How to Treat Life Like an Experiment

by A Manly Guest Contributor on August 28, 2012 · 27 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Erik Kennedy from The Bucket List Society.

I was quite scared when I woke up Monday morning.  I hadn’t set my alarm the night before, and I didn’t know if it was 7 AM, 11 AM, or somewhere in-between.  How late was I for work?  To make it worse, my watches were locked away in a drawer in my desk.  All the clocks in my house had tape or paper covering the time.  Even the digital clock in the corner of my computer screen had been hidden, and all the settings on my alarm clock had, of course, been cleared.

I walked to the transit stop and took a bus — I still don’t know which one — to work.  There seemed to be plenty of other commuters, so maybe I hadn’t slept in until noon.  Fifteen minutes before my first meeting, the Outlook meeting alert didn’t go off.  I had cancelled all alerts for the next work-week.  Fortunately, a coworker walked by.  ”Hey Erik, I’ll be a bit late to our meeting later on.”

“That’s okay!” I said, relieved for the first time all day.  ”Just drop by my office whenever.  I’m not going anywhere.”  I sat back in my chair.

This was only the second morning of my grand experiment.

The Art of the Personal Experiment

Last fall, I decided it was a worthwhile idea to go without any time-telling mechanism for an entire week.  No clocks, no watches, no alarms.  The idea was born of a conversation with a friend about how much our wanting to know the time was useful and how much was just an addiction to some bit of knowledge that didn’t help us — something that made us feel better prepared, but didn’t make us any wiser.

Big questions to be tackling on a Monday morning, I’ll admit.  And come the following Saturday night, I still hadn’t had a mind-blowing epiphany on the matter.  I had more or less unreservedly arrived at the conclusion that knowing the time can be pretty useful, but isn’t always. Useful, I know.  But while I laugh about it now, I don’t regret one second of that week.

See, I’ve got a thing for personal experiments.  Self-science.  In the past few years, I’ve done a week without clocks, a week with only one meal per day, a week of giving back to my network, and a stretch of a few months during which I recorded everything in my life that made me noticeably more happy or less happy.  I’ve also kept track of more standard things at various times — how many push-ups I can do, how many carbs I’m eating, or how much money I’m spending.

In short, I’ve tried to treat my life as an experiment — or, rather, a series of short experiments.  But whether it’s measuring if clocks are a needless stressor or figuring out the best weekly push-up routine, all of this self-experimenting stuff boils down to a few simple steps:

  1. Think of a way in which you might live a better, happier life
  2. Do that thing — at least for a short time
  3. Reflect on what you learned and change your behavior accordingly

It’s not rocket science.  In fact, it would be a stretch to call it science at all — but it’s based on the same basic principles: curiosity, a desire for improvement, and a humility towards finding the truth, wherever the search might lead.  And it utilizes the same steps of the scientific method as well:

  • Ask a question
  • Do background research
  • Construct a hypothesis
  • Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment
  • Analyze your data and draw a conclusion
  • Communicate your results

In a way, though, this do-it-yourself experimentation has a leg up on labs and research papers.  We live in a time where you can find studies to back up anything.  Coffee is great for you.  Coffee is awful for you.  Fat is bad.  Nope, it’s saturated fat.  Just kidding, it’s carbs.  Actually, meat is bad for you.  Nope, you’re bad for meat.

In the noisy commotion of the science-media complex, sometimes the clearest voice is a simple one-man experiment.  ”I tried two things.  I found one was better.  I’m going to do that thing until I find something even better.”  Those with a background in science and engineering might balk: a sample size of one isn’t valid!  How can you base your life off of something as trivial as a week-long, one-person experiment?

My answer is simple: I’m not trying to test cures for cancer here.  Treating life like an experiment is about curiosity and attempting to live better, not “proving” beyond any shadow of a doubt the merits or demerits of any way of life.  When I found that not driving to work drastically increased the chances of me not having a bad day, I’m wasn’t trying to legislate anything based on the conclusion.  I’m just trying to figure out how I can get one step closer to better.

What to Test With Your Experiment

The experimental life is one of boundary-pushing and agency over one’s environment.  To those ends, you can test almost anything.  Here are a few things that I’ve heard about people testing — or experimented with myself.

Health and Exercise

  • Diet - The most common thing to experiment with.  Give up carbs, give up snacks, give up all food for a day.  A friend of mine ate nothing but ice cream for 100 hours — so there’s that too.
  • Endurance sports - Swap training plans.  What’s better — long-distance cardio workouts or sprint/interval workouts?  How do you recover from injuries faster?
  • Strength training - How frequently do you lift?  Number of reps and sets?  Does your sleep or diet affect your ability?
  • Sports skills - A very large category: golf swings, tennis serves, baseball pitches, etc.  From rock climbing to unicycle riding, when’s the last time you put some variation and reflection in your training?

Work

  • Productivity - How do you focus and be most productive?  What are your biggest time-wasters?  There are all sorts of productivity systems out there, from the Action Method, to the Pomodoro Technique, to Kanbans.
  • Schedule - When are you most efficient?  How often do you check email, and what if you checked it less?
  • Goal-setting - Do short-term or long-term goals help you achieve more in your job?

Lifestyle

  • Hobbies - Maybe you’re not intense enough about your hobbies to care how quickly you improve at them, but studying how you do at new, different activities is a great way to understand your personal learning style.
  • Addictions - What do you have an unhealthy dependence on?  What do you default to when you feel stressed and lazy and can’t seem to pull yourself away from?  As far as addiction testing goes, cold turkey experiments always yield the most fascinating results.
  • Any question about yourself - What makes you happy or unhappy?
  • Any question about others - What makes other people happy or unhappy?  What is attractive to them?  What is interesting?  Use only for good!

Tools for Quantifying and Experimenting With Your Life

The Art of Manliness has long preached that true manliness is not about purchasing an image, buying gear, etc.– it’s how you act and the attitude you hold.  Similarly, the experimental life is not one that requires fancy equipment or expensive tools.

In fact, depending on the experiment, you probably own everything you need to get started.  But in the interest of knowing what’s out there, here are some apps and websites that are useful for running experiments on different aspects of your life.  Most are either free or have a free version.

  • Excel or Google spreadsheets - If you’re tracking something quantitative or long-term, you’ll likely need a spreadsheet.  Both Excel and Google spreadsheets are accessible anywhere and have great chart-making capabilities.
  • HealthMonth - This website is based around trying to make one-month improvements to your health.  Quit caffeine for a month.  No alcohol for a month.  Etc.
  • NudgeMail - If you need to send yourself email reminders for whatever your experiment is, NudgeMail is a great service.  Just email monday9am@nudgemail.com and whatever you put in the subject line will appear in your inbox at that time Monday morning.  Or, if you’re in a long-term experiment and need reminders, daily8am@nudgemail.com.
  • RescueTime - Want to see what you’re spending your time on your computer doing?  Rescue Time and similar programs are great for tracking your productivity and internet usage.
  • daytum - This site is devoted to tracking and displaying all kinds of data about yourself.  Advanced experimenters only!

There’s also a few other things I want to mention in the area of data-tracking.

  • Quantified Self - This is an international network of self-tracking enthusiasts.  They have free monthly meetings in cities around the world and lots of lessons online.  As the name implies, this group is a bit more into the numerical side of things.  I’ve always left their meetings excited and curious about myself and the world around me.
  • Fitbit - Fitbit is the most popular product I’ve seen for tracking some basic metrics around steps walked, calories burned, and sleep.  You can clip it to your belt and whenever you’re within 15 feet of your computer, it will automatically upload all your data to your computer.  At $100, this may be worth checking out, depending on what you want to measure and learn about yourself.

What I’ve Learned from Self-tracking and Living Out Experiments

Benjamin Franklin tracked his shortcomings for years and realized something that somehow evades many of us: we are not perfect, as hard as we try.  But there’s a caveat.  ”I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined,” he said, “but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.” He later added, “But, on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.” We aren’t perfect, but we can be better, even if it’s just through the process of attempting to be so.

None of my forays into the experimental life are as weighty as Ben Franklin’s moral quest, but I feel like I’ve still learned a few worthwhile lessons — and while these may be nothing more than common sense to most people, learning them through my own experience means I’ve learned them better and will remember them longer.

  • If I want to eat healthy, the single best thing for me to do is never, ever see unhealthy food.  I can resist any temptation until I see it.
  • If I want to be happy, I should go on good dates, eat healthy and delicious meals, enjoy nice weather, and plan things I’m excited about.
  • Being happy and avoiding unhappiness are not the same.
  • If I want to avoid stress, I should never drive in Seattle.
  • If I thought about whether or not to buy something for a length of time proportional to how much it cost, I’d save some headache and a lot more money.

As my Clockless Week drew to a close, I realized I had learned some things from that experiment too.  The sun had made a better alarm clock than I thought.   I hadn’t missed a single meeting at work (it helped that it was a slower season and my boss was out of town the whole week).  Time did feel a bit more free and less stressed.  There was a 45-minute wait at the restaurant Friday night, but I couldn’t have cared less. “That’s fine!” I beamed.  ”We’ve got nowhere to be!”

Sunday morning, I woke up with nothing to do and no hurry to do it in.  But I had a twitch.  Before I brushed my teeth, before I got dressed, I went from room to room and peeled the tape off all the clocks.  I still can’t figure out how it made me better off to know the time that morning, but even so, I had to breathe a sigh of relief.

It just felt good to know.

_________________________________

Erik Kennedy writes about life goals at The Bucket List Society.  In addition, he is spreading a network of accountability groups dedicated to bucket lists — a book club for your life goals — called The Finishing School.  He can be found mostly in Seattle.  The first item on his bucket list is to shave his face with a whaling harpoon.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jr August 28, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Great post. This is something i think will help me get out of my cloudy slump. I need to always feel productive and not be stagnant. Thank you. It has inspired me more than you know.

2 tom August 28, 2012 at 11:50 pm

Yes, a great post indeed.

Too often we do things that don’t feel right for us, but we continue to do them because they work for others. We need to listen to ourselves more, our inner voices.

3 Ian August 29, 2012 at 12:49 am

I broke my watch three months ago and decided to go without one, just to see if I could. I can. There are clocks everywhere: on the phone, on the computer, on the wall, on the dash, etc. If I go all Henry David Thoreau one day, I may reconsider.

When I quit smoking, I kept a detailed journal of my sensations, perceptions, habits, etc., and really learned a lot about how the mind locks us into habits. The author pointed out the danger of even looking at a temptation. This is very true, and even the Bible points it out (Proverbs 23:31). But the mind is also associative: it will highlight anything you see that reminds you of your habit. It will even mark the time of day and your routines.

There’s a lot more, but I highly encourage everyone reading to accept the article’s challenge. You won’t only take insight from whatever you measure, but you’ll see it carry over into other areas of your life as well.

4 Jim August 29, 2012 at 11:16 am

Cool post. I once did an experiment to see how many hours of sleep left me feeling most alert and awake in the morning. I found that too much or too little sleep left me feeling tired and lazy when I woke up. After a couple of weeks I discovered that when I slept for just over 6 hours, I felt at my best and ready to tackle the day.

5 Cam August 29, 2012 at 1:59 pm

I’m always trying little experiments in my life to test what works and what doesn’t. I highly recommend others doing so. You never know when you’ll discover something new and exciting.

And although our guest author did not mention it in his column, I would recommend experimenting with your wife/girlfriend during more intimate moments (just check with her first before trying anything new). It can help to keep a relationship fresh and fun.

6 Bryan August 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Excellent read! As we test things all around us, we learn that we are not as trapped in as we thought.
One suggestion I have though: With some things, only trying it for a week may give bad results. You may need to try it for longer. I’ve traveled a bit and gotten to experience culture shock, and I’ve learned that it sometimes takes me a little while, but things that I hate at first can become manageable. I’ve hated something about every job I’ve ever had, but after a few weeks on the job adapted to the schedule, or the commute, or the boss, or whatever it was that I didn’t like. So if you try it for a week, and it isn’t working, and it’s something important, try it for two more weeks and see if you can make it happen.

7 Quigath August 29, 2012 at 4:10 pm

In a way, this is how I approach New Years resolutions. A whole year to try and do something different that may or may not improve my life. If it works out, then just keep doing it every year from then on.
Things I’ve tried:
eat at least one whole fruit or veggie each day
don’t kill anything, including bugs and spiders, on Sundays
no doughnuts
bike to work at least one day a week

8 Kevin August 29, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Once, I tried living off a 28 hour day for a week – Awake for 18 hours, sleep for 10 hours, repeat 6 times. By Wednesday I was entirely backwards – awake all night, asleep all day, then by Saturday, it had flipped back to normal.

It wasn’t great. I don’t suggest it. But it was a great learning experience.

9 Vincent August 29, 2012 at 8:33 pm

I actually started a facebook group dedicated in the art of approaching and meeting women. It’s really fun. It’s really the art of living your life fully. I am actually an introvert and most of my life I thought I will be just sitting in some corner, but when we started going out with friends and meeting people, the best days of my life started. I know, corny.

Anyway, I was inspired watching some youtube videos about picking up girls. Really interesting art.

10 Harleen Singh August 30, 2012 at 3:52 am

I often try to do new things, i love doing it to myself but i’d never evr judge myself until today, it seemed i was executing a number of directionless experiments just for fun sake and now this post has shown me a better consequences n i will tend to follow it. Thanks

11 Gaurav August 30, 2012 at 4:56 am

wow, the very idea of experimenting in a simple manner and then looking forward to your own deed’s results sounds incredible. I remember the last time I experimented with my working hours in a day, and reduced them to 6 from 8, I saw a wonderful change in my energy level and relationship altogether.
Then I started doing these small changes almost every day and now, I am happier than ever.

Thanks for the wonderful post.

12 Nick August 30, 2012 at 4:26 pm

I love this website and this post is a typical reason why.

In this instance, Erik articulates simply how you can cut through all the crazy ideas floating around your head and put something into practice, hopefully learning something along the way.

Another nice thing is how the comments are mostly positive with people sharing their own views and ideas without criticising and complaining.

13 J. Delancy August 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Lovely post. I visited The Bucket List Society and read your 4 commandments of reading for self education, which was also good. I often felt guilty when I didn’t finish a book but you’re right some authors are not worth the effort.
A life of personal experiments is both joyful and exciting. While my friends think I’m crazy for the experiments of snorkeling with sharks and skydiving, Yet, they are always willing to hear in great detail how I paid off my mortgage and use Dollar Cost Averaging to pay my bills, both of which also started as experiments in money management.

14 rene August 31, 2012 at 2:54 am

thanks.

15 KambizAmini September 1, 2012 at 5:46 am

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
― M. Scott Peck

16 Alan September 4, 2012 at 2:01 am

Calorie and exercise tracking software (Biggly) helped me a lot with maintaining a fitness regime and I also used some free software for counting the days I stopped smoking.

The author is right, and I’ll always remember what a coach said – “What gets measured gets done”

17 Additional Link September 6, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Free weight loss tracker: http://www.physicsdiet.com

18 Darius September 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I really enjoyed this article from the idea, which I will be utilizing pretty soon here if not today, to your writing style. Your personality doesn’t get lost in the text, which mine always seems to (very annoyingly). Any who, thanks for the article. It’s always nice to find a new way to look at life.

19 Brian September 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Bravo. Excellent post.

20 Sean September 14, 2012 at 5:44 am

Love it. I already do some of this stuff. I didn’t realize it was anything useful. I think I’m going to concentrate on doing it more.

21 Lost Young Man In NJ October 9, 2012 at 7:37 am

I’ve been away from the site for quite some time, however, this post is so timely it almost feels as though it was fate. All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you Mr. Kennedy! I wish I could truly express to you how much I needed this!

22 Space man October 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Great article! I was afraid you were going to start mentioning great fad diets or lifestyles that worked for you but it wasn’t about that at all. Good show.

23 Tyler November 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm

This reminds me of a quote from this xkcd comic:

“By teaching people to hold their beliefs up to experiment, Mythbusters is doing more to drag humanity out of the unscientific darkness than a thousand lessons in rigor. Show them some love.” -Zombie Richard Feynman

This quote may be about Mythbusters, but the concept holds here: these little self-experiments might not hold up in a research paper, but they help you learn something about yourself, and you learn to look at life from a more analytical point of view.

24 Tyler November 16, 2012 at 3:41 pm

As for me, I think I’ll try going without my phone for a week.

25 Kumar December 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm

great site and an excellent post. Learning a lot from the posts here. Wish I had heard about this site even earlier.

26 Jacob December 3, 2013 at 6:43 am

There are some good points here. I try to think the way you describe and the thing about improving your life by making a change is really working for me. If you are unhappy about your current situation, all you need to do is experiment and find out what works for you.
- Jacob

27 Brian January 25, 2014 at 11:16 am

amazing stuff, I am a huge fan of this site and the array of different ‘man’ things it covers. Thanks for being you! – its that famous quote – do what youve always done and you will get what you’ve always got, if your not happy – change something! awesome!

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