Your Life as an Experiment (and the tools to run it)

The only way to truly know if things work for you is to try it for yourself.

Posted May 19, 2014

So you decided to change your life for the better. You have resolved to become more positive, more connected, or more resilient, perhaps to become healthier or to have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose.  Motivated and determined to transform your life, you start to read and to explore, and pretty quickly realize that you are flooded with a myriad of contradicting advice.

Online and in print, an army of behavioral scientists, authors, psychologists, coaches, and experts dispense their guidelines for life. One book speaks about the power of the present moment, while another one praises focus on the future. One study shows the perils of procrastination, and another study depicts it as an effective mechanism to prioritize tasks. Some experts show statistical evidence for their findings, others provide pictures of brain scans, and others yet quote the Buddha or Krishna. It all sounds both convincing and questionable at the same time. You are yet to take the first step of your new path and already find yourself confused.

You don’t know which steps to take.

The reason that this mess of opinions is out there is that there is simply no single recipe for an optimal life. No one size fits all.  Even the most rigorously-studied strategies work only for most people, not for all of them. The efficacy of any activity, strategy, or approach always varies from one person to another. For anything you read about, you may be one of those who greatly benefit, one of those who experience no change, or one of those whose life worsens. The only way to truly know if things work for you is to try it for yourself and keep a record. To be your own scientist.

Here’s my recommendation: Show me the money. Show me whatever you got – does it work? Does it work for you? One thing I encourage everybody is they have to be their own inner scientist; you have to find out what’s really working. I think most of the self-help work, much of positive psychology, much of all psychology, much like most of religion, most of anything, is probably bullsh*t. It’s all air. Some of the right work I think is air. You try it and afterwards - are you objectively better? Very often – not, but you have done all you can to convince yourself.

I argued that most people are not always good at assessing how well things work. Pennebaker then suggested that people take their “life pulse” every day:

Well then you start to measure. You start to write down how many hours of sleep you are getting. You write down how you feel today. Are you sick? What’s your body temperature? There are a million ways to evaluate how your life is going. And yes, we are all delusional about things, but measuring things is not a bad idea. What’s your heart rate and your blood pressure today? How many calories are you eating? How much exercise are you getting? How many fights have you gotten into with friends and coworkers? Make a list of things that are important to you – ideally things that you can objectively measure. Take your life-pulse every day, see how it’s going.

Journalist and author A. J. Jacobs is one of the people who experiments with his life repeatedly and thoroughly. In one of his experiments, he consulted a group of physicians and experts and followed all of their recommendations for a healthier life [2]. He changed his diet, his exercise regimen, washed his hands every two hours, disinfected his TV remote controls, and even walked around with a helmet. At the end of his experiment he went back to his normal life, and picked the things that worked best for him. Today he does not wear a helmet, and enjoys the occasional drink, but he kept his ear-plugs or ear-buds in. For Jacobs, noise was the most detrimental factor that affected his health and well-being.

What changes do you want to see in your life? What are the indicators of this change that could be measured easily and objectively? Is it sleep? Mood? Nutrition? Exercise? Perhaps just the number of days during which you did not get angry?

Whatever your goals are, don’t go on the road without first constructing your personal research plan. Much of life is trial and error anyway. As long as you can truly distinguish between failure and success, you will quickly find yourself on the ride of your life.

PS – here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of awesome tools to consider on your personal study of self-improvement:

PACO – an Android mobile app that allows you to gauge various indicators during your day http://pacoapp.com

MetricWire – A mobile app that allows scientists to run behavioral experiments (includes test trial)  http://metricwire.com/

EasyM – an Android app developed by the University of Cambridge in the UK, as part of UBhave research project, allowing researchers to collect behavioral indicators, including smartphone sensor data http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~nkl25/easym/index.html

EmotionSense – from the same lab in Cambridge, an Android app that allows one to monitor their emotions seamlessly http://emotionsense.org/

[1] Ran’s experience and his meetings with leading experts will appear in his forthcoming book “Ride of Your Life – a Coast to Coast Guide to Finding Inner Peace”. To learn more about the book go to http://www.RideOfYourLife.com

[2] A. J. Jacobs “How Healthy Living Nearly Killed Me”, 2011 TED Talk