Everyday systems

Saying - alwaysThis is the first of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

Moderation. Everybody from Aristotle to your Grandmother agrees that moderation is a good idea. It’s the wisdom of the philosophers and the virtue of the common folk. At least, it used to be. Of course, they had little choice but to be moderate.

Sheer scarcity kept them in line. Powerful traditions formed an additional line of defense. We, on the other hand, live in an age of material superabundance and declining traditions. So how, in the absence of the external pressures of scarcity and tradition, can we give moderation the teeth it needs to be effective? Think in terms of habit, semi-automatic behaviors requiring little willpower to maintain once they’ve been established.

It’s about establishing a consistent, almost automatic pattern of behavior over time. Much of the challenge of successful self-discipline is throttling your enthusiasm so you don’t burn out. Keep the focus on meeting some clearly defined, rigorously un-ambitious daily “good enough.”

Sustainability has to be the first thing you consider when evaluating a habit you want to acquire.

Maintenance is more important than progress. Progress is intrinsically temporary; maintenance is what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life.

Habit Branding. A good system should be “branded” with a striking image, pun, or metaphor. That way you’ll be much less likely to forget or ignore it, even when things get stressful. Some Everyday Systems are little more than a striking brand. Others have significantly more rules or back-story, but even these systems are well served by a brand: the brand gives you a handle, all you have to do is have the brand flash into your mind and you can easily retrieve all the rest.

No keeping track of things. The system shouldn’t require you to keep track of anything beyond the day of the week. You have too many things to keep track of already. Sometimes it’s interesting, but it gets unbearably boring and onerous fast.

Small time footprint. Ideally, the system should free up time, not take more of it. If your exercise routine, for example, competes in any significant way with your social life or even with your favorite television show, sooner or later your exercise routine is going to lose.

Socially Unobtrusive. Consider whether your habits are going to be unbearably irritating to the people around you. It’s not simply a matter of common courtesy: the consciousness of others’ disapproval will quickly wear you down.

Free or cheap. If you need anything at all, it should be nothing you can’t pick up at your local hardware store. 

Simple but specific. Common sense is great, but too vague to be a practical guide. Behaviors  involving complex decisions, might be precise, but can’t be automated into unconscious habit. A good system finds the happy medium: unforgettably simple but unambiguously precise.

Comic pragmatism. Self-help tends to take itself dreadfully seriously. But crazy is a great mnemonic device. If something is a little nuts, you’ll remember it. It’s a joke, but it’s also serious. It’s effective because it’s a joke.

Enjoyable. Successful self-discipline requires plenty of carrot as well as stick. Everyday systems make pleasure integral.