I’ve just finished reading A. J. Jacobs‘s latest book, Drop Dead Healthy, an entertaining and often informative memoir of two years he spent trying to become “the healthiest person in the world.” Along the way, Jacobs interviews a variety of people, tries a lot of new things, and does, indeed, improve his health substantially — but this isn’t a book of health instructions so much as a large-scale experimental response to the puzzlement that many people face when making choices about their health. Jacobs, an “experiential journalist” and editor at Esquire, has built part of his writing career on not being afraid to look foolish, act in an extreme way, or irritate his friends and family with his projects: two previous books chronicled his experiences reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica and a year spent following all the codes of the Bible.
You don’t have to go to such extremes to benefit from taking an experimental attitude towards any kind of behavioral change, whether it’s related to health, work, productivity, or play. Compare these three statements:
(1) I resolve to exercise more.
(2) I commit to exercising at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
(3) With the goal of improving my overall athletic fitness, I’m going to experiment with going for a run MWF and lifting weights on T/TH for three weeks and then evaluate how I have improved my strength and speed.
Sentences of the first variety show up a lot around New Year’s and for many people are very hard to fulfill beyond a few days’ enthusiasm. In part, that’s because it doesn’t really specify what exercise means, or what “more” might mean. There’s more focus in the sentence on the resolve than on the desired action.
The second sentence is an improvement, in that it defines a measurable activity goal: it’s easy to know whether you met the target or not.
But the third sentence sets up an experiment. An experiment of this sort encourages an open, curious attitude towards personal change, rather than the forcefulness of “resolve.” With an experiment, you gain new perspective and self-knowledge. (The term “lifestyle experiment” has been showing up a lot lately in personal development blogs. I’m not sure of its origin, if one can be pinpointed. Colin Wright’s Extreme Lifestyle Experiments and Tim Ferriss’s Experiments in Lifestyle Design are certainly sources for its popularity.)
A lifestyle experiment:
- specifies a limited time frame for the new activity, which eases the resistance you might feel to trying something new
- details how that activity will be performed, which makes it easier to complete
- defines a goal to be reached or question to be answered, which motivates your following through on the experiment
- defines an evaluation measurement, so you have a way of assessing the results.
At the end of the experiment’s time frame, you can then choose whether to integrate the new behavior into your routine or not. When I became vegan almost 20 years ago, it started as a six-week experiment that grew into a lifelong commitment. But I didn’t know that then. The beauty of an experiment is that you don’t have to know or predict or even think about the long term, because you’ve set a limited timeframe.
I’ve found such experiments very helpful both for wellness-related changes and for assessing productivity tools or methods. For example, the first time I try out a new task management app, for instance, some things are going to feel awkward just because they’re new. I might be drawn to certain aspects of the user interface, or dislike other features. But half an hour playing around with an app isn’t enough to really demonstrate to me whether it could be useful for my workflow. So I’ll set up an experiment whereby I define a time frame (2 weeks), define the question to be answered (will this app help me capture action items more easily than my current system?), and define a measurement or two for assessing the experiment (am I using the app consistently every day? am I enjoying using it?). (I’ll write about my latest such experiment here in a couple of weeks when it concludes.)
Have you tried a lifestyle experiment? Let us know in the comments!
[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user o0bsessed]