CLEARER THINKING

with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 095: Shovelgloves and extreme moderation (with Reinhard Engels)

March 10, 2022

What is "extreme" moderation? What is the "No S" diet? What is a "shovelglove"? Why be a luddite only on the weekend? What are some better alternatives to traditional habit tracking?

In the real world, Reinhard Engels is a librarian, software engineer, and father of three. But on the Internet, he's a diet, exercise, and productivity guru. His shtick is something called "Systematic Moderation": simple, common-sense, psychology-based rules for building sustainable good habits — and a touch of humour to help you laugh away the ridiculous excuses you'll come up with trying to get out of them. Find out more about Reinhard at everydaysystems.com, watch his shovelglove demonstration, or email him at reinhard.engels@gmail.com.

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast. And I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Reinhard Engels about how to engage in positive behaviors, developing lasting routines, and the role of moderation in a healthy lifestyle. Just so you know, we've once again included links in the show notes if you'd like to donate to organizations that are helping the people of Ukraine. And now here's the conversation between Spencer and Reinhard.

SPENCER: Reinhard, welcome, it's great to have you on.

REINHARD: It's great to be on. Thank you, Spencer.

SPENCER: So this is really important question, which is how do we actually get ourselves to engage in positive behaviors? I mean, so many people struggle to eat the way they want, to exercise enough, to disconnect from their phones, and so on. So I was really intrigued when I came across your work because I think you have a really different way of looking at these problems than most people. And so I'd love to dig into this with you start talking about your philosophy, and then go into some specific strategies develop, and then kind of go deeper into the subject. How does that sound?

REINHARD: Sounds great.

SPENCER: All right. So do you want to tell us what is extreme moderation?

REINHARD: So in a nutshell, it's basically we take the techniques that people who are extreme about politics, about behaviors. We take some of the techniques that they use, except that we apply them towards moderate ends. In other words, to give an example, abstinence is a fairly extreme technique. And I understand for some people, complete abstinence is necessary for something so I don't want to knock this, if anything, I want to show some respect for how powerful a technique this is. What extreme moderation does is it says, maybe we can take some of these techniques of extremism and apply them towards moderate behaviors.

SPENCER: Okay, so can you give us an example? What would that look like to apply extreme moderation?

REINHARD: Sure. So when you're practicing extremism, something you might do, for example, is completely forbid some substance. If you have problems with alcohol, if you have problems with eating too much of a certain kind of food, you might be tempted to just cut those out entirely. And what extreme moderation does is, it takes that hard line that you draw, except it draws it in a different place. So that instead of completely prohibiting something, you draw that line at maybe two of that something, you put it in a more moderate place. So for example, with alcohol, instead of complete abstinence, you'd have a two drink a day glass ceiling, which is the name of one of my everyday systems.

SPENCER: Got it. So this reminds me of the idea of a bright line rule where people often find it difficult to stick to behavior change if there's a certain fuzziness to it. Let's say you decide, I want to eat less carbs, right? Well, the problem is what is less carbs, right? Any particular bite of bread you eat? Is it that breaking my rule or not? Whereas if you had a rule that's like, I am allowed to eat bread one time per day, I can eat as much as I want, but then I can never touch it the rest of the day. That's like a kind of a clearer, brighter line rule, and somebody will find it easier to follow. Do you feel like is that related to this?

REINHARD: I think it is. I think people think moderation is sort of this mushy thing? And I think it often can be but I think for it to be successful, I think you do need those hard lines. I think it can be surprisingly helpful, and turned moderation into this thing that seems sort of wishy washy, and to something that is actually quite powerful.

SPENCER: Now, did you develop this kind of techniques for yourself, like as a way to get yourself to do the things you want to do?

REINHARD: Yes, absolutely. I had a bunch of personal problems, probably all of the typical personal problems that people face today. And I kind of despaired of all the off-the-shelf solutions that I was aware of, for a variety of reasons. And so I decided to commit this Cardinal no-no in software, which is don't roll your own, and decided that in this case, I had to, and through self-experimentation, and trying to keep a playful spirit about this. I came up with some systems. First to attack diet, and exercise. And then I moved on to other issues like personal productivity. And I was surprised at how effective these simple rules were for myself, and then this being 2001-2002, me being a software engineer, it seemed natural for me to put them up on the web, to set up a bulletin board group to discuss. And I was surprised that they resonated with other people, because they seemed very idiosyncratic. They seemed very peculiar to my particular personality. But it turns out, they're not. And that was sort of a delightful surprise. And it encouraged me to keep attacking more, and more personal problems with this kind of an approach, not just because I saw they were working for myself, but because I saw that they were resonating with other people, and might actually be really helpful for them.

SPENCER: Yeah, that's really cool that you're able to kind of develop new strategies for behavior change that not just solve your own problems, but then serve generalized. I don't think these things are gonna be forever on like, no behavior change techniques forever on but there does seem to be a subset of people where this is exactly what they need. So I would encourage the listener to know if any of these seem like starting to help you, you experiment with them, see if it works for you the way I first heard about you was a friend of mine reached out and told me about your website and told me that he's actually been doing one of your techniques for eight years. And I thought that was really cool that he's been able to stick with it so long. And that seems really core to your philosophy.

REINHARD: Yeah, they tend to all from the get-go be really focused on sustainability. I think it was just this reaction, I had to all the quick-fix promises, which even on the surface just seem so impossible in most self-improvement systems. And then from what I understood about the statistics of relapse, and how very few people can stick with use for any amount of time. And so from the get-go, all of my systems, my question is, can I imagine myself doing this forever? And if the answer is no, then it just doesn't seem worth starting.

SPENCER: That's a great way to frame it. Alright, so we've talked about your philosophy a little bit, we're gonna get into it more later. But I want to actually now go through some examples of the techniques you've created. So why don't we start with the "No S Diet"? What is the No S Diet? What's the purpose? And then what are the rules to it?

REINHARD: Yeah, so this was the first system I developed. And it was late 2001. For most of my life, until that point, I had been at least somewhat overweight, and just sort of thought of myself as a naturally inevitably pudgy person. And I was getting a little tired of it. And I thought, I surveyed the diet, exercise options that were available at the time, and all of them seemed like, okay, maybe this will work. But they seem just too horrible to contemplate being on for any length of time. I'm someone who really enjoys food, and to cut out a whole class of food, for example, whether it be carbs, or fat, or sugar, it seemed kind of inhuman. And even if I could force myself to stick with it, which I doubted, I felt that would be a real expensive cost, and doing that. And I wanted to see if I could find something that wasn't so harsh, with such an unpleasant trade-off. And so I thought to myself, alright, if I just had to pick three ways in which dietary excess is creeping into my lifestyle, what are they. And they happen to all start with the letter S, which I think was a bit of an accident: no snacks, no sweets, no seconds. And I tried that for a few weeks. And basically, what I meant by that was meal based eating, three meals a day, just one portion, one plate, every meal, and no sweets, not meaning no sugar, these things could have sugar in them, but not so much that they would register as a dessert level sweet. And this went fine for a couple of weeks. But then I thought, can I really do even this forever? Because I really like cake, and cookies, and sweet things. Can I really live my entire life without ever having these? And my wife very helpfully suggested, well, what about an exception? What about days that start with us? And at first, I thought this was absurd, of course. And then I thought, oh my god, this is the eureka moment. This is the exception that makes the rules work. What this gives you is a kind of safety valve, a controlled safety valve to enjoy sweets, even seconds on certain clearly defined, and limited days, days in which the temptation to violate your rules would be the strongest right weekends, and special days meaning holidays.

SPENCER: Right, so as for Saturday, Sunday, and then special days was you know, like Christmas, and stuff like that. Whatever. Whatever holidays you celebrate.

REINHARD: That's right. So major personal religious, national holidays, your birthday. These are days when you frankly probably wouldn't have stuck to your diet. Anyway. This diet just formalizes that, and accepts it so that it's instead of feeling like you're violating it, when that happens, do you feel like you're participating in the system, or not demoralized, and tempted to fall off the wagon. And what really struck me is that it felt like just the right level to be sustainable, and to actually do something. So it was quite effective in a surprisingly short amount of time, I lost a considerable amount of weight doing this. And even more astonishing was that I didn't mind it. And in fact, I actually started to enjoy eating more than I had before. Because I only had these limited input opportunities. Because my meals each meal, I only had a few numbers of them, it was this limited resource, I had to take them seriously. I didn't want to waste them, either on something that was revolting or on something that was just pure junk, because I knew there was no makeup, right? I couldn't justify having some absolute junk for lunch, and then thinking, Oh, well, you know what I can make out for that with some broccoli later, something, each meal is my chance, and I don't want to blow it. And that made me pay more attention to each meal, eat better food, at least by some metric every meal, and ultimately just eat a lot less.

SPENCER: That's great. Yeah, I really like that approach. Yeah, so let's just go back to the full set of rules, just so everyone knows, it's been No S Diet meaning you're not allowed to have S's, right? So let's see, if I remembered all one, you can have no snacks, and you only get three meals a day right? To you get no sweets, so you can't eat things that are total junk, right? Like you can't eat candy or something like that. Right?

REINHARD: That's right. And it's usually your tastebuds will tell you, this is not all that tricky.

SPENCER: Right. But an apple that's fine has sugar in it, that's fine, right? And then no seconds, which he is basically when you're having your three meals a day, you get one plate, you can make it as big as you want, you can put as much as you want on it, but you can't go get more of wherever the thing is, right?

REINHARD: Correct. And the reason for that is so helpful is that it retrains your eyes to be able to see access, I think one of the big problems that we have in the diet is that we're able to deceive ourselves about how much we're eating quite easily, by forcing us to confront each meal all upfront, right there in front of her eyes. We can't do that so much anymore.

SPENCER: Right? Because you couldn't because it's so easy to just, have this little snack here, and a little snack there, and a little snack there, and then you just kind of forget how much you got eaten throughout the day?

REINHARD: Yes. And so snacks are even more dangerous in this regard than seconds.

SPENCER: Yep. And then the last bit, the last aspect your wife helped that is except all the rules are off on S days. So that is Saturday Sundays, and then specializes in the holidays, right? So you can do whatever you want, right, instead of having to follow the rules. Correct. And basically, as I see it, the purpose of the system is not that this is the sort of optimal way to eat. The purpose of it is that if you do this, for most people, this will be healthier than what you're currently doing. And it's sort of designed, which kind of behavioral ideas, they didn't try to be sustainable to be something that you could live with, you could actually be happy with is not going to be miserable. And hopefully, you could just keep it up forever, as opposed to being here as a diet that you do just to lose weight or something like that.

REINHARD: That's right. And one thing that I think is also quite helpful about it is it taps into kind of our cultural patterns of eating, right, it taps into this three meal culture, that fraying around the edges, but for quite a while was and still is, to some degree, the standard way people eat socially. And so it makes social eating a much less fraught experience, right? If you're on some crazy low carb diet, and you're going out to dinner with someone who's on some high protein diet, and then someone else is invited who is on a very strict vegan diet, that may be a kind of tense dinner, whereas with "No S", you can usually flow with any situation and you can do "No S" with low carb, or with vegan, or with any of these things.

SPENCER: Yeah, very good point.

REINHARD: I think out of the S's, the one that people have the most trouble accepting is no snacking. I think the reason for that is we have so many pro-snacking messages coming at us today. And I think the reason is obvious, you can sell snacks, right? There's all kinds of snack bars, and snack foods that people can make money off of, and you can't really make money off of no snacks. But it's really a very novel behavior, and not this natural time-honored thing that I think a lot of people assume it is. And one of the things that astonished me when I was looking over the research is the degree to which snacking has increased over the last decades in the United States, in particular, and the richest one study, I think it was led by David Cutler at Harvard. And I don't remember the precise years he had, I think it was something like 90% of the total caloric consumption increase in that time, was due to in between meals eating, and for women, it was even greater was over 100%, because calories for meals actually went down. And so this is just astonishing to me that if you just took that one S, and annihilated it, you would have a 90% solution of dietary excess taken care of right there for women actually, an over 100% solution. So I was really impressed with how powerful that one rule, which I think people have the hardest time accepting really seems to be.

SPENCER: That's pretty wild. Yeah. I mean, I imagine, to some extent, people would push those calories to other meals, but surely not all the calories would get pushed in that way. I also wonder how much of that is due to beverages? Because it seems many people drink caloric beverages these days, how much is attributed to that?

REINHARD: I don't know off the top of my head. I'm less worried about that one. Just because that one seems so obvious. I rarely get pushback about that one. There are some borderline beverages, generally speaking, I don't count beverages that are not that may be caloric, but are not sugar-filled as food for less diet purposes. So you can have a glass of milk between meals, and it's okay. But yeah, I mean, it is that I think is a huge vector of sugars, and calories into us as well. But I feel like people are getting wise to that. I don't feel like they're getting wise to snacks.

SPENCER: Right. Because we hear these messages that like, it's actually good to snack because it keeps your blood sugar more consistent. You know, these kinds of things. And some people go the opposite stream, and say, "It's actually better have fewer meals a day, like twice a day, instead of seven times a day."

REINHARD: Yeah. I have more sympathy for that view. Simply just historically, it just doesn't make sense. You know, food preparation used to be amazingly time-consuming. And you know, you weren't just popping crackers, and chips in your mouth all day long. While you were on the fields working, your whole day was spent growing the food or cooking the food, or grinding the food. It really is unprecedented that we are even in a technological position to be eating snacks the way we do.

[promo break]

SPENCER: So let's go to one of your other techniques, Shovelglove. Do you want to tell us about how did Shovelglove come about this one I find kind of hilarious. But I'd love to hear your what was the origin of it? And then you tell us what it is.

REINHARD: Yeah, so Shovelglove came about a few months after the newest diet. So I just was refreshed for my astonishment that I discovered this thing to reel in my dietary excess. But I also realized that I had to occasionally exercise, and historically I've been what I think most of us are sporadic exercises. And so every once in a while sufficient guilt would build up, and I trudged to the gym. And I would torture myself, and the Nautilus machine, and whatnot. And maybe I'd do that for a few weeks. And then that was it. So that was the particular day. I remember when it was raining, and miserable outside. I felt this need to get some exercise. I did not want to leave the house. The weather was miserable. The idea of going to the gym was even more miserable. I thought to myself, I wish there was some exercise I could do right here in my house. And I remembered something I'd read about. I think it was some French novelist talking about how impressed he had been some 19th-century French novelist at the abdominal muscles of coal miners, and how he'd never seen anything like that. And I thought to myself, wow, I hate squats, and push-ups, but shoveling coal. That's something I could get into. And if it could get these results, that is appealing, but what do I do? How do I do this? I don't have a pile of coal or a pile of anything lying around the house. And if I get a shovel, what am I going to shovel?

SPENCER: What appealed to you about the idea of shoveling coal? I find that kind of surprising.

REINHARD: I think it was the idea of someone doing something useful of someone actually working of someone not doing some sort of contrived, I'm just going to hit the muscle kind of exercise, but a complex movement that our ancestors had performed for centuries or longer.

SPENCER: And then as a side effect, you guessed it, but not as sort of the main thing. Yeah.

REINHARD: Exactly. And I thought it would be kind of fun to do, I thought it would be almost like a kind of role-playing that you could sort of psychologically get into this in a way that would be difficult to with a more focused, contrived, muscle isolating gym movement.

SPENCER: I don't know if anyone would call coal mining fun, but it's intriguing to me that he felt that way. Okay, keep going. Yeah.

REINHARD: You know, it's got this almost spiritual aspect to it, of communing with your laboring ancestors to, I don't know, kind of appealed to me. And so I thought, okay, I've got it. I'm gonna go to the hardware store. I may get not a shovel, but a sledgehammer, because it has the weight pre-attached, I don't need to find any stuff to shovel. And to make sure that I don't kill my cat or scratch the floors. or later when I have kids, send them to the emergency room. I'm going to wrap an old sweater around the head of the Shovelglove. And I'll swing that around, and I'll pretend I'm shoveling coal or snow or whatever. And then all kinds of other labor, manual labor-inspired movements came to me so there's shovel coal, there's talk bales, there's drive fence posts, there's chop the tree.

SPENCER: Now all of these are done with the same instrument, which is this sledgehammer wrapped in what do you wrap it in again?

REINHARD: I wrap it in an old sweater, okay, for extra protection.

SPENCER: And then the phrase Shovelgloves refers to this sweater that the covers the quote-unquote shovel is actually shimmer.

REINHARD: The sledgehammer is standing in for the shovel, and the sweater is standing in for the glove. So it's an odd name, but it stuck.

SPENCER: And then, by the way, I should say, I recommend watching the videos or Reinhard doing the shovelglove techniques there. If you're interested in like, what are these actual motions that you can get to them all recorded.

REINHARD: One funny thing about these motions is that you don't actually hit anything you catch the hammer before it impacts anything. And in fact, this is where a lot of the exercise value lies in this catching movement where you're kind of putting the brakes suddenly, on this sort of rapidly swinging sledgehammer. And I regret that I didn't look this up before the interview. But there's actually a Japanese martial arts term for that kind of movement, which I was glad to discover. Because it's always nice to find some precedents for these crazy things that one thinks of.

SPENCER: Well, he also makes sense, because if you're doing, let's say boxing, in practice, you don't want to hit people full force. So you have to learn to kind of take the punch down at the end of it to like reduce the force. But of course, that actually is exhausting, because you're actually like absorbing your own energy essentially. So I imagine that what's going to people's minds right now is like, Okay, but why? Like, what's the advantage? Why do this? Why not just listen to barbells or go to the gym or something? You know?

REINHARD: Well, there are several advantages. One is that it's very convenient to do at home. In terms of equipment, sledgehammers are not very expensive. And the movements, and I guess it's hard to sell you on this unless you've tried. They're actually kind of fun. They're physically satisfying in a way that lifting dumbbells or lifting weights or just not. And I can't fully account for this. I'm guessing there's some muscle memory in our species from having our ancestors having done these kinds of movements for so long. That just resonates. I don't know if it's all if it's more psychological if it's just the idea of our ancestors having done these things, or the idea that these are at least potentially useful movements, that make them so appealing, but they are so the movements themselves, just give a kind of pleasure that other gym workout movements I've done have not and that's been a very common refrain on the Shuttle Glove, Bulletin Boards, and Facebook groups over the years, as well.

SPENCER: It reminds me a little bit of kettlebells, which is something I have in my house. I don't know if you've ever used those, but they're basically almost like bowling balls with a handle. And there's like all kinds of motions you can do with them. And they're relatively cheap, and you can keep them in your home, they don't take much space. And also what's cool about the motions with them, and they're very fluid motions, they're not so awkward as like, some things you do at the gym, you kind of could swing them and stuff like that. So kind of reminds me of a kind of homegrown version of that you see an analogy there?

REINHARD: I do. And I don't use kettlebells myself, but I admire them from a distance. I think they're cousins of Shovelglove. But I do think the hammer is more fun. And I think more useful actually, have you used the sledgehammers for actual work around the house occasionally.

SPENCER: So how much time do you recommend people do this day? And how many days a week?

REINHARD: Yeah, so this is kind of important, too. I came up with this idea of schedulistictly insignificant time. So basically, I thought to myself, 14 minutes is one minute less than anything you're gonna see on a calendar, you're never gonna have a meeting that like starts at like 905 or 914, or something. You might at 915, there's you start getting into dangerous territory. And so the idea was, I wanted to make it as long a time as I could to get some actual workout benefit, while at the same time keeping it as short as possible. So you have no excuse to say, "You know what, I don't have time, because if you don't have 14 minutes," you're kind of kidding yourself. It's kind of ridiculous. And the idea is to make you sort of laugh at yourself for these laughable excuses, you're going to come up with to try to get out of this. I think that's been a big key to Shovelgloves' success, as well. And in fact, I've advised people who don't see the sledgehammer part of the Shovelglove as being for them to try the schedullisticly. Stickley insignificant time part with whatever exercise routine they prefer, and see how that works for them because I think it's at least as powerful as the actual tool of Shovelglove.

SPENCER: And you actually recommended people stop after 14 minutes. All right?

REINHARD: I do because the danger with self-improvement and this is not limited to Shovelglove is hubris. We feel this need to make continual rapid progress. And very soon, if we indulge that need, we find ourselves in a state where we either injure ourselves or where a timeline becomes no longer sustainable, right, it's beyond the schedullisticaly insignificant time. And now it's quite significant. And you can easily come up with an excuse why you don't have time, or it just becomes really unpleasant. Because you're training yourself just too hard. All of those things will make you less likely to do it at all, and more likely to quit. And that is really the biggest danger with these things.

SPENCER: Right. Like 14 minutes of exercise, a day is dramatically better than 40 minutes you don't do it. Right?

REINHARD: Exactly right. And I living proof that it can be quite effective. You know, I'm not exactly like, professional bodybuilder, athlete's physique. But given that this is all I do, I'm in pretty astonishingly good shape.

SPENCER: Do you do it every day?

REINHARD: I do it. Just like the no s diet uses the S days and the N days. This is again, a useful structure I use across a lot of my systems. I do it every weekday every end day. So I still take Saturday, Sunday, and special days off.

SPENCER: Alright, so let's talk about 31 of your techniques the Weekend Luddite, what's that?

REINHARD: So Weekend Luddite once I graduated a bit beyond my physical problems. I found that like many of us you have seen many of us, I feel like all of us these days are so overwhelmed with work, tasks, with distractions from social networking apps, from games, electronic games, these wonderful devices. You know, I'm a technology person, I love these things. But they also have this way of without you realizing it just completely sucking up all your time, erasing all the boundaries between the different activities in your life, being at work, being with your family. And so I wanted to find a structure to regularly consistently take some time off of that. And so I came up with this idea of Weekend Luddite and it was sort of vaguely inspired by the idea of a Sabbath. And I went through a few different ways of implementing it, but the current version works like this between breakfast and dinner on weekends. I do not use a computer. And when I started it, it was a lot easier because what a computer was is not what a computer is today, right when I started it, not everyone had a computer, or to attach to their bodies all the time, as we do with our iPhones and Fitbits and whatnot. So we can Luddite has had to evolve a little bit as the geniuses in Silicon Valley keep on thinking of new ways to get around it. But so far, I've stayed ahead of the game, what I do is I don't completely put the devices away, I allow myself to use them only for certain whitelisted activities. So there's sort of a narrow range of things that I think are okay things to do. Even on my weekend Luddite days, listen to music, look up recipes, text, arrange playdates for my kids, that kind of stuff. But it is, and of course, the GPS, because I'm a terrible driver. And I would never actually make it anywhere in one piece without my GPS, but certainly not teams, Slack, email, anything work-related. And it's been a really great, unnecessary recharge psychically, for me. And I feel like I've just sort of scratched the surface of other systems that I'd like to explore around a less permeable kind of work-life balance. And even just beyond work, I think, going from this driven goal mindset, to just putting the goals aside for a little while, and just being open and trying to enjoy your family in front of you.

SPENCER: Okay, so just to remind listeners, so it's Saturday and Sunday, you're not allowed to use any computer, including your phone from morning to sundown. Is that right?

REINHARD: I wound up with breakfast to dinner.

SPENCER: Okay, privacy dinner?

REINHARD: Yeah. Because so different times of year. When is dawn, when it's dusk, there's too much ambiguity. So I needed that extreme clarity. I had hoped at first to be able to go a complete weekend without doing this. But I found I was not able to do that.

SPENCER: With the idea of extreme moderation, it seems like well, okay, you can still get something done at night, if you really need to, all it makes you do is wait a handful of hours, right.

REINHARD: And the original Luddites, who went out and destroyed all these machines, they were a bit more extremist than we Weekend Luddites are. We don't have a beef against all machines. It's just the machines that are wasting our time in this way. And so we can be a little more targeted, and limited in our restrictions.

SPENCER: You know, it also reminds me of how I've heard many times religious Jewish people talk about the benefits they feel they get from not using electronics on the Sabbath. And so it's kind of a kind of recreate that in a secular context, it may be obvious to people why it's beneficial to not use your phone. But I want to just talk a little bit more about that, like, how do you feel like things are different? Because you're doing Weekend Luddite?

REINHARD: I think, for one thing, there is this constant sense when we have these things, dinging off of urgency. And that this sense of urgency, it keeps us from focusing on what is actually important, it keeps us from really considering that question of what is actually important. How do I really rank what I can do in the limited time I have. I think it was Peter Covey had this visual image of these four quadrants, where work was divided into stuff that is urgent, in that people are clamoring for this to be done now. And work that is important. On the other end, that may not be something people are clamoring for now but big picture is actually more important and does need long-term more attention.

SPENCER: So that leads to four combinations, right? There's like urgent-important, urgent-unimportant, non-urgent-important, non-urgent-unimportant.

REINHARD: I think that what his advice is that we spend more time, not in that urgent quadrant, whether it's important or unimportant, and more in the important quadrant, where it's not necessarily urgent, where we have the time to sort of reflect and build up and kind of preempt urgent situations from happening.

SPENCER: Great. Yeah. So this kind of approach you have to designing new behavior trim systems for the novice diet, Shovelglove, Weekend Luddite, and then there's other ones on your website, everyday.systems.com. So I want to talk a bit about what ties all this together because you have a very interesting and unique flavor of design behavior change. And we've talked about a little bit of extreme moderation, but at least it goes through what are some of the aspects that kind of bring all this stuff together?

REINHARD: Sure. Yeah. For one thing, they need to be very simple. You'll notice that the "No S Diet", the entire system is 14 words. They need to be simple. if you're trying to build new habits, you can't have a whole lot of intellectual realization going on when you're in these situations, it needs to really be just a snap decision. And so simple is very helpful with that.

SPENCER: Well, is this allowed or not? You just have this. Okay, I know there's a lot of there's not allowed.

REINHARD: Exactly. And you draw some arbitrary lines, you know they're arbitrary but you stick with them anyway for the sake of keeping your system simple and clear. Another component is something I like to call habit branding, where you ground whatever behavior you're doing with some striking metaphor or image, something funny, even something absurd. And that makes it easy for you to call into mind again, quickly, sort of like an instant recall versus I'm going to recall some intellectual content, it gives you a handle that makes it very easy to retrieve in that critical moment.

SPENCER: So you're referring to the names that you give these like the "No S Diet" Trouble Book?

REINHARD: I give each of them a name. So some others are "Glass Ceiling", my two-drink-a-day limit on alcoholic beverages, "G Ray Vision" for avoiding certain subjects on the internet. "Timebox Lord" is a funny one for time management, more recent, and just in general, these adding these sort of absurdist elements to it like the schedulisticly insignificant time. With the sort of striking labels and the funny stories behind them, it doesn't invite you to sort of argue yourself out of them because they're kind of self consciously silly.

SPENCER: Right. So you mentioned arbitrary nests. I feel like that's really critical here. Like, there's an extreme arbitrariness to these techniques, right? Like, why is it that Saturday and Sundays off? You know, why not Friday and Saturday or whatever, but the point is that you don't have to think about it, right. It's like you're like, okay, I know, it's arbitrary. But you know, I'm gonna adopt a No S Diet, it's a kind of pre-package. You know, it's pre-packaged, it has everything I need. And for some people maybe that's enough.

REINHARD: Right. And the truth is, almost every self-help system has some arbitrary number going on. Yeah, right?

SPENCER: You're just maybe more kind of using that for comic effect I think.

REINHARD: That's right. We're drawing attention to it, you know, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And every one of these books has some number.

SPENCER: Right. Why is it not eight, or six, or whoever.

REINHARD: There's a sort of mysticism around numbers that people have, which is silly, and yet it's there, right as part of human nature. So we might as well tap into it, while at the same time having a playful awareness of it. So that if someone starts to doubt, quite legitimately, wait, what's up with this number? It's absurd. We don't get into defending it. We're like, yes, of course. It's absurd. That's the point.

SPENCER: Yeah, I like that approach. It's also really interesting that all these costs almost nothing.

REINHARD: Yes, I'm a very frugal guy. I hate waste. And I love that you do not need to buy anything from me to make any of these systems work, you go to the hardware store to get your sledgehammer. I do have a "No S Diet" book that you can buy. But honestly, there's no secret information in there that I don't give away on the website and the podcasts.

SPENCER: You're doing a terrible job of becoming a rich self-help guru.

REINHARD: Yes, exactly. No, I sometimes think of myself as like the Van Gogh of self-help, or something.

SPENCER: Why Van Gogh?

REINHARD: Some artist who is neglected during his life, but after his death, his work is discovered and worth millions, you know.

SPENCER: I guess in the future 100 years we'll be having, they'll have a Shovelglove in their home, hopefully. Another interesting aspect of all your techniques is they don't involve tracking and things like that. Is that right?

REINHARD: That's right.

SPENCER: Why is that?

REINHARD: Well, because I think that when people start to track things, there's this brief moment where it's super interesting and exciting. You know, I'm going to track all my carbs or my calories or whatever. And it's interesting for two weeks, maybe three weeks, maybe, but it's really time-consuming. And after a while, it really isn't something you could imagine sustaining for the rest of your life. And so I think it actually sabotages the system. Now, what I might recommend tracking under some circumstances and I did not do this at all when I started "No S" and Shovelglove is to track not calories or carbs or stuff, but compliance with the habit itself.

SPENCER: Just like a yes-no, did I do it today?

REINHARD: Yeah, essentially. So what I talked about initially was my called the habit traffic light, right? Because you have three possible states, right? You have I did it green. I didn't do it. Red. It was an exempt day. Yellow. I didn't have to do it. You don't get punished for that. But you get to record it and I find that can be good to help you focus on what's really important, which is the behavior itself, rather than whatever results you're hoping to get from this behavior because the results are never going to move in lockstep with the behavior. And the truth is the results, we don't have complete control over, we don't actually really know what results are possible, or even ideal, we just pull these numbers out of our head. But we do have direct control over our behaviors. And we do know that we should what we eat. And we do know that we should exercise. And so I like to tell people they asked like, what should my ideal weight be, and I say, do your ideal behaviors. Eat moderately, exercise moderately, and what you weigh after some time of doing that, that's your ideal weight.

[promo break]

SPENCER: Yeah, so another aspect of all of your techniques that I like is just how little time it takes. Can you comment on that?

REINHARD: Yeah, small temporal footprint is something that I'm they all have in common. And I appreciate this more and more. Now I got three kids and aging parents and day job that has nothing to do with this, I have very, very little time for this self-improvement stuff. And time becomes more and more of a precious threatened resource, I think as we get older, and so if you like these systems, you'd better keep them in a small box as possible timewise in order to be able to continue with them, because otherwise, they're just going to get attacked from all sides. In fact, sometimes I even like to combine them, not just because they take less time that way, but because they kind of mutually reinforce each other by the power of association. I have a system I've been working on called the Study Habit, which I don't want to get into much detail about here today. But I combine it with Shovelglove, which may seem kind of odd. But basically what I do is while I'm doing my Shovelglove routine in the warm morning, I'm watching. I'm trying to practice my German so I'm watching German-language material, sometimes news, sometimes Netflix shows, or Amazon shows they both have a ton of German language stuff now. Sometimes LinkedIn learning classes, which they also have a ton of now in German. And the idea is I'm taking this one habit, my exercise habit, Shovelglove, and I'm coupling it with this other seemingly completely unrelated habit, the Study Habit, and I'm getting the benefit of both. And they each helped me to do the other one regularly.

SPENCER: Because if you're wanting to do one of them, that's gonna kind of involve the other, is that right?

REINHARD: They just go together at this point. And so it's made them both much easier to do. And it makes them more pleasant to look forward to. Because you know, if Shovelglove wasn't fun enough, I now get to infotain myself at the same time.

SPENCER: There's this thing that you said, I feel like kind of ties together a lot of your work, which is this phrase maintenance is more important than progress, do you want to talk about that?

REINHARD: Yeah, this comes up a lot with Shovelglove. People are always wanting to get a heavier Sledgehammer. I personally have gone through just three weeks of Sledgehammer in my Shovelglove career, I started out with a 12-pounder, which was honestly a little too heavy. I stuck with that for about a year, then moved up to a 16-pounder, which was quite a jump. And I stuck with that for a few more years. And now I'm on to a 20-pounder, but I've been doing this whole thing for almost 20 years now. So three hammers in 20 years is and I have no temptation to go beyond the 20-pounder ever. I think there's this desire to just become some kind of Superman that, frankly is a little crazy that people have and that it sabotages them because what happens is they'll go they'll put them to the point where they injure themselves, or to where it just isn't fun anymore. And they drop off. And then that's it. And there goes, the Superman there goes into even the regular human-level exercise. And so right from the beginning, I always emphasize, get this habit structure in place, the 14 minutes what you're going to do, and assume that is forever, that is you're never going to have more than 14 minutes a day exercise because you won't, as you get older, you don't get more time you get less time, I can now speak from some experience on that matter. And so, if you want to make progress, you really have to, of course, you want to make progress. So how do you squeeze that desire along as far as possible, without letting it damage you? Right? So the answer is very, very slowly, and within hard constraints. So I have gotten stronger at Shovelglove over the years, but at a snail's pace, but I truly believe that is key to maintaining it for the duration. And I've never injured myself with Shovelglove, which astonishes me. Because I've tried exercises that are more traditional, like running. And I cannot do it for more than three months without lining up at PT. This totally sane form of exercise practiced by millions of people is actually my experience vastly more dangerous than swinging around a sledgehammer in my living room.

SPENCER: I also tried running once, and I also immediately injured myself. So after a few weeks, I was getting knee pain and so on. You know, it's really interesting to me, because you I don't use any of your techniques right now. I just learned about them recently. But I definitely see the appeal they have. But I'm thinking about my own life, I feel like I have a bunch of methods I use to try to achieve many of the things that your techniques help people achieve. For example, with exercise, I find I'm not once not the sort of person just loves exercising, right? It's never been something I'm like, Oh, I really want to go exercise. And so what I do is I find forms of exercise that I really enjoy so that it's just like I'm looking forward to it. For example, bouldering, or mixed martial arts, or the other. My other option is I do competition bundling, well bundle it with me I really enjoy like, I'm only allowed to watch my favorite TV show. If I'm on the treadmill, and then I look forward to it. Because I just want to see the show right. So that's kind of how I bootstrap my exercise. With diet, what I realized for myself, one of the most helpful things is just standardizing what I eat. So, right now, for example, I eat a healthy protein bar for breakfast every morning. And then I eat a salad for lunch every day. And with slight variations in what the salad and that like works really well for me as a way of making sure that at least half my day is already pre-planned in terms of what I'm eating. So a lot of it is trying to achieve the same kind of things that you're working on just using different techniques.

REINHARD: There's a similar concept, in the "No S" universe called intelligent dietary defaults to what you just described there, where we identify certain meals that we have frequently. And we come up with, alright, you don't have to eat this every time it's a default. If you can't think of anything better, right? If there's no really delicious alternative or healthier alternative, have this meal on hand, make sure it's reasonably healthy, reasonably easy to prepare. For me, my two favorites have revolved around oatmeal. And this probably acquired taste. It's this Mr. Mathur German black bread. And they're both just fiber bombs, and super easy to prepare because you don't have to cook anything, use anyone's disgusting communal microwave, and reasonably good for you with nuts and seeds and dried fruit and so on.

SPENCER: Cool. So, Reinhard, you've developed all these different techniques for behavior change, and they're really unique and kind of have your own style baked into them. So I'm wondering, what do you feel like you've learned from developing them all that you could share with someone that struggling to change their own behavior? What would you say to them?

REINHARD: For sure, I mean, I'd say all of the kind of fully blown systems, I think they're worth looking at. And maybe they'll work great for you. But the common underpinnings of the systems, the components, they really are quite reusable. And I'd suggest if for example, "No S rules", don't do it. Don't do the trick for you. There's something on appealing about them, or you're not the kind of person who's going to swing a sledgehammer around, see if there's components of those that might be useful to you. If, for example, the idea of framing your problem in terms of N days versus S days could be helpful or if that idea of schedulistically insignificant time from Shovelglove could be useful. Or that idea of habit branding of coming up with some striking image to capture your imagination could be useful. I think those elements more than the particular details of how these systems were implemented are the really powerful things. And when you roll your own system or even significantly adopt one of these out-of-the-box, everyday system systems, you insert something of yourself in there, which I think is also really important. I think there's something often kind of pathetic feeling, running after the latest self-help advice. But when you really make it, something that's yours, it feels quite different. And especially if you do it with a bit of a sense of humor.

SPENCER: So do you find that a lot of people who use your techniques, they do end up adapting them and tweaking them to better fit their life?

REINHARD: Oh, yeah, we get all kinds of really interesting variations. And of course, we get people combining them with other interests that they have diet and exercise. And otherwise, we have lots of people combining No S with things like intermittent fasting and low carb and vegan and with Shovelglove, we have people combining Shovelglove with different martial arts practices that they're doing. We had some great pictures of people doing Shovelglove on the decks of Navy ships, which I got huge kick out of. This is my all time favorite. There's apparently a whole village in Thailand, where people are now doing, Shovelglove. And this guy sent me his pick a picture of his wife and his grandmother and his aunt, that really got me.

SPENCER: Wow, that's really cool to see that.

REINHARD: Which is funny too, because I always thought it seems like this strange who is into Shovelglove is a weird thing. You know, we think either like these incredibly dorky males or like the sort of scary like militia types. But then I get this village in Thailand. And I'm like, You know what, this is fantastic. This is too beautiful to be true.

SPENCER: That's wonderful as your wife adopted any of these techniques.

REINHARD: So she's adopted, not a full-blown system, but some of the components. She doesn't use the Shovelglove, but she does do the 14 minutes for her exercise routine, which is more yoga-based.

SPENCER: Nice. Did you do the Weekend Luddite together?

REINHARD: I do the weekend Luddite. She keeps talking about wishing she could do the Weekend Luddite. But I'm so not quite there yet.

SPENCER: Thanks so much for coming on. This is super fun.

REINHARD: Hey, my pleasure. Thank you so much.

JOSH: Listener wrote in to ask how you distinguish between ideas that matter and those that don't.

SPENCER: The way I think about an idea that matters is its one that affects the things that are important in life. So it helps people achieve their intrinsic values or relates to why people can't achieve their intrinsic values. Or also, it could be that it helps us understand the world better, and sort of make sense of things better, it's almost easier to talk about an idea that doesn't matter. So an idea it doesn't matter something about something trivial, something that's minute something that doesn't affect the well-being of humans or animals, something that has no bearing on anything else, and sort of a disconnected idea.

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Credits

Host / Director
Spencer Greenberg

Producer
Josh Castle

Audio Engineer
Ryan Kessler

Factotum
Uri Bram

Transcriptionist
Janaisa Baril

Music
Lee Rosevere
Josh Woodward
Broke for Free
zapsplat.com
wowamusic
Quiet Music for Tiny Robots

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Please note that Clearer Thinking , Mind Ease , and UpLift are all affiliated with this podcast.