Experimenting With Your Life

To reach your goals, think like a scientist: Be curious, not driven.

Posted Sep 21, 2019

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Source: Unsplash

Brian wants to get out of debt and manage his money better. Emily wants to be better organized and use her time more efficiently. Jake wants to stop falling into relationships with women who initially seem interested but then gradually seem to take him for granted. Sara wants to stop walking on eggshells with those close to her and be more assertive.

We all have something we want to change. Things that bother us, patterns that seem to have their own lives that are dysfunctional and continue to get us into trouble. We want to do better, turn things around, stop whatever we are doing that isn’t working.

And so, we go on a campaign. Brian decides that he needs to watch his spending more closely and vows to stick to a weekly budget. Emily maps out her goals for the week and decides to not let her tiredness or offers to go out with friends get in the way. Jake decides that he needs to stay on top of his relationships and speak up when they seem to be going off course. Sara is determined to shake off those times she bites her tongue and instead let others know exactly how she feels.

This firm resolve is often good for a few weeks and then fades. Similarly, some people resolve on January 2 to go to the gym every day and exercise. By the end of January, they’ve fallen back into their old habits. Screw it, I give up. All or nothing thinking, lots of guilt.

There’s a problem with this straight-ahead, white-knuckle, let’s get it done now, put-this-to-rest thinking. It is hard to sustain. There’s performance pressure, and there are too many opportunities for failure.

But there is a better approach. You may want to step back and think like a scientist. Rather than being driven, you’re curious. Instead of all-or-nothing, you try and track, see how it turns out, and use that information to fine-tune and move forward. Without the ultimate investment in an outcome, you paradoxically have a better chance at success.

Here’s how to experiment with your life:

1. Develop your hypothesis

Before scientists begin an experiment, they develop a hypothesis — a notion of what they are actually testing and what will happen. Brian decides that his problem has been that he hasn’t been keeping careful records of his spending; Emily decides that she crams too much into her daily To-do list; Jake decides his profile may be giving the wrong impression, and that he moves too fast and comes on a bit too strong at the start of the relationship; Sara realizes that her Achilles heel is that she is afraid of anyone getting angry at her.

This is great — they each have a starting point for their experiments.

2. Design your experiment

Again, we’re not shooting for a personality makeover here, but a limited exercise in specifically doing something differently. The key elements are making the goals concrete in terms of exact behaviors, and having a specific timeframes.

Brian sets up an Excel spreadsheet into which he will enter his expenses for a week; Emily sits down on Sunday night and writes a list of five things (not 50) that she needs to get done this week; Jake tones down his online profile and tells himself to hold back on the texting if his new Saturday night date goes well; Sara plans to speak up about the work schedule at the weekly staff meeting, rather than once again “letting it go.” 

By mapping out clear behaviors you know exactly what to do and are less likely to slip into a “good enough,” “let’s see what happens,” “maybe” attitude. By having clear timeframes, you avoid the “just step up and change it” vagueness that usually leads to failure. 

3. Do and track

Brian, Emily, Jake, and Sara do their experiments, but like good scientists take notes along the way. Brian realizes on Wednesday that he didn’t enter his expenses on Tuesday because he forgot to get receipts; Emily sees she didn’t do anything on her #4 goal by Thursday — talking with her supervisor about new projects — because she had a work emergency that consumed most of the week; Jake did redo his profile but found less interest rather than more, did refrain from texting and was pleasantly surprised when his date reached out to him the next day; Sara did speak up in a staff meeting, and patted herself on the back, but then noticed how automatically she agreed to have dinner with her parents on the weekend even though she had other things she really wanted to do instead.

4. Tweak and repeat

Okay, all these folks have done a good job with their experiments and learned lessons along the way. Brian realizes that he may need to be more diligent in gathering receipts so he doesn’t have to keep his day in his head; Emily needs to build unexpected emergencies into her workweek, or make her meetings with her supervisor more of a priority; Jake wants to get feedback from friends about his profile; Sara realizes that being assertive with her parents is a real challenge for her, and she needs to take the risk of being clearer with them about their expectations. 

The danger, of course, is that they don’t build on this information, don’t take the next step forward, don’t keep up their newfound behaviors. If that is the case, again, curiosity — why? Their goals weren’t really that important? The timeline was too long? Their goals weren’t concrete enough? All good food for thought.

The point here is that’s there a value in being able to step back and view your life with a more detached attitude, one that is curious rather than demanding and self-critical. We live on two different planes — the life we want to create, and the life that seems to run on its own. We don’t need to manhandle this other life, but listen to it, see what it needs, experiment with changing those patterns and needs.

And then see what happens.