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I don’t expect you’ll be drinking mystery potions or hooking yourself up to a car battery anytime soon. But conducting personal experiments are probably the best way to find answers. By actually testing (instead of assuming) your habits, beliefs, methods and systems you can make real improvements.

Stop Theorizing, Look at Results

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, recommends against using complex theories if they can’t predict anything. Humans are theory machines, trying to explain things which might not easily fit into our reduced model of reality. By experimenting, you look at what actually works, not just what you feel should work.

If you set up your personal experiment appropriately, the results should speak for themselves. I know many online business owners who use A/B split tests religiously. Instead of assuming they know what will sell, they simply divide web traffic between two different pages and see what drives results.


Gaps in Knowledge

Humans have an ability to focus on what we do know, instead of what we don’t. The way we store information neatly conceals our own ignorance. And it is in these gaps that you can often find new opportunities and solutions. But if your own arrogance keeps you from trying, you may miss them entirely.

An experiment can fill those gaps. By giving an idea a full test, you get information that wouldn’t be available simply by guessing.

Reduce Bias

A personal experiment can never reach the calculated and sterile environment of a double-blind trial. But personal experiments reduce the chances that you’ve been acting on superstition instead of results. How would your life change if you found out:

  • You could do all your e-mail work once a day (or once a week!)
  • Your energy levels doubled after increasing your exercise and improving your diet.
  • Using a different technique you could cut studying time in half while learning more.
  • Using gap time you can read a book per week without cutting time from your schedule.
  • One work activity you regularly engage in has almost no effect.

You probably already have assumptions about the answers to these questions. Experimentation means you are bold enough to say, “I don’t know.” Being skeptical can let you trust the results of a test, more than superficial theories.

How to Run a Personal Experiment

Achieving objectivity with a sample size of yourself isn’t possible. But simply throwing scientific practice to the whim and “trying things out” is likely to lead to more bias, not less. Maintaining some measure of objectivity when testing ideas will ensure you get accurate results and they aren’t polluted by your own prejudices.

Here are some steps to running an experiment:

  1. Isolate Measurements. An experiment needs to measure something. Quantitative results (weight, traffic, income) are better than qualitative ones (happiness, service, stress). But more important is to choose measurements that accurately reflect your goal. Picking the wrong measurement will tune your experiment to focus on incorrect results.
  2. Stay Consistent. Testing to see whether a different work routine is better won’t help if you try different routines every day. Outline your experiment on paper and commit to following it for a specified length of time. Shortened trials and inconsistent data make experiments worthless.
  3. Keep Comparison Information. Most scientific experiments have a control group. This ensures that there is a real difference instead of an imagined one. In some areas you can get comparison information through a split test, dividing inputs between your experiment and the control. In other areas you will need to be satisfied with a careful record of pre-experiment results to see if changes have occurred.
  4. Withhold Early Judgement. Ignorance and humility are the keys to running a successful experiment. Pulling the plug too early might not give enough time to show results. I usually spend a month or two testing an experiment before I decide if it is worthwhile.

Experiments to Try

The world isn’t obvious. That statement itself may sound a little obvious, but I believe it is too often missed. We expect the world to behave according to explicit theories inside our head, when in reality, it is far more complex. Experimentation and focusing on actual results, allows you to take advantage of your ignorance.

Here are some ideas you might want to consider trying:

  • Internet Once a Day - Set an internet time once a day for all e-mail, surfing and contact. I’ve done this before and been amazed at how much my net usage can be compressed.
  • Daily Exercise – A few weeks ago I posted an article on changing habits, where I recommended exercising every day if you plan to start. A few commenters informed me how this would lead to injury. Although I don’t recommend hurting yourself, I haven’t seen this to be the case in myself or many people I know. Poor form from trying to lift too much weight is a more likely culprit.
  • Go Veg – I’m a fan of a vegetarian diet because I believe it works to give more energy. But don’t trust me, trust an experiment for yourself.
  • Morning/Night Work – Try waking up early to get work done. Or try working on projects later in the night. Different rhythms work best for different people and lifestyles. Experiment, don’t judge.
  • Time Usage – Be skeptical of the efficacy of anything you spend time on. Test ruthlessly, because a small test can end up saving thousands of hours in otherwise wasted productivity.

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