It’s so interesting to see how many analogs there are between different systems. When Laplace Transforms finally clicked for me, it was after figuring our that you can use analogs to make sense of the world and solve problems. With these methods, you could solve complicated multivariable calculus equations with algebra. How awesome is that!?
In systems and simulation and my control systems courses (which I took multiple times after failing them), it finally clicked when I could see how the same positive feedback loops were present in many different systems. You could see how a mass, spring, and damper was just like a resistor, battery, and capacitor. You could see how something acting in parallel or series had analogs in electrical or mechanical systems.
I see them same analogs when it comes to improvement. The commonality is that improvement requires forming a base to build off of. In many ways, I’ve experienced this in running monthly experiments with the idea that the habit I was working on could form the next base for some improvement. There’s also a natural degradation to these improvements and depending on the improvement, some are less stable and require a higher state of energy to maintain. They might also decay much faster.
What made me realize the improvement bases was cleaning up the house. The first stage is to remove all of the toys off the floor. The next step, Level 2, is to sweep up all the dust. Once that’s done, it’s possible to mop the floor, Level 3. Level 4 is the deep cleaning — cleaning the walls from crayon, cleaning gunk off of the baseboards. Level 5 might be actual repair work around the home. If there are toys on the ground, cleaning the baseboards doesn’t seem to have much impact on how much the home looks clean.
The natural degradation of order into chaos happens fairly quickly as one of my daughters wakes up and starts playing with toys, or cookie crumbs start to track on the ground, or there’s a trail of yogurt from the fridge to some far flung corner.
I noticed the same base forming in terms of maintaining health. You have to have the right base before you can improve.
I had tried forming a few different bases first before starting to make traction. My first month long experiments was removing caffeine. It had no real effect except a horrible headache for the first week and weight gain towards the end of the month.
I then tried removing the little alcohol that I drank. That did nothing.
However, the next step was trying to eat a ketogenic diet. Bam! My body responded very quickly to it and I shed a lot of fat over the first three to four months. The biggest thing that it had addressed in me trying to moderate my diet was hunger. I had tried sticking to 2,000 calories and I was constantly hungry. Finishing a meal, I’d be asking myself “what else?”
Eating a very fatty meal ended up satiating me for a long time. Eventually, I’d feel like I ws forcing myself to eat breakfast because I was still full from dinner. Then, I’d still not be hungry for lunch and I’d try an MCT oil / butter coffee and be full again. Eventually, after four months, and without a challenge, I was onto OMAD (one meal a day) and have been that way with few exceptions for over two years.
However, it was only after losing some weight that I had other health-based interests. The next was breathing exercises. I followed the Wim Hof method and was able to hold my breath for longer than Houdini’s record (3:30). That also got me into doing push ups, cold baths, and eventually an ice plunge.
After that, I became interested in running again. It’s much easier to run when you’re carrying less. After running, it was fixing my back with physiotherapy and weightlifting.
Weightlifting was the equivalent of Level 3.
Natural degradation eventually took over as I couldn’t keep the time commitment and a new baby at home meant horrible sleep and not enough to have energy to go for a run or do more than just get through the day. Eventually, I reached a set point but keto kept me from gaining back all my weight (I settled at about half way between my initial weight and my lowest weight).
Even looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s literally built on different bases of improvement. Only once your initial physical needs are met can you then move up the pyramid and make it to the pinnacle, self-actualization. Of course, meeting needs can be done by increasing supply or reducing demand. It’s possible to experience self actualization in ice water, while holding one’s breath, fasting, and being deprived of other things… as long as you’re not desiring relief.
Beyond health, I’ve experienced the same base-building improvements in focus. The first step was developing a reason to focus. I wanted to right everyday so I committed nearly three years ago to writing something daily on Medium, even if it was bad.
Writing was painful for me and I didn’t want it to be. I’d find myself spending a lot of time flipping between Facebook, YouTube, or other sites just to avoid writing the next sentence. However, writing highlighted to me how much of a monkey brain I had that was constantly squeaking away.
The next level was to work on my focus by creating brief periods when I needed to aim my concentration and when I couldn’t check Facebook or email or anything else. This became the Tomato Timer experiment — 25 minutes of focus. The next step after that was to write longer pieces, becoming part of Medium Publications, and then committing to writing several a month. Levelling up further was to extend my Tomato Timer from 25 minutes to 50 minutes. This allowed me to extend a state of flow whenever I hit it. I can tame the monkey for a little longer than before so he can bang on the typewriter longer.
Whether, it’s cleaning, health, or focus — there’s always a base for starting to improve but it isn’t always easy to identify what that base is. The best way to identify the base is to run short term experiments on small changes and observe the outcome.
Sometimes, Level 1 is the biggest jump.