Contain What You Can't Eliminate

Sometimes it's not possible to fix everything at once, or to fully fix things at all. This is especially true of human behavior. In Changing Fearlessly I talked about focusing on a single change at a time. Even with a single change though, sometimes I can't get anywhere near a perfect outcome.

I'm starting to believe that often it's optimal to contain undesirable elements rather than try to eliminate them.

This comes up all the time in coding. There will be a mess of code that you simply don't have the time to rewrite properly. Rather than put the whole project at risk by attempting to be perfect, you compromise. Isolationg the dodgy code as much as possible effectively contains it until it can be dealt with in the future.

For 6 weeks I've been following Tim Ferris' Slow Carb Diet. There's a lot of things I like about it (its simplicity, its effectiveness) but what's surprised me is how it is now incorporated into my life. Of course all dietary changes are meant to be long term, but this is the first time I can remember where I'm not waiting to hit my goal so I can loosen up on the rules. This is in no small part because of the "go nuts" day, where you are required to eat like crap. This effectively contains my bad dietrary behaviour to a 24hr period.

Containment serves two purposes. The most obvious is that it puts a limit on the amount of damage that the behaviour can cause. It also acts as a reminder of the cost of that behavior. If you loosen up the rules gradually you don't always notice the negative results. But when you purposfully cram it into a short time period, it's a stark reminder of what you're controlling. I feel like shit after my "go nuts" day and that's a great reason to eat properly for the rest of the week.

I've had some success applying the containment idea to sleep. I have a horrible habit of staying up way too late: for around 3 years I didn't get more than 5hrs sleep/night. Now, I'm in bed by 11pm 6 nights a week and stay up stupid-late on the 7th.

My next challenge is to apply containment to TV. Like eating crap and not sleeping, it's an insidious behaviour that I get some joy from, but at too high a cost.

Slowly, I'm building up a complete day of bad behavior. Eat badly, watch too much TV, don't exercise, don't sleep. It's a perfect synergistic storm of self-destructiveness, which frees me up to live the constructive life I want to live the rest of the week.

By containing, rather than trying to eliminate, I'm finding it much easier to make meanful changes.

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