that period, but it’s much easier now that I actually have some reason to leave the house at least some work days. I’m on track to average about 12,500 steps a day in 2023, up from a little under 12,000 in 2022.

On from body to spirits: In 2023 I continued to practice Glass ceiling with a variable ceiling height of 2 drinks on S-days, 0 drinks on N-days. My compliance was good but not perfect – 95% in terms of staying under 2 drinks, which is up slightly from 94% last year and up more considerably from 89% in 2021.

Inspired by the step 5, “confession” step in AA’s 12-step program, I continued checking in with my accountability partner weekly, which has been helpful for both of us on a number of levels. This is our third year doing this now.

My goal for 2024 is to focus on what I’m calling the “double ceiling:” making sure I never, ever, not even once, go over 4 drinks. This year that happened twice. No disaster – but I know from painful personal experience that disasters can happen all too easily at that point so I want to pre-empt that.

I have a similar system to Glass Ceiling to minimize anxiety medication consumption (lorazepam, aka ativan), but in reverse. It’s only on N days, never on S days. So the mirror image of what I do for alcohol. This ensures that I never have both on the same day, because I’ve learned (again, from painful experience, I’m big on that) that mixing the two is a really bad idea. This problem of avoiding mixing was actually what inspired me to move to the variable height glass ceiling to begin with. So paradoxically, Ativan has helped me cut down my drinking, and my limited drinking, to avoid mixing, now helps me limit my ativan. Not that I recommend starting with any of this – but if you wake up and find yourself in a similar mess maybe something like this approach could help. I measure in milligrams instead of glasses, so a 2 milligram a day ativan ceiling. Unlike alcohol, my hope is to get more or less completely off this. I’m making progress – down by over 50% since the beginning of the year. Two to three days a week tend to be “AA00,” “double A, double zero,” days on which I take neither of my ceilinged substances – big progress for me.

In terms of soul, the big news for me is Spider Hunter, my CBT game for anxiety. I podcasted about this just a few episodes ago so I won’t go into the full gory details again, but it’s been making a major difference in my life.

It’s basically gamified mindfulness meets exposure therapy. It’s inspired by exposure therapy treatments for arachnophobia, but applied to social anxiety. The idea is, you give yourself “spider points” when you catch yourself freaking out, when you notice yourself in the presence of your metaphorical “spiders,” whatever the social situations are that trigger your anxieties, when you feel your anxieties actually being triggered, an exposure.

You don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to correct or fight your thoughts, you just have to notice them, mentally register that you are in the presence of the thing that frightens or unnerves you. In fact, I try not to fight or engage with these thoughts at all. I just notice them, let them move on. They move on faster that way.

That part at least is textbook mindfulness. The novel aspect of Spider Hunter is that then I get points, which I wind up tracking in a spreadsheet, so not only am I incentivized to notice intrusive, anxious thoughts, but it makes me weirdly happy and the thoughts less bad. I think, “yes! A spider! An exposure! I get points!”

It’s so silly that it seems like it couldn’t possibly work. Why should I care about meaningless points that I can’t do anything with and made up myself? But apparently we humans are really that silly, at least I am. It’s like the star on my personal punchcard I draw when I’ve crossed off all my tasks for the day – irrationally but powerfully motivating.

Another soul system I’d like to mention quickly is The Study Habit. It continues to be very important for me. Two notable changes this year are that Chat GPT is now an integral part of it, and I’ve gotten somewhat addicted to the Duolingo language learning app since I saw how much my kids learned in preparation for a summer vacation to visit my family in Germany. I use chat GPT to generate highly targeted fodder for anki cards, discuss books I am study-reading, and improve my understanding of technical or other issues, dumb question after dumb question after dumb question, without embarrassment. So a lot of creative ferment at the intersection of the Study Habit and the Weekend Luddite family of systems: Right Relationship with robots, and My Friend, Chat GPT.

The tie-in with Shovelglove has been helpful for both systems as well: I watch something I’m interested in learning about during Shovelglove, so, say, German news to practice my German, or Shakespeare performances. It advances my Study Habit progress and is a further incentive to do Shovelglove because I know I get to watch something interesting. And the incentive part is serious: I don’t know how I would have made it through the frustrating sessions when my arm hurt and I couldn’t do my full, normal satisfying routine if I didn’t at least have the prospect of watching something interesting bound up with it.

I sometimes wonder whether exercise videos are the worst thing that ever happened to exercise. Isn’t it bad enough you have to exercise, but now you’re going to make yourself watch something boring while you’re doing it? That’s a double disincentive. Even the worst guilty pleasure trash tv might be a better exercise watching-strategy in terms of motivation.

Finally: meta systems, systems for tracking, monitoring and supporting other systems. I don’t know if I’ve made any substantive changes this year, but I rely on them more than ever. In my last state of the systems, I reported feeling a little bit conflicted about whether maybe it was too much, that between Personal Punch Cards, the Life Log, etc., I’d foisted too much regulatory burden on myself, too self-help red-tape, too much “good redundancy.”

This year, I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that these systems are necessary for me. It would be nice if I didn’t need so much system, if I could do the wise and moderate thing by nature, but alas, I am not such a person, and I am trying to be grateful that I’ve been able to find systems to compensate for my natural deficiencies instead of bemoaning the fact that I need them.

It’s also been nice to see the slow but very real progress I’ve made over the years on many fronts. Without this meticulous tracking, a lot of that would probably have been invisible, it happened so slowly.

Well, I should probably stop now. I don’t recall that I’ve stopped practicing any systems since my 2022 check-in, so if you haven’t heard your favorite system mentioned today, it’s safe to assume it’s still going strong – I just have no notable changes to report. I will try to revisit every active system as part of my ebook compendium effort this year, so don’t worry, you’ll be hearing about them all at some point.

That’s all for now. Wishing you a good start to 2024, systems-wise and otherwise. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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