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 email@example.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 podcasts 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 and 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: This really important question, which is how do we actually get ourselves to engage in positive behaviors? Many people struggle to eat the way they want, to exercise enough, to disconnect from their phones, and so on. 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. I'd love to dig into this with you, start talking about your philosophy, then go into some of the specific strategies developed, and kind of go deeper into the subject. How does that sound?
REINHARD: Sounds great.
SPENCER: All right. Do you want to tell us what Extreme Moderation is?
REINHARD: In a nutshell, it's basically we take the techniques of 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. 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, can you give us an example of what would that look like to apply extreme moderation?
REINHARD: Sure. 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 different places. 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 to 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 a behavior change — if there's a certain fuzziness to it. Let's say you decide, "Oh, I want to eat less carbs", Well, the problem is what is less carbs, any particular byte of bread you eat, it's "Well, is that breaking my rule or not?", whereas if you had a rule that's, "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 a kind of a clearer, brighter line rule, and somebody will find it easier to follow. Do you feel that this is related to this?
REINHARD: I think it is. People think moderation is sort of this mushy thing. And it often can be, but I think for it to be successful, I think you do need those hard lines. It can be surprisingly helpful and turn moderation into this thing that seems sort of wishy washy into something that is actually quite powerful.
SPENCER: Now, did you develop this kind of technique for yourself 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. I decided to commit this Cardinal “No-No” in software (which is you don't rule your own), and decided that in this case, I had to and through self-experimentation, trying to keep a sort of 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. I was surprised at how effective these simple rules were for myself, and then, this being — till 2001, 2002 — me being a software engineer, it seemed natural for me to put them upon 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. That was sort of a delightful surprise, 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 were able to kind of develop new strategies for behavior change that, not just solve your own problems, but then sort of generalize and — I don't think these things are gonna be forever on like," nope, behavior change techniques forever on", but there does seem to be a subset of people where this is exactly what they need. I would encourage the listener to know if any of these seem a certain thing that helps you — experiment with them, see if it works for you. The way I first heard about you was when 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 — 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 of most self-improvement systems. From what I understood about the statistics of relapse, and how very few people can stick with us for any amount of time. 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 going to get into it more later. I want to actually now go through some examples of the techniques you've created. 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: This was the first system I developed. 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 — I was getting a little tired — I thought, I surveyed the diet, exercise options that were available at the time, and all of them seemed, "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. 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. wanted to see if I could find something that wasn't so harsh with such an unpleasant trade-off. I thought to myself, "Alright, you know, 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. This went fine for a couple of weeks, 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 S?", and at first I thought this was absurd, of course. 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 (Weekends and special days meaning holidays.)
SPENCER: Right. So as for Saturday, Sunday and then special days which are Christmas and stuff like that. Whatever great 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 instead of feeling you're violating it when that happens. You feel that you're participating in the system, or not demoralized and tempted to fall-off the wagon. What really struck me is that it felt just the right level to be sustainable, and to actually do something. It was quite effective in a surprisingly short amount of time, I lost a considerable amount of weight doing this. Even more astonishing was that I didn't mind it. In fact, I actually started to enjoy eating more than I had before. I only had these limited input opportunities. Because my meals, each meal — I know that a few 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. I couldn't justify having some absolute junk for lunch, and then thinking, "Oh, well, you know what I can make up for that with some broccoli later or something". Each meal is my chance, and I don't want to blow it. 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, I really like that approach. Let's just go back to the full set of rules — just so everyone knows. It's the No S Diet, meaning you're not allowed to have S's, right? So let's see if I remember at all. One, you can have no snacks, that means you only get three meals a day right? 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.
REINHARD: That's right. And usually your taste buds will tell you, this is not all that tricky.
SPENCER: But an apple that's fine has sugar in it but that's fine, and then no seconds, which means 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 whatever the thing is, right?
REINHARD: Correct. The reason for that, the reason that that is so helpful, is that it retrains your eyes to be able to see excess. I think one of the big problems that we have in our 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 up front, right there in front of our eyes, we can't do that so much anymore.
SPENCER: Because it's so easy to just, "Oh how this little snack here and a little snack there, and a little snack there.", and then you just kind of forget how much you've actually been eating throughout the day.
REINHARD: Yes, yes. And so snacks are even more dangerous, in this regard, than seconds.
SPENCER: The last bit, the last aspect — which your wife helped — that is except all the rules are off on S days — so that is Saturday, Sundays and then special measure the holidays, right? So you can do whatever you want, right? Instead of having to follow the rules.
SPENCER: 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. It's sort of designed with kind of behavioral ideas baked in to try to be sustainable — it should be something that you could live with, you could actually be happy with,it's not going to be miserable, and hopefully, you could just keep it up forever, as opposed to thinking of it as a diet that you do just to lose weight or something like that.
REINHARD: That's right. One thing that I think is also quite helpful about it is it taps into our cultural patterns of eating, it taps into this three meal culture that is sort of fraying around the edges, but for quite a while was — and still is, to some degree — the standard way people eat socially. It makes social eating a much less fraught experience. 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's 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 in us today — and 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. 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. There was this 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, it was over 100% because calories for meals actually went down. 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 in over 100% solution. 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. 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 diet purposes. So you can have a glass of milk between meals, and it's okay. But, I think it 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. [laughs]
SPENCER: Because we hear these messages that, "Oh, it's actually good to snack because it kind of keeps your blood sugar more consistent.", and these kinds of things. Some people go the opposite way and say, "It's actually better to have fewer meals a day", like D-twice a day, instead of seven times a day.
REINHARD: I have more sympathy for that view (simply, just historically, it just doesn't make sense.) Food preparation used to be amazingly time consuming — 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.
SPENCER: Let's go to one of your other techniques, Shovel Glove. Do you want to tell us about how your Shovel Glove came about? (This one I find kind of hilarious [laughs] but I'd love to hear.) What was the origin of it? And then you tell us what it is?
REINHARD: Shovel Glove came about a few months after the newest diet. I just used to refresh from 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 — a sporadic exerciser. 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. Maybe I'd do that for a few weeks and then, that was it. 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. I thought to myself, "Wow, I hate squats and push ups but shoveling coal, that's something I could get into.", and if you 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, or someone actually working with 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. And—
SPENCER: Then as a side effect, you get fit, but not as sort of the main thing..
REINHARD: Exactly. I thought it would be kind of fun to do, I thought it would be almost a kind of role playing — that you could sort of psychologically get into this in a way that would be difficult with a more focused, contrived muscle isolating gym movement.
SPENCER: I don't know if anyone would call mining fun, but it's intriguing to me that you felt that way. Okay, going?
REINHARD: 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'm gonna get not a shovel but a sledgehammer because it has the weight pre-attached, I don't need to find any stuff to shovel. 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 shovel glove. I'll swing that around, and I'll pretend I'm shoveling coal or snow or whatever" then all kinds of other labor — manual labor inspired movements came to me so there's Shovel Coal, Tuck Bales, Drive Fence Posts, Chop The Tree.
SPENCER: All of these are done with the same instrument, which is this sledge hammer wrapped in... what do you wrap it in again?
REINHARD: I wrap it in an old sweater.
REINHARD: For extra protection.
SPENCER: Then that phrase Shovel Glove refers to this sweater [laughs] that covers the quote-unquote, Shovel, which is actually something shimmer.
REINHARD: The Sledgehammer is standing in for the shovel, and the sweater is standing in for the gloves — it's an odd name but it's tuck.
SPENCER: There is by the way, I should say, I recommend watching the videos of Reinhard doing the shovel glove techniques there. If you're interested in what these actual motions are, you can see 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. 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 — 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 precedent for these crazy things that one thinks of. [laughs]
SPENCER: Well, it also makes sense because if you're doing — let's say boxing — in practice, you don't want to hit people with full force, so you have to learn to kind of take the punch down at the end of it to reduce the force. But then, of course, that actually is exhausting because you're actually absorbing your own energy essentially. I imagine that what's going through his mind right now is, "Okay, but why? What's the advantage? Why do this? Why not just lift barbells or go to the gym or something?”
REINHARD: Well, there's 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 makes them so appealing, but they are. 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 Shovel 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 there are basically these almost like bowling balls with a handle. And there's like all kinds of motions you can do with them. They're relatively cheap and you can keep them in your home, they don't take up much space, and also what's cool about the motions with them is they're very fluid motions. They're not as awkward as some things you do at the gym. You kind of can swing them and stuff like that. So kind of reminds me of a kind of homegrown version of that. Do 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 Shovel Glove [laughs] — but I do think the hammer is more fun, and I think more useful actually. Have you used the sledge hammers for actual work around the house occasionally.
SPENCER: [laughs] So how much time do you recommend people do this a day? And how many days a week?
REINHARD: This is kind of important too. I came up with this idea of Schedule A Stickley 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 9:05 or 9:14, or something, you might at 9:15, there's you there, you start getting into dangerous territory — 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. 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 ), 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 Shovel Gloves success as well. In fact, I've advised people who don't see the sledgehammer part of Shoveled Glove as being for them to try the scheduled mystically 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 Shovel Gloves.
SPENCER: You actually recommend the people stop after 40 minutes, is that right?
REINHARD: I do, because the danger with self-improvement — and this is not limited to Shovel Glove — is hubris [laughs]. 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 it timewise becomes no longer sustainable. It's beyond the Schedule A Stickley insignificant time(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 straining yourself just too hard. All of those things will make you less likely to do it at all, and more likely to quit — 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?
REINHARD: Exactly, and I am living proof that it can be quite effective (I'm not exactly like a professional, bodybuilder athlete 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 end 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 a third of your techniques, the “Weekend Luddite”, what's that?
REINHARD: Weekend Luddite, once I graduated a bit beyond my physical problems, I found that — not even the same 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 — 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. I came up with this idea of Weekend Luddite ,and it was sort of vaguely inspired by the idea of a Sabbath. 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. When I started it, it was a lot easier because what a computer was just not what a computer is today. When I started it, not everyone had a computer or too attached to their bodies all the time, as we do with our iPhones and Fitbits and whatnot. So… Weekend 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 to arrange playdates for my kids, that kind of stuff. But it is — 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 and necessary recharge psychically, for me. I feel like I've just sort of scratched the surface of other systems that I'd like to explore around a less permissive 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 send down is that right?
REINHARD: I wound up with breakfast to dinner —
SPENCER: Ok, breakfast to dinner.
REINHARD: Because different times of year when it is dawn, when there is dust, there's too much ambiguity. 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, "Well, okay, you can still get something done that night, if you really need to, all it makes you do is wait a handful of hours," right?
REINHARD: The original Luddites, who went out and destroyed all these machines, were a bit more extremist than Weekend Luddites are. We were really... we don't have to 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: It also reminds me of how I've heard religious Jewish people talk about the benefits they feel they get from not using electronics on the Sabbath — it's kind of a kind of recreation in a secular context. It may be obvious to people why it's beneficial to not use your phone. But you want to just talk a little bit more about that? 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. 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 the big picture is actually more important and does need more long-term attention.
SPENCER: That leads to four combinations; there's urgent-important, urgent-unimportant, non-urgent-important, and non-urgent-unimportant, right?
**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 are we have the time to sort of reflect and build up and kind of preempt urgent situations from happening.
SPENCER: Great. This kind of approach you have to designing new behavior training systems for the No S Diet, Shovel Glove, Weekend Luddite, and then there's other ones on your website, everydaysystems.com, right?
SPENCER: I want to talk a bit about what ties all these together — because you have a very interesting and unique flavor of design behavior change. We talked a little bit with extreme moderation. But I'd like to go through, what are some of the aspects that kind of bring all this stuff together?
REINHARD: 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 because 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 this is allowed.", "No, this is 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. That makes it easy for you to call into mind again, quickly, sort of 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 “No S-Diet” and “Shovel Gloves”?
REINHARD: I give each of them a name. Some others are Glass Ceiling, my two drinks 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). In general, adding these sort of absurdist elements to it — like the schedule mystically 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:**So you mentioned arbitrariness, I feel that's really critical — there 's an extreme arbitrariness to these techniques — Why is it that Saturday and Sundays are off? Why not Friday and Saturday or whatever. But the point is that you don't have to think about it, right? You're like, "Okay, I know, it's arbitrary but you know, I'm gonna adopt the newest diet, it's kind of prepackaged, you know, it's prepackaged, it has everything I need", and for some people, maybe that's enough, right?
REINHARD: The truth is, almost every Self Help System has some arbitrary number going on in it.
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, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, and every one of these books has some number.
SPENCER: Why is it not eight, or six or whatever? [Laughs]
REINHARD: There's the sort of mysticism around numbers that people have — which is silly, and yet it's there, It's part of human nature. 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: I like that approach. It's also really interesting that all these costs almost nothing.
REINHARD: I'm a big... 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 and go to the hardware store to get your sledgehammer. You couldn't — you have 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 artists who are neglected during his life, but after his death, his work is discovered and worth millions.
SPENCER: I guess the future people in 100 years will be having... They'll hopefully have a shovel glove 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: Because I think that when people start to track things, there's this brief moment where it's super interesting and exciting. "I'm going to track all my carbs or my calories or whatever." And it's interesting for like, two weeks, maybe three weeks, but it's really time consuming. After a while, it really isn't something you can imagine sustaining for the rest of your life. 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 Shovel Glove is to track not calories or carbs or stuff, but compliance with the habit itself. So—
SPENCER: Just like a yes-no, did I do it today?
REINHARD: Yeah, essentially. So what I talked about initially was — what I 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 good 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. 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. We do know that we shouldn't over eat, and we do know that we should exercise. I like to tell people they asked, "What should my ideal weight be?", and I say, "Do your ideal behaviors. Eat moderately, exercise moderately, and what do you weigh after some time of doing that? That's your ideal weight."
SPENCER: Yeah, so another aspect of all of your techniques that I like is just how little time it takes, a comment on that?
REINHARD: Yeah, small temporal footprint is something that they all have in common. I appreciate this more and more now that I have three kids and aging parents and a 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, 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 Shovel Glove — which may seem kind of odd. But basically what I do is while I'm doing my Shoel Glove 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. The idea is I'm taking this one habit, my exercise habit, Shovel Glove, 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 going to kind of involve the other is that why
REINHARD: That's right. They just go together at this point, it's made them both much easier to do, and it makes them more pleasant to look forward to — because if shovel love wasn't fun enough, I now get to entertain myself at the same time.
SPENCER: There's this thing that you said I feel kind of ties together a lot of your work, which is this phrase "maintenance is more important than progress". Do you wanna talk about that?
REINHARD: This comes up a lot with Shovel Glove. People are always wanting to get a heavier sledge hammer. I personally have gone through just three weeks of sledge hammer in my Shovel Glove 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. Now I'm onto a 20 pounder, but I've been doing this whole thing for almost 20 years now — so three hammers in 20 years [laughs] is a lot 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[laughs] that people have and that it sabotages them because what happens is they'll go... they'll push to them to the point where they injure themselves, or to where it just isn't fun anymore, they drop-off, then that's it. And there goes Superman there, it goes into even the regular human level exercise. So right from the beginning, I always emphasize, get this habit structure in place, the 14 minutes of 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 [laughs] — 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?, the answer is very, very slowly, and within hard constraints. I have gotten stronger at Shovel Glove over the years, but at a snail's pace, but I truly believe that is key to maintaining it for the duration. I've never injured myself with Shovel Glove (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. [laughs] This totally sane form of exercise practiced by millions of people is actually vastly more dangerous than swinging around a slight chamber in my living room.
SPENCER: I also tried running once, and I also immediately injured myself [laughs]. So after a few weeks, I was having knee pain and so on. It's really interesting to me, because I don't use any of your techniques right now — I just learned about them recently, but I definitely see the appeal they have — thinking about my own life, I feel like I have a bunch of methods I use to sort of 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 who just loves exercising, 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 I'm looking forward to it. For example, bouldering, or mixed martial arts or my other option is I do temptation bundling, well bundle it was something I really enjoy, like, "Oh, 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 watch the TV show. That's kind of like how I bootstrap my exercise. With diet, what I realized for myself is one of the most helpful things is just standardizing what I eat. Right now, for example, I eat a healthy protein bar for breakfast every morning, then I eat a salad for lunch every day (with slight variations in what they said in the salad.), and that works really well for me as a way of making sure that at least half of my day is already pre-planned [laughs] in terms of what I'm eating. So I — but like a lot of it is trying to achieve the same kind of things that you're working on just you know, 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 the default. If you can't think of anything better," 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 and revolved around oatmeal — this probably acquired taste. It's this messed up Ma Her German black bread. 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: 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, but you could share with someone that... someone's struggling to change their own behavior? What would you say to them?
REINHARD: Sure, I mean, I'd say all of the kinds of fully blown systems, I think they're worth looking at, and maybe they'll work great for you. 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 unappealing 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 scheduling Stickley insignificant time from shovel glove 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. When you roll your own system — or even significantly adapt 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 often a 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: Do you find that a lot of people who use your techniques do end up adapting them and tweaking them to better fit their life?
REINHARD: We got all kinds of really interesting variations. Of course, we get people combining them with other interests such as 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 Shovel Glove, we have people combining Shovel Glove with different martial arts practices that they're doing. We had some great pictures of people doing Shovel Glove on the decks of Navy ships — which I got a huge kick out of. This is my all time favorite. There's apparently a whole village in Thailand, where people are now doing Shovel Glove — this guy sent me a picture of his wife and his grandmother and his aunt, that really got me.
SPENCER: Wow, that's amazing [Laughs]. Must be really cool to see that.
REINHARD: Which is funny too, because I always thought, it seems this trend is like who is into shovels, it's a weird thing. We think either like these incredibly dorky males, or like these sort of scary, like militia types. But then I found this village in Thailand. And I'm like this is fantastic — this is too beautiful to be true. [Laughs]
SPENCER: That's wonderful. Does your wife adopt any of these techniques?
REINHARD: She's adopted not a full-blown system, but some of the components. So she does... she doesn't use the Shovel Glove, 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, 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 it's one that affects the things that are important in life. It helps people achieve their intrinsic values or relates to why people can't achieve their intrinsic values. 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 that doesn't matter about something trivial, something that's minut something that doesn't affect the wellbeing of humans or animals. Something that has no bearing on anything else is sort of a disconnected idea.
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