What am I experimenting on, and why?
I’m experimenting on myself!
I think a natural part of being interested in self-development is being interested in experimentation. There are all these self-development books with plans that boil down to easily-followed steps:
The list goes on. Reading books filled with ideas on how to improve... everything, you can’t help but think, I could totally do that. These books, if they’re written well, inspire me to get up and change my life immediately! But, this surge of energy doesn’t always have the longevity I that I hope for. I get bored, veer from the path, or pick a shiny new idea to try.
It’s easy to feel a twinge of failure when this happens,
or try to blame the books or authors themselves for getting my hopes up. But it’s not their fault. These changes don’t last because the lasting motivation for change in my life has to come from me. I have to assess these processes, these plans, and make a conscious decision about
whether it will work for me, and
whether I want to commit to it.
I have to both commit and execute.
So, this year (2020) I decided I would do some “life experiments”. The idea for this came, in part, from The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. If you haven’t heard of it, I would heartily recommend The Happiness Project to anyone interested in self-development. In the book, Gretchen embarks on a year-long journey to become happier, and each month she explores what that means in more specific ways (focusing one month on energy, another on relationships, etc). What I love most is that she doesn’t rely on herself and her own opinions about happiness, but includes research and published works from other people who have studied what it means to be happy. It’s a well-rounded experiment, with all the supporting data it needs to be truly compelling. It speaks directly to my nerdy, numbers-loving soul.
The first thing I tried to do was exactly what Gretchen did: a year-long happiness project.
It didn’t work.
I could stop there, and say that clearly something was wrong with the project. It wasn’t motivating enough, or the process wasn’t clear enough. I could say that, but it wouldn’t be true. The main problem was that I tried to apply a full year of structured plans to my own life, which I know from experience is fairly turbulent and beholden to a changing schedule at my day job. I can’t use Gretchen’s plan the way she devised it, because her life looks very different than mine. I had to be more flexible.
So my compromise is to do shorter experiments, record the process and results, and publish it here, and on my YouTube channel. I’ll make smaller changes, planning just a month or two ahead so my changing work schedule doesn’t destroy me, and see what works. Each of my experiments will be an attempt to improve my happiness, health, productivity, or financial wellness, in some way.
Setting Up the Experiment
The first step is to identify something that you want, or want to change. A motive, with a clear result. As with setting any other goals, being specific will help you here. For me, I could have just said “I want to be more fit”, but that on its own doesn’t mean much.
Fitness is an entire aspect of life on its own.
I can’t possibly change all of it at once.
So, focus it. The idea for improving my fitness came from the fact that I had gained over 30 pounds in the past year, which came with a number of undesirable side-effects. My clothes didn’t fit anymore, I was sweating a lot more, and I got more pains in my knees and feet just from walking and standing.
Identifying an area for change is just one part, the next is figuring out how to change. That’s where self-development research comes in. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to every problem, or even to the same problem for different people, and that’s what the experiment is for.
Pick something to try, try it for a reasonable period of time, and then assess whether it is working.
That’s a simplified version of the scientific process right there.
For my fitness experiment, I already knew a lot about nutrition, exercise, and weight management, so the research phase was pretty short for me. Take your time if you’re trying to solve a problem you know nothing about. Decide what you want to commit to, and then make sure it’s realistic for your lifestyle.
Don’t commit to doing an hour of hard weight lifting every day if your commute takes 2 hours and you’re exhausted by the end of it. Don’t commit to cutting out a given food (sugar, meat, bread, whatever) if you rely on someone else to cook and they aren’t on board. Pick things that are challenging, but that you can actually do without changing your entire life at once.
My experiment: drastically reduce added sugar intake, track all meals, and do strength exercises at least twice a week for 10 weeks.
Now I have a plan, and that plan is tied to a goal, but I still need something else. I need some kind of feedback, or experimental result.
How Do I Know If It's Working?
Experimentation of any kind should have metric. Some measurement that can be used to assess whether the experiment was a success, a failure, or made no change at all.
My first experiment, centered around fitness and diet, is a little fuzzy in this regard, but I have still quantified it as solidly as I can.
My metrics are: body weight and the amount of weight I can lift for each of three major exercises
The exercises are the Deadlift, Squat, and Bench Press, if you’re curious. “Improve fitness” isn’t something I can measure by itself, but I can measure body weight to get an idea for how I have moved that particular health marker, and I can measure how much weight I can lift to measure bodily strength, another health marker.
When making experiments of your own, think about this question seriously:
how do I know if it’s working?
Without a metric, we rely on our own estimation of how the experiment went. There are a million ways this could go wrong, especially if you’re trying to think back and remember how you were feeling days ago. We as humans are notoriously bad at estimating most things, and memory is both fallible and prone to suggestion. It’s just not reliable data.
What about some other metrics? Other experiments?
I’m assuming that not everyone wants to do an experiment just like mine. The good news is that there are plenty of things to try. I haven’t planned any other experiments for myself yet, as I’m still working through my first one, but there are many different metrics that can be used to indirectly measure changes in happiness, productivity, and creativity:
Resting heart rate can be used to measure cardiovascular health, and in some cases, levels of general anxiety
Symptoms of illness or stress like headaches, muscular pains, and insomnia can be tracked
Productivity can be tracked in hours of work, or units of work completed
Similarly, creative output can be tracked in hours or units of work (paintings, sculptures, meals cooked)
Technical skill can be measured in different ways depending on the skill. As one example, “before” and “after” art pieces can be compared to identify change in skill
Mood is harder to pin down, but perfectly viable as a metric if tracked consistently. For this, it helps to have a rubric so your ‘moods’ are measured in a consistent way
Money can be used to track improvements in jobs or side hustles, but I would recommend offsetting this with another metric that is more in one’s control such as customers contacted, or tracking performance reviews and feedback from managers/peers
Track the number of times a day you had a creative idea if you’re working on improving creativity
Journal daily about the experiment and identify common thoughts at the beginning of the experiment and at the end
Really, the options here are only as limited as your own imagination.
The important thing is to tie your metric directly to what you want to change.
My desire for a change to my fitness came from wanting to reduce fat and increase muscle on my body, so I picked the metrics that made the most sense. If, instead, I wanted to run faster in preparation for a race, I would be tracking running speed, distance, and possibly total run time. If you’re having trouble coming up with a good metric for your experiment, let me know in the comments and I can help you brainstorm.
Then You Have To DO It
In the words of Nike, or Shia LeBeouf, at some point you have to stop thinking about a thing and actually do it. Once you have a goal, a plan, and a metric, it’s time to start. Don’t put it off.
This experiment was designed just for you, made to help you become happier, or healthier, or better in some way.
Start your experiment, follow your plan, and then when it’s done you can decide if you want to continue doing those things or try something new.
The end date is really important, because it gives us something to look to when the experiment gets hard. We hate discomfort, and even worse is when that discomfort could potentially go on forever.
When you’re miserable because you haven’t had your favorite meal in 20 days, and there’s no end date, it’s implied (to your brain) that the change is forever. Doing anything forever is overwhelming, and inevitably you’ll have the thought, “if I can’t do this for good, I might as well stop now.”
That’s not going to yield the results you want, and it’s not going to help you figure out which changes actually make you happier and which changes don’t.
As part of my experiment this year, I stopped eating all added sugar in January. It meant I couldn’t eat a lot of the things I was used to, and even things that aren’t really “sweet” still might have sugar in them. It was a lot of reading ingredient labels and being disappointed by the ‘corn syrup’ hidden near the end.
Knowing that I just had to make it to the end of January was a light at the end of the tunnel. When I felt like it was too much, I could remind myself that it’s only for so many more days, and then I can stop if I want to.
The best part is that by sticking to my plan I was able to see tangible benefits from not eating sugar: my appetite is less volatile, hunger doesn’t hit me like a truck, I’m not as anxious.
When the end of January came, I decided to continue limiting sugar because I could see and feel how it was helping me,
and I took that opportunity to relax the requirements just enough that I could eat at a restaurant or have a can of soup without violating my plan.
It’s mid-February now, and I’m still going strong. My new end-date is in mid-March and so far I’m down almost 10 pounds and have increased most of my lifts by 15 pounds or more.
Just like any self-development advice, the next part relies on you. Build an experiment for yourself, or don’t (I'm not your mom). Either way, I hope this was interesting and maybe a little bit inspiring.
Check back again to see the "results" post when my fitness experiment is complete, and to see what else I'm going to try this year!
If you want more content like this, in the realm of self-development and creativity, intermingled with my life, don’t forget to subscribe on Youtube or to the blog here.