Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 82

The Clock & the Calendar, your Sword & Shield

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Hi, this is Reinhard from Everyday Systems. Quick aside before I start this episode: I was going to kick off my project of writing the Everyday Systems compendium book by recording a chapter at a time as a podcast episode, starting (this month) with a re-presentation of the No S Diet, but I belatedly realized that I’d have to do a lot of careful re-reading and re-listening first, and that is making this effort take longer than expected. So I’ll have to defer that till next month. In the meantime, here is a regular podcast episode, something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but a little rushed since I only started writing it a week ago. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you episode 82, “The Clock & the Calendar, your Sword and Shield.”

What was the most civilizationally transformative invention in human history? Was it the steam engine? Was it antibiotics or anesthesia? Was it toilet paper, patented disturbingly recently, only in 1891? Or splinter free toilet paper, in the 1930s? (Apparently, an issue until then.)

Great as those inventions were, and thankful as I am for them, I think we have to go back a lot further. There are two contenders that particularly impress me, and they both relate to timekeeping: you got it, the clock and the calendar. The first clocks (sundials) were developed by the Egyptians, around 1500 BC. The first calendars were also Egyptian, around 3500 BC. Inspired by that blazing desert sun and the periodically flooding Nile, they’re older than the Bible. They’re practical, but they’re also more than practical. They shape our fundamental sense of reality. These are deep, almost sacred inventions. Holidays didn’t just fall onto the calendar, they’re intrinsic to it. Traditional prayers in Christianity (“the book of hours”), in Islam, in Judaism, in Hinduism, most religions that I’m aware of, are attached to specific times of the day. The first mechanical clocks were on church towers.

Before I wax too pompous and world-historical, let me bring it back to Everyday Systems. The point I’m trying to make here is that just as the clock and calendar order the practical, the social, and even the sacred world – they’re also good for ordering your personal habits. In fact, a core concept shared by many Everyday Systems is that the clock and calendar are your friends. If your habits are out of alignment with the clock and the calendar, they’re going to be working against some of the deepest habits of human society, you’re going to be swimming upstream.

Today I’m going to talk about not any one particular system, but about how the clock & calendar are foundational elements of habit engineering. I’ll talk about some ways in which you can take existing Everyday Systems up a notch by doubling down on these elements, explore some new ways of deploying clock & calendar that I haven’t talked about yet, and encourage you to use them in your own system-building efforts, if you feel inspired in that direction.

The first clock and calendar related component that is shared by many systems is the dichotomy of N-days and S-days. I came up with this terminology for the No S Diet, but I also use it in Shovelglove, Weekend Luddite, and now, variable height Glass Ceiling. N-days, as I’m sure you know if you’ve been listening to this podcast for any length of time, are normal days, weekdays, workdays, non-s days. S-days are days that start with S – saturdays, sundays, the weekend, and special days, holidays. They’re a great, natural structure for organizing your habits. Generally speaking, you go full strength on N-days, and you give yourself a break on S-days. Or you allow yourself some necessary evil on N-days (technology, in the case of Weekend Luddite) and take a break on S-days.

Leaning on the calendar like this means it’s not all about willpower. Your life structure is already probably a little different on N-days than S-days, so this means less disruption to routine to fight against. When you attach your habits to N-days and S-days, it’s like finding studs in the wall when you’re hanging up a picture. It’s not perfect, it’s not everybody’s situation, sometimes it’s hard to find a stud, but it’s always worth looking for one instead of just randomly driving nails into the wall.

If your calendar does not look like this, if you have to work weekends for example, my bet is you still have S-days, even if they don’t start with the letter S. Figure out what they are and build your habits around them. Or maybe you’re retired. And you could consider every day an S day. I would advise reconsidering that. If your calendar is not predictable at all, that’s a problem probably more fundamental than any of the other habit-challenges you are contending with. If the ancient Egyptians hadn’t figured out when the Nile was going to flood, etc., they never would have built a hut, much less the pyramids.

N-days and S-days aren’t the only way to lean on the calendar and there are some habits and routines that don’t make sense to do at that particular cadence. There are lots of tasks, for example, that make sense to do once a week. For these, I like to pick a specific day, and always do them on that day, and come up with some cute mnemonic that starts with the letter of the day to reinforce this, like “meds-titative monday,” when I lay out the medications for my family and get in a longer meditation session (14 minutes vs. my usual N-day 7 minutes). Or Tub and Toilet Tuesday. Or Fitbit and friends Friday when I make sure all my portable electronic devices are topped up. Every day of the week I have some specific tasks attached to, with some cutesy (if perhaps strained) mnemonic. These cutesy mnemonics are helpful. That’s why restaurants and bowling alleys are so fond of them. They make it a little harder to forget or wriggle out of the tasks associated with them. Their powerful silliness makes you feel a little silly for even trying to get out of them.

I never want to do any of these tasks, so having a specific day of the week when I have to is helpful in terms of shutting down the excuse generating machine. And I can also spread my tasks evenly all over the week so no one day has too much. It can be hard to find compelling mnemonics for everything, but it’s worth the effort, even if the results are sometimes a little strained. I sometimes find it helpful to reach into another language, German in my case, to make it work. So Wednesdays aren’t just for watering plants and tending to my worldly affairs (going through my physical inbox of incoming mail), but they are also my Mittwochs for cleaning my Mikrowelle. All together “Mikro water worldly wednesdays.”

Every day of the week has its own cutesy task phrase and I find this extremely helpful for staying on top of domestic chaos. Do not for a moment imagine that our house is clean. It is not. That would not be possible given my own messy nature and those of the other beings who share my home with me. But total chaos is kept at bay. And that is enough of a triumph. Maybe just a VC Cat triumph, but those are the triumphs that are available to me and I appreciate them.

Sometimes a work scheduling change happens and I have to rejigger my cutesy task phrases. For example, when I started working 10 3/4 hour shifts on Mondays, moppy Monday had to move to moppy Mittwoch because there just wasn’t enough time outside of work on Mondays anymore.

So here’s my current full list of cutesy name weekdaily tasks. If you make one, I’m sure it will look quite different. This is just for inspiration, not exact replication.

Monday: “Medsitative Make-up” (I mediate for longer session, refill meds organizers, and make up any lingering tasks that didn’t get done when they should have last week)

Tuesday: “Tub & Toilet” (I scrub the tub and each of our two toilets)

Wednesday aka Mittwoch: “Moppy Mikro Water Wordly “ (I mop the floors after a roomba run, process the worldly affairs aka physical mail in my inbox, and I clean the microwave)

Thursday aka Donnerstag: “Dusty thoughtful” (I dust, and I do 14 minute brainstorming session on a topic of choice in notebook)

Friday: “Furry fingerfridgebit & friends” (brush cat, cut finger & toenails, clean fridge, recharge fitbit, bluetooth headset, electric razor and other weekly recharge items)

Saturday: “Self-reflective stovesauger” (transfer personal punch cards to lifelog spreadsheet, review audio memos, stick old memos onto google drive, review written memos – this is all part of the self-reflective part–, clean stove, targeted “staubsauger” aka vacuuming)

Sunday: “Studious sinks” (study by reading 14+ minutes and making new anki flashcards, clean kitchen and bathroom sinks)

Every day then, I write the cutesy name, the cutesy phrase, on the top of my daily task management index card in quotes, and then I list each component task in my life tasks column to cross out. This is redundant, right? I’m writing them twice. But it helps. It shows and reinforces my commitment. I don’t have to do the greatest job ever every week for every task. I just have to do something. Even if I do little more than stare at my dirty fridge on fridge Fridays, I develop some fridge awareness, a better sense of its dirty crevasses, prep myself for a more effective assault next time. I’m not just doing the task, I’m learning the task, I’m learning the problem. 52 times a year. And every time I do some little something, I build the habit.

Let’s move on to the clock for a moment, or more precisely, the timer. Shovelglove introduced the concept of schedulistically insignificant time. That’s the 14 minute timer you set to do your Shovelgolve sledgehammer workout. It’s just long enough to give you some exercise benefit, but not long enough to interfere with your day. The 14 minutes, one minute less than that smallest granularity of time you’re likely to block out in a calendar, is intentionally absurd, a slap in the face reminder that if you can’t make even this little time to do something, you do not care about this habit at all. It good naturedly shames you into doing the right thing.

Any exercise routine could benefit from schedualistically insignificant timing. I did a podcast episode once entitled "14 minutes of anything," the point of which was that making that regular short time was more important than what exercises you did during it.

And even activities that aren’t exercises or even regular habits can benefit from this approach. If you have some task that you are dreading and keep putting off, set a timer for 14 minutes and start. And if you have no idea how to start, use those 14 minutes to figure out how. I’m astonished at what I’m able to do with even a tiny block of focus like that. And how un-stuck it gets me. I write these podcast episodes mostly in tiny 14 minute blocks like that. My Dr. Who inspired name for the practice of using small (ideally 14 minute) timeboxes is Timebox Lord. If you’re curious, I did a whole episode on it a couple of years ago.

Meditation is a natural fit for Timebox Lord. I’ve often wondered how people meditated before the invention of timers. It seems incongruous that this ancient spiritual practice should depend on a smartphone, though for most people today I imagine it completely does. I guess there was some guy with a gong at the front of the Ashram, but how did he know when it was time? I guess he must have had an hourglass or something. Or it didn’t even matter, as long as he signaled a stop at some point. Even now, one of my most unmindful recurring meditation thoughts is “did I remember to set the timer?” I have this horror of meditating for ever or at least until I’m late for my next appointment because I forgot to set the timer. Sometimes I break down and have to peek. But mostly I’m just very, very thorough about double checking that it’s set and running before I start.

As I mentioned, The silliness of the number 14 is part of why it is compelling. It’s so in-your-face arbitrary. And I use that principle of compelling numeric silliness in another way with the clock proper: powerfully silly times of day. Whenever I have to get up in the morning, I avoid boring times like round hours. Instead I seek out funny times like angel numbers, where all the digits match, or ascending or descending sequences of numbers. So on weekdays my alarm is set to 4:56. And on weekends, which are still pretty full of chores for me usually, I allow myself to sleep in to 5:55. If it’s a holiday or we’re on vacation and I really want to pamper myself I might let myself sleep till 6:54.

Why? Well, when I see that powerfully absurd number on my clock when it starts blaring at me, I instantly know that this is no mistake, that this is precisely the time for me to get moving, now. Snooze is not an option, not with a precision blast like that. And if I’m cranky about having to get up so early, the humorousness of the number helps ease that a little.

It took some experimenting to figure out which powerfully silly numbers were right for me. For weekdays, 4:44 was too early. 5:43 was too late. I tried both. It was helpful to have the set of possible candidates narrowed down. There were really only three, for me, in this case. That’s another advantage of this approach. Fewer options means less decision fatigue.

A powerfully silly wakeup time also helps me get to sleep. Now I don’t have a correspondingly silly set bedtime, but since I know that I’m not going to mess with 4:56 on the other end, that’s powerful incentive to get to bed early.

I’ve gone through periods of my life of intense insomnia. When I’ve been in a phase like that, nothing worked, no tricks or techniques, I was too anxious for anything. I remember once it was so bad that I wasn’t conscious of having been asleep in over two months. I comforted myself with the thought that I must have slept without having noticed it, that it wasn’t possible not to have slept. I was relieved to read somewhere that it wasn’t possible to die of sleep deprivation, because was I starting to get genuinely afraid. I’ve since learned that it is in fact possible, that there are documented cases of people dying from lack of sleep, but I’m glad I didn’t know at the time.

Now in periods of normal, manageable anxiety, I find an early, firm, non-negotiable, absurdly precise wakeup time helps with sleep quality. It ensures that I’m tired enough, by the end of the day, to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep. The regularity of the pattern makes it habitually powerful. I’m less anxious about my undone tasks because I know I’m getting up as early as humanely possible to face them, so I do less tossing and turning. It might not be quite enough sleep (fitbit puts me at a little over 6 hours and 20 minutes on average) but it’s sleep deprivation on my terms, rather than on anxiety’s terms. I feel more in control, and I get more quality sleep and more quality waking than I would otherwise.

The clock and the calendar are your friends, but the snooze button is your enemy. The guy who invented splinter-free toilet paper is in heaven now but the guy who invented the snooze button is in the lowest depth of hell, roasting in the fever-dreams of the anxieties he’s avoiding, waking up, kinda, every 9 minutes or so for ever – the Sisyphus of the lazy.

Really, don’t use that snooze button. It’s a habit killer. It turns wake up into a prolonged, inefficient torture. And it drives everyone in earshot crazy.

Instead, when you hear the alarm ring the first and only time, jump up, see your absurdly powerful time, turn it off, look for what you have to grab, and run out of the room. If anyone else is in the room or nearby make sure they are undisturbed. That’s part of the challenge. Embrace it. You’re a ninja. A ninja of courtesy. Know what you have to grab and where you are going. For me: it’s backpack, glasses, phone, wallet, little bathroom. Then basement for the first hour of my morning routine.

The critical thing is that you're up and out of there pronto. Sometimes a mantra of sorts helps. “Time to make the donuts” from that old Dunkin Donuts commercial is one that often goes through my head right after the alarm rings. Another, not so funny, but sometimes all I can muster in my morning brain fog, is “Don't think, just move.” You should have a holy terror of falling back asleep, even if you can’t remember quite why.

Once I make it to the bathroom, I’m safe. By the time I’m in the basement a few minutes later, I’m even somewhat alert. It’s those first seconds that are crucial. You have to be quick, decisive and merciless. It sounds cruel, but it’s really an act of the tenderest self-love: you are sparing yourself the nightmare half sleep of snooze that isn’t even restorative and makes you stressed and late for everything else.

And then tonight you’ll be properly tired when it’s time to go to sleep again, and also properly in awe of the willpower + habit + magic number combo that bolted you out of bed that morning and will surely do so again. That awe will help your eyes shut more promptly when you lie down and help the thoughts stop churning. An audiobook also helps. A 14-minute sleep timer and I’m usually out.

From what I’ve read about CBT for insomnia programs, they emphasize the importance of regular sleeping hours, and also that giving yourself too much time to sleep can be counter productive. If you spend too much time in bed not sleeping, you’re going to start developing the wrong Pavlovian associations. It becomes the rack of insomnia rather than the bed of sleep, and a vicious circle ensues.

The last clock & calendar technique I’m going to talk about today is what I call calendar first tasking. It’s basically putting all of your work tasks and work day days into your electronic calendar. This is a great technique vs. a mere task list because it forces you to budget time, to make a quick estimate, to map out all our tasks against your available time. You won’t get it quite right. You’ll have to adjust and drag and edit, but it’s a good first reality check. I use an outlook calendar for work, and import my personal google calendar so I can see those events at the same time. I then create three more private, non-blocking outlook calendars: non-blocking work tasks, non-blocking life tasks, and procrastination. That way I can map out my day in detail without making it impossible for anyone else to schedule meetings with me, and I can see very quickly when I review how much time I spent focused on work tasks vs. life tasks or total procrastination. Procrastination tends not to be planned. But I force myself to put in into the calendar retroactively if it happens. This is a good disincentive, because it’s a little embarrassing, another form of “negative tracking,” like I’ve spoken about before. And I can also get a better handle on how much I’m doing, on how big a problem this actually is.

I don’t have to accomplish everything I set out to do in the calendar. I just have to dedicate that much time to it. I can drag it to tomorrow or later, or add a new block of time to come back to it. If I did something else instead during that block I replace it. By the end of the day, my calendar should accurately reflect how I spent my time. It should be retrospectively accurate. Every half hour block in my work day (I only do this for working hours) should be accounted for.

I’d experimented with various forms of calendar first tracking over the years but it never stuck until the addition of these non-blocking calendars.

Calendar first tasking is redundant with the task tracking I already do on my personal punchcards. And I have other systems I haven’t talked about yet that introduce even more redundancy. But for me, it’s good redundancy, that extra engine on a jet plane that keeps me on track even if one of them fails. 10% extra effort to be doing the right thing most of the time is worth it vs. doing the wrong thing half the time without.

We’ll, this has been a rather long episode about time, and I’ll close with a beautiful verse from psalm 90:

“Teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”

Number them to organize and regulate them, sure. But number them also and more importantly to remember how few and precious they are.

Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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