Be your own test subject! Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not to everyone. It brings to mind Arthur Dent’s unintentional experiment with eating the least alarming leftovers out of his fridge and thereby preventing the spread of some space plague. By ‘designing a life experiment,’ I don’t mean to imply turning oneself into a petri dish so much as creating an interesting hypothesis (my dog is physically capable of learning to jump rope) and then testing it. (If I jump rope in front of him, will he eventually cut in?).
Daily life is really too boring most of the time. About 80% of life is maintenance. Bathing, preparing and eating meals, commuting, working, doing housework, paying bills, cleaning the gutters, looking for things the dog buried in the yard… It never ends. That’s part of the reason to have pets, because they introduce an element of unpredictability into the mix. Setting up controlled life experiments is another way.
There are two different approaches toward setting up a life experiment. The divergent way is to ask, “What happens when I go like this?” Commit to a new action and attend to what happens afterward. What happens when I give up soda? What happens when I initiate more phone calls? What happens when I quadruple my vegetable intake? What happens when I try to listen to everyone more attentively? The convergent way is to ask, “How many ways can I think of to tackle this problem?” If my issue is poor sleep quality, I could experiment with nutrition, hydration, mealtimes, exposure to different types of indoor and natural lighting, exercise, hypnosis, weight loss, sleep hygiene, snore strips, a visit to a sleep lab, ear plugs, melatonin, a white noise generator, prescription drugs, or kicking my pets out of the bedroom at night. The convergent approach is probably what most people are doing when they claim that they’ve “tried everything.” The drawback to “trying everything” is that we may be testing a bunch of irrelevant variables, and we may also be eliminating them from consideration without applying them for the necessary duration, frequency, or intensity. For instance, improving my vitamin A and C intake by eating better may not resolve my problem if the real issue was deficiency in D and magnesium. Nutrition was the correct approach, but we needed to get more specific.
When we’re genuinely willing to “try everything,” it helps if we can pinpoint what we are doing with exacting, meticulous, painstaking detail. Many elements of one’s lifestyle can be tested in a lab or recorded with objective data. When someone says “my blood sugar is low” or “[X] gives me migraine,” that is a factual statement (“the moon is made of green cheese”) that can be tested and proved or disproved. We can test our micronutrients. We can record what we eat. We can keep time logs of the hours we slept. We can go to sleep labs and get monitored whatever it is that they monitor. We can have our body composition clinically measured. We can record the barometric pressure. We can examine our food logs against a record of our various health mysteries and look for patterns. (“Paprika gives me night terrors.”) When we’re not sure what’s wrong and the doctors aren’t, either, we can just record everything we can think of and eyeball it for a while.
Tried everything? I’m not saying I don’t believe you. I’m saying I’d really love to take a look at your documentation.
What I have usually done up to this point is to have a harebrained idea, such as “Next year I will take up running.” Then I dive in and wait to see what happens. There have always been more unintended, unexpected results than there were predictable results that conformed to my model. When I am pursuing a new interest like this, it tends to become all-consuming. Curiosity dominates my attention. I HAVE TO KNOW. I don’t always do well simply reading something, believing it, and implementing it. Sometimes, I try something because I want to debunk it, or because it confuses me and I can’t rest until I’ve figured it out. Most of the time, I just have an idea and it doesn’t seem like a bad idea until later. Questions have included: Is it possible to make Brussels sprouts taste good?, Can I walk on the treadmill barefoot?, Are walnuts good in minestrone?, and Can I tap-dance in roller skates? (Yes, bad idea, horrible idea, and yes but why?).
What I now want to do is to try an extremely specific input for a very specific purpose and find a way to test whether it does or does not work.
The goal I have in mind is to reduce my anxiety about public speaking. It’s already getting better through practice – my legs don’t shake anymore, although my heart still pounds and I have a lot of trouble making myself stay at the podium for an entire minute. I didn’t qualify the other day because I only made it 29 seconds out of 60. My mind goes blank and I lose my train of thought. My focus fades out into the middle distance, and it’s like the colored lights aren’t even there, much less the faces of my audience. I believe there is a significant physiological input that I can master, in the same way that I trained myself to be able to run more than 1/3 of a mile.
I haven’t been able to run in a year and a half. It started with an ankle injury that responded only slowly to physical therapy. Just as I had healed enough to start running short distances again, I fell and tore open my knee. That took weeks to heal. While I was still wearing gauze pads for that, I bruised my nailbeds while hiking, and it’s taken six months for the nails to grow back properly. One darn thing after another. What I noticed was that my background mood dropped from a 9 out of 10 to more like a 7. Running initially helped me to beat my problem with night terrors, and I feel like it had a way of eliminating stress hormones. My suspicion is that reigniting a regular running practice will help to diminish my speaking anxiety, even though they seem to have nothing to do with one another.
How do I design this experiment? What kind of metrics can I track to tell whether it’s working? Most of the variables involved in public speaking are subjective. How did I feel? How competent did I seem to others? Was my speech any good? There are a few numbers that are relevant, and the group does track them. How many times a month did I give a speech? How many seconds was my speech? How many times did I say “Um”? I know I say “um” more often when I’m nervous, although I don’t notice it at the time, and I also know that my speeches get shorter when I feel more nervous and less prepared. Lowering the first number and increasing the second will be positive signs that I am improving. As for running, I can easily and automatically track metrics with my sports watch and the RunKeeper app. How often did I run? How far? How long? What was my pace per mile? What were my split times? I can also subjectively track my daily mood, sleep quality, soreness, or anything else that seems relevant.
There is the possibility (probability?) that my speaking abilities will improve over time anyway. I won’t be able to prove anything to anyone but myself, but I couldn’t with a sample size of one anyway. In the worst case scenario, I give myself something to do while waiting for time to pass. At best, I might notice that the “butterflies in the stomach” [factual statement again] fade as soon as I get in a good 5-miler.
Learning to quantify my life taught me a lot. It taught me that my certainty about my behavior was almost always unwarranted. I went to bed later than I thought. I drank about ¾ of the water I thought I did. I ate about 50% more than I claimed. I exercised about 2/3 of the frequency I thought, at a lower intensity. (Walking instead of running, running instead of calisthenics, calisthenics instead of body weight resistance training, etc.). I can’t even say for certain whether I lied to myself deliberately or carelessly. All I know is that my picture of myself, based on doing what came naturally, did not match with the reality of an honest record of my actual behavior. My real habits did not match my perception of my habits.
Part of why I like to plan life experiments is that it helps to focus my awareness. I want to live intentionally, and that is more or less the opposite of doing what comes naturally, at least at first. What I want is for a better life to start emerging naturally from new and improved behaviors. My natural tendency to interrupt people needs to be consciously replaced with a strong effort to listen more carefully. My natural tendency to have my feelings hurt by other people’s thoughtless remarks needs to be replaced by a conscious effort to reinterpret the situation. I annoy myself all the time, and my quest is to pause, reevaluate, and act in ways that I find more acceptable.
Another reason that I like to plan life experiments is that I have overcome some serious difficulties, and it would have been much quicker and easier if I had been less stubborn. I often look back and feel that I could have saved myself years (or decades) of pain and frustration if only I had heeded certain signs. I beat fibromyalgia and thyroid disease. I beat poverty. I beat obesity. I beat the odds and found love again after my divorce. These problems were so difficult for me that almost anything else seems simple and easy in comparison. I have every reason to believe that action and habit change can bring me improved results, as long as I focus my attention and actions in the correct places.
There are a million problems and situations that could respond to a life experiment. Weight, depression, energy level/vigor, headaches, punctuality, debt, shyness, loneliness, cooking skills… Can I prevent family quarrels? Can I streamline my morning routine? Can I earn a promotion at work? What happens when I try to put on 10 pounds of muscle? What happens when I clear six carloads of clutter out of my house? Any frustration, irritation, or annoyance probably has a solution. What I’ve found is that taking any positive action toward any issue tends to have unanticipated positive side effects. When we try to eliminate hassles from our lives, it tends to ripple outward, benefiting everyone around us.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.