Incremental life

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Incremental approach

I love incremental reading and recommend it to everyone as a great metaphor and a practical implementation of free learning. However, I never mentioned my idea of incremental exercise. Few people realize that the incremental approach is pretty universal when it comes to transforming a human being into a new quality. It helps build knowledge and intelligence, and it helps recondition the mind (e.g. for healthy eating, or for simple living). Using similar principles, incremental exercise helps strengthen muscles, bones, tendons, joints, ligament, etc.

Origins of this text

When my young friend Raj complained of patellar tendonitis, I recommended barefoot jogging. He was very hesitant. Despite his Indian origin, going full-Gandhi would feel socially awkward. Moreover, Raj does not live in India. He lives in Japan, the land of hikikomori, where social rules are strict and social pressure particularly stringent. I extended my recommendation by suggesting that Raj works incrementally on improving his "social confidence" and also use the incremental approach in his tendonitis therapy.

Incremental transformation

When transforming the mind and personality, one needs to be cognizant of the fact that the optimum push zone applies to pushing oneself too. Self-discipline may be improved over years, but the only healthy way of transformation is incremental (see: Micro-rules of productivity).

The mind is subject to reactance that is far deeper than just a reaction to coercive learning or coercion in general. When we employ New Year's resolutions in a dramatic fashion, we often penalize the mind so bad that we achieve the effect that is opposite to the one intended. New Year's dieting may soon become later year's gorging with intensity that doubles the effects of the period of dieting in the negative.

One cannot expect to start jogging barefoot on the streets of Tokyo without stares that could kill a bull, esp. that handsome Raj is of dark complexion that would instantly make him stand out in the pale crowd like a sore thumb. Instead, Raj might implement my advice incrementally. He could start from short walks in the woods after sunset. He could gradually extend the practice to more challenging situation and adapt. He would learn how to react to awkward questions and how not to care. I have been doing that for decades and it is really possible and easy. Social reconditioning is difficult before it becomes easy.

Update Dec 2021: I was delighted to receive a report from Raj that he took my advice to heart. Here is a picture of joy:

Figure: Raj in Japan works on his incremental adaptation to barefoot running

Incremental exercise

Jogging barefoot is therapeutic on many levels, it is great for the mind, and it is great for the entire musculoskeletal system. Running on hard surfaces may have special advantages. Running when it is freezing cold has benefits for the sheer joy of life (see: Simple formula for a happy life). Running on broken glass is relatively safe. Running among stunned crowds can be fun. If you disagree or violently disagree, it is because you likely underappreciate the power of incremental adaptation.

If you walk out today to a busy street in freezing temperatures and try to run a few kilometers over crowded streets, you may find it hard to survive the experience. Your feet will blister, your joints will crack, the crowds will seem hostile and you will likely give up with the thought that you are literally saving your life. However, if you took an incremental approach, your jogging technique will transform over long months of running, joints will remold an strengthen, tendons will toughen up, the skin of your soles will be worth a fortune on the black market for rhino hides. You will learn how to disarm hostility with a smile, with a wave, or with sheer indifference to all attempts of "social bullying". The advantages are so many that if you are in an unhappy place in your life today, unsure of tomorrow, you could even attempt that idea as therapy! As long as you take it at microscopic baby steps.

As for that broken glass, only barefoot runners know that when you step on glass, your skin shows great elasticity, and the glass likely position itself flat. These are not the broken bottles that are most troublesome (I stepped on a few), but those tiny needles sticking up to the sky that you will fail to notice. After two decades of running barefoot, and passing a rowdy beer pub on a regular basis, I probably bled only 3-4 times, needed to pause once (to remove a pesky piece of glass) and never had to shorten my run. Live an learn. You can literally adapt to running on glass with pleasure! You do not need to be an Indian faqeer to do some physiological magic.

Universality of Wolff's law

Wolff's law says that the bone strengthens and remolds in the direction of stress. It speaks of incredible adaptability of the skeleton in development. The law was formulated in the 19th century. The law finds amazingly little place in routine exercise due to the fact that it needs to be boosted with a bit of mathematical optimization to understand that a day of rest from exercise may nullify its goals. It needs to be extended to others tissues (Davis's law) with similar properties (tendon, ligament, cartilage, skin, and other soft tissues). The simplified formulation of those laws says that using an incremental increase in stress we can gradually increase the strength of the body.

By slow and gradual increase in loads, we can strengthen many tissues and organs

In practical terms, we can take a weak human being who struggles to run a few hundred meters and safely prepare that person to run an ultramarathon within a year. If we start from 100 meters per day, and aim at 100 km in 365 days, we need to do it in increments of 1.9%. This means that we need to run 100 meters today, 102 meters tomorrow, 104 meters two days from now, 114 meters in a week, 180 meters in a month, 5 km in 7 months, and so on. This naturally applies to a healthy human capable of incremental building up tissue strength. This capacity declines with age, however, my friend and mentor Zbigniew Malina Malinowski completed his 14th successive (year-to-year) Spartathlone (246 km) at the age of 63 (world's longest successive series). Malina is not your average marathoner, at 75kg his is a relentless rolling ball of muscle. He started jogging in his forties after a happy birth of his daughter. One of his important tenets is to recover from injuries on the go. A days spent in the armchair may equate failure at his favorite competition. He was ultimately grounded by injury in 2018, but still contemplates a return after the pandemic. Interestingly, his injury was a result of violation of incremental regimen. Malina decided to run marathons in the mountains while he lives in an area that is entirely flat. He could not live up to his incremental philosophy, and got injured on the slopes of the Alps.

Optimum push zone

The optimum strain in exercise, optimum push zone in learning, and hormesis curves show the same property of "optimum push" from a force that is harmful in excess. However, they all differ about what happens at no force. In case of learning, no pushing results in pure free learning and great outcomes. In case of toxicity, absence of the toxic factor is strictly neutral: no factor, no effect. In case of exercise, no pushing is dangerous for life! Without exercise we would experience rapid decline in health. Luckily, even a simple shuffle from a bed to the toilet is a form of exercise. Astronauts experience a rapid decline in bone strength in zero gravity environment. After just a week in space they literally need to proceed slowly on earth. The loss of bone density in a month is equivalent to aging by one year. The bone becomes dense in areas of high stress, and loses minerals in areas that are not under strain.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
One of my beautiful teen female friends suffers from a slight scoliosis. She uses shoe inserts that make sure her both legs are of equal length. It seems obvious to me that no skeleton correction can occur with such "perfect balancing". The skeleton will adapt perfectly to life with a longer leg. I asked my friend to ask her orthopedist why he insists on the "perfect" balance. The kid is too scared to question the authority. We learn this attitude at school. On the other hand, physicians similarly hate to be questioned in that manner. All those years of schooling seem to entitle them to omniscience. Morbus Google drives them particularly mad. I have no idea about optimum approach to scoliosis, but I am pretty sure that exercise has magic powers. As for those shoe inserts, a cursory search leaves me amazed. Experts are not sure (source, 2020)?

Some studies have shown that correction of LLDs levels pelvic imbalances and reduces the magnitude of functional scoliosis. Other studies, however, have shown that artificially induced LLDs have little effects on the lumbar curve deformity

It is not my field to follow research papers, but I know dozens of similar research problems from brain science or psychology. Studies can pick different sides of the optimum on the curve and produce seemingly contradictory outcomes. It is obvious that huge leg length discrepancy might result in Quasimodo-like adaptation, while zero discrepancy will result in a perfect adaptation to unevenness. Isn't it obvious that we need to seek optimum? For the correction to occur the imbalance of forces must remold the skeleton. Secondly, research should take into account forms of exercise. A person with insoles may never re-adapt if the only "exercise" is moderate walking. Diversity of strains in a diversity of motions should seek corrections in all points and in all dimensions. Thirdly, all research needs to be carefully scanned for conflict of interest. Orthopedic inserts are a big business. If you send me any relevant research, I will forward to my friend. She is just 15 and still growing fast

Value of pain

In terms of exercise, incremental increase in loads is vital and there is a perfect metering system available in the body: pain. Whether recovering from an injury or seeking a new pursuit, increasing loads may lead to tissue micro-damage, inflammation, and pain. Inflammation may actually play a role in building tissue strength, and some pain is inevitable. However, the pain cannot build up, and should ideally disappear in warmup. If it happens to increase on successive days, we have an indication that the increase in loads is too rapid and might need to he halted. In case of errors in the progression, a step back may also be necessary. What is sure wrong, as many physiotherapist recommend, is an escape into rest and recovery. This should be reserved only for serious error or injury. In perfect incremental management of tissue health, sleep should be all the necessary recovery time. Even a day of break may negatively affect the progression. In other words it is better to progress slowly, but make it relentless, continuous, and sustainable.

Failure of my advice

My advice to young people may turn out harmful when they take the vision of a happy life and try to implemented it overnight. I have a long history of providing good hints and tips only to produce disappointment. Countless times people tried to take on various pursuits without moderation and the necessary incremental transition. In terms of exercise, the effect was often injury or infection.

It was about jogging, winter swimming, spaced repetition, healthy eating and even smoking. I pestered one of my family member to give up smoking. I recommended an incremental approach. However, one beautiful Christmas day she told me: "I am done with smoking". She stopped overnight. A month later she died of a heart attack. She was just 70. I will never know if my good intentioned contributed to the disaster.

I always tried to be a rational man and wanted to help others get rational. In my motivational conversations, for many years I used to boast: "countless people told me after years, I wish I listened to you, and followed your advice". However, it is a bit like with the impact of school. Many people wish they were more attentive or worked harder. This does not mean they actually should have. Self-discipline can also be harmful (see: Harms of self-discipline).

I often speak of the optimum state, while spend less time discussing optimum trajectory towards that optimum state. When it comes to be guided by the pleasure of learning, the risks seem minimal, but when perfect learning get confronted with the reality of compulsory schooling, it may lead to frustration and unhealthy mental side effects. My own trajectory in life was rather easy. Blinded by ignorance and lack of vision, my progression was naturally slow and incremental. Decades later, the status quo seems nice. I hate to think it might also be a sort of siren's song.

Before you follow any of the advice at SuperMemo Guru, examine the extent of change it might introduce in your life. If it is too revolutionary, it might be risky


Bench press

It is easy to incrementally improve strength with little risk of injury. However, progressions are always slowing down with time due to an increasing load on all systems, and a constant battle with a natural decay process that is part of the optimization implied by the Wolff's law:

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
In November 2001, I decided to see how much I can improve in bench presses in the gym. At 40, I was acutely aware that the exercise can easily lead to injury. Progression had to be strictly incremental. Moreover, to protect my tendons and ligaments, instead of going for a single-push records. I would do 20 press series. In other words, the record weight would count only if I could press it 20 times in a continuous series. That approach is more anaerobic, which adds extra health benefits. On the first day I cautiously tried 20x20kg. The next day 20x40kg with a clear reserve to spare. In 12 days, I comfortably arrived at 20x65kg (Dec 4, 2001). It took a month to get to 20x70kg, and another to get to 20x75kg. As of that point, I was progressing by the press count, moving every 2-4 days from 10x80kg, to 11x80kg, to 12x80kg, etc. It took 40 days to get to 20x80kg. My progression from 10x85kg was even slower. After 65 days, I arrived at 19x85kg. Unfortunately, it was the time to switch from the gym to jogging. For goodbye, I tested a single 110kg press, which came easily. I never returned to the gym. I prefer sports outdoors. Some of my other incremental efforts in improving strength I tested in an open air street workout

Simple ideas that change lives

This text is a good illustration of how a simple abstraction can affect life in many areas.

Hill climbing

In the presented text, the abstraction might be called "hill climbing", which is a well-known concept in computer optimization. In hill climbing, using little steps, we look to optimize things in the same way in which we climb a mountain and look around for better options. I cannot recall when I learned about those optimization techniques. It is conceivable, it is a product of my own independent reasoning. For my Master's Thesis 1985, I need to compute outcomes of biochemical reactions. Solving differential equations would be too complex. There were no computers around. However, I found a way to use a pencil and a calculator to run simulation in tiny steps. I manage to surprise my professors by showing nice graphs of changes in the concentration of chemicals. With my first computer, ZX Spectrum, I surprised Tomasz Kuehn by telling him: "I wrote a program for solving any equation". He was one of the most talented programmers around and still could not figure our how I could find numerical solution to complex equations that could not be tackled symbolically.

My first spaced repetition algorithms were based on the same hill climbing principle, and the newest SuperMemo Algorithm has also its parameters optimized this way.

Incremental reading, Incremental life and even How to solve any problem? refer to the same old tried method of reasoning.

A good rule of abstract knowledge can touch a person for life


The power of freedom to make lives happy and productive is also a useful abstraction.

There is no better way of encountering impactful abstractions than one's own explorations. This is why I am a ardent critic of compulsory schooling, which steals a great portion of life that might instead be devoted to one's own investigations and research.

If we grow up impoverished in helpful abstractions, it is because of the enslavement by compulsory schooling

Memory model

While hill-climbing is a universally applicable tool know in all conceivable branches of science and engineering, there is another concept that I keep milking: Two component model of long-term memory. It impacted most of new ideas at SuperMemo Guru. Unlike hill-climbing, I am yet to see significant impact of my memory model on other people's reasoning other than the impact of simpler ideas derived thereof, e.g. spaced repetition.

Sleep model

If you read around SuperMemo Guru, you will also notice that my circadian approach to healthy sleep is all derived from Borbely's Two-process model of sleep regulation. It is a simple concept, and it instantly destroys hundreds of myths about sleep. One idea could save billions of dollars and billions of unhappy man-hours caused by bad sleep. Sadly, the understanding of the model in general population is horrible. Again it all beings from a bad school habit of using an alarm clock to shorten the sleep. All trouble comes from that one bad idea, and could be solved by a piece of Borbely's genius if we only devoted more time to own explorations instead of cramming and forgetting things at school.

Learn drive

If more people understood the optimality of the learn drive, we would quickly end the practice of coercive schooling. When I understood how learning is driven by reward which is computed on the basis of the knowledge valuation network, my own learning changed and my approach to life in general.

Understanding the harm of coercion and the harms of self-discipline changed my life for better.

Poor understanding of neuroscience makes societies underappreciate the power of the human brain

Poor understanding of the control mechanisms in the brain begins at school when we are told that we need to learn as advised by others rather than to pursue our own explorations. The longer we follow that advice, the more likely we are to adapt poorly to the future world. This increases a chance for a Luddite clash between humans and artificial intelligence. This may be the sorry ending of our ignorance of the learning process. All we need for the tragedy is to systematically undermine human adaptation powers thus depriving societies of their best strength: intelligence.


Less than a month after publishing the outline of this text, another friend reported the psychological effects of walking barefoot in winter:

The old days are coming back. Something in my mind switched. I walked barefoot today same distance as yesterday. I will keep that distance for a little while. Hopefully, in a week or two I can increase. I feel extreme enthusiasm for becoming a primal beast!