Learning via Self-Experimentation
23 June 2009
You can improve your life and work amazingly quickly by making a simple mental shift: treating everything you do as an experiment. You can experiment with any and all aspects of your life: your health, your energy, your work, your relationships, your side projects, etc. All it takes is a willingness to try something new for a little while just to see what happens. This post will help you design experiments that will teach you how you work best.
Step 1: Define the Objective
Before you conduct an experiment, it’s essential to define exactly what it is you want to improve. Often, our objectives are too hazy to be useful: “I want to be rich” or “I want to feel good.” Defining exactly what it is you want helps you understand whether or not your experiment has been a success, as well as help you find ways to improve your results over time.
Objectives come in two general forms: goals and “states of being.” A goal is something that you measure or quantify: dollars in a bank account, number of current customers, body mass index, etc. Goals have a definitive end-state; you know when you’ve achieved what you set out to do. For example, if your goal is to run a marathon, you know you’ve done it when you cross the finish line. If there’s not a finish line, it’s not a goal.
States of Being are more qualitative by nature: it’s a quality of your experience in the present moment, with varying degrees of noticeability. For example, having a clear mind, feeling energetic or calm, or being excited about the progress you’ve made are all states of being. Both types of objectives are valuable – the purpose is to clarify what you’re trying to do so that you can find a few things to try that might help you get there.
Step 2: Define the Experiment
Once you have your objective, take a few minutes to come up with a few ideas about what you could try to bring you closer to your objective. Do a bit of research – pick up a book or find a website about what you’re trying to do, and learn as much as you can. Your experiment ideas don’t have to be complex or involved: small, simple changes are best. (For more information on successful behavioral change, check out Changing For Good.)
Once you have a shortlist of experiments to try, pick one and decide how long you’ll be conducting the experiment. I recommend experimenting for a minimum of three days, and a maximum of 30. There’s no need to commit anything for the long term – experimentation is just trying things out to see what happens, so there’s no need to put unnecessary pressure on yourself. If you like the change, you can keep going; if not, you can stop and try something else.
Your experimental design doesn’t have to be perfect – it’s an experiment, after all. If you find your objectives changing, it’s not a big deal – it means you’re learning something!
Step 3: Collect Data During Your Experiment
Once you have an experiment to try, spend a few moments planning how you’ll collect data about your progress. For goals, quantitative measures are typically best, so find some simple and unobtrusive way to collect the data you’re after. (If it takes a lot of effort, you probably won’t do it.)
For states of being, capturing your thoughts or mental states in a journal or tape recorder is best. Set some sort of reminder (calendar, phone, etc.) to ping you regularly throughout the day, so you remember to record your experiences. After the experiment, you can revisit your notes to evaluate the results.
What I’m Currently Trying to Optimize
To give you some ideas about things to try, here are a few of the experiments I’ve been conducting over the past few months. My objective is a particular state of being: a mental state of clear, focused attention conducive to writing new material for the book.
Diet – Food plays a major role in energy and attention levels, so I’ve been optimizing what I eat. Kelsey and I have been largely vegan (no meat or dairy; I eat some fish) for ~3 years now, which has had a profound impact on our energy levels. Most of my dietary experiments are designed around introducing a new variable, testing for a number of weeks, then removing to identify contrast. Over time, I’ve found that my energy levels are best with a breakfast of granola + small cup of espresso, 6-8oz of apple cider and a green-food energy bar every ~2.5 hours, and a daily multivitamin / two 1g omega-3 capsules after dinner or before bed. I’m currently experimenting with Amino Acid and Vitamin D supplementation to ensure my brain is getting enough raw materials to produce the neurotransmitters associated with attention, focus, and concentration. (A quick note on bio-hacking safety: the body is an extremely complex system, so make sure you do a great deal of research before making any sudden or drastic changes. For example, many people are Vitamin D deficient due to lifestyle, but it’s also possible to experience adverse symptoms if you’re hypersensitive or get too much. When in doubt, check with a doctor.)
Exercise – I work from home, and when things are busy it’s sometimes difficult to remember to get out of the house and get enough exercise. Exercise is critically important for optimal brain function, so I introduced a structural change: a walking treadmill, which I’ve combined with a standing desk that allows me to walk while I’m on the computer. (To use the computer, I have to stand on the treadmill, and it doesn’t take any effort to turn it on.) Walking at a pace of 1.8 / 2.2 miles per hour, I walk 3-4 miles (barefoot) almost every day, and Kelsey and I also take a ~3 mile walk in Central Park every evening after dinner. As a result, I’ve noticed a huge difference in my energy levels and quality of sleep each night.
Ear Plugs – I’ve been regularly using earplugs, both while working and at night while I sleep. New York City is a noisy place, and recent research suggests that ambient noise reduces your ability to focus. After a few weeks of using earplugs, I’ve noticed a significant increase in my ability to concentrate for extended periods of time. (Note: comfort is a big deal for extended use – get the soft silicone earplugs vs. the foam plugs if you try this yourself.)
Time Tracking – taking Peter Drucker’s advice, I used an iPhone application called Eternity to do detailed time tracking for several weeks. I split my daily work into several categories (Administrating, Connecting, Creating, E-mailing, Exercising, Relaxing, Researching, Teaching, and Other) and used the application to save start and stop times during the day. The results were better than expected: I’m doing productive work 10-12 hours each day, 60% of which are either creating something new, researching, or teaching. I only spend 30-40 minutes on e-mail each day, but I still tend to check it a lot, so there’s an opportunity to batch process more than I am already. I would also benefit from taking a few more rest periods throughout the day (quick walk, 20 minute nap, etc.) vs. working until I fizzle out. As humans, our perception of time is very fluid, so it’s likely that I never would have known these things unless I conducted this experiment.
Give it a Try!
Treat everything in your life as an experiment, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you improve the quality of your life and work. By investing a little time and energy into trying new things, you’ll quickly learn what works for you.
Running an experiment? Share your results with other Personal MBA members in the Community!
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