How To Treat Life Like an Experiment


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:

  1. Think of a way in which you might live a better, happier life
  2. Do that thing – at least for a short time
  3. 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?

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