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:
- Think of a way in which you might live a better, happier life
- Do that thing — at least for a short time
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 email@example.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, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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
"If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right."