Personal experiments: Become Your Own Guinea Pig

The great big Internet is always abuzz with people doing wondrous and crazy things. And they often claim everyone should do it. As someone who’ll probably die of terminal curiosity, I often have an urge to actually try these things. Wanting to be the opposite of stupid, I invest a fair amount of time into researching said things. And I sometimes find that a thing isn’t thoroughly researched or the results are so conflicting that it’s hard to draw any conclusions without someone yelling how terribly wrong you are (e.g. the topic of proper nutrition is a virtual battlefield).

So, instead of waiting for the scientific community or the interwebs to sort their shit out, I design a personal experiment and find out for myself. Here’s some of the stuff I’ve learned.

Short, deep dives

Committing to a change that you consider permanent (like starting a new diet) is difficult and seems overwhelming. An effective tool for summoning motivation and overcoming inertia is the 30-day trial. It’s an insanely simple tool. You pick one habit or behavior you’d like to change, and stick to it for 30 days straight. If you miss a day, you start back at Day 1. After 30 days, you already have a habit installed, and it’s easier to keep going.

After 30 days, you reevaluate whether you’d like to continue with the new behavior or drop it. It’s both an experiment and an exercise in self-discipline. You’ll feel more relaxed since your brain knows it doesn’t have to be for life. Quit smoking for 30 days, then stop. Work out for 30 days, then go back to the couch. Stop picking your nose for 30 days, then dive right back in.

The most important thing is to overcome initial resistance, so start super small. Meditate for only 2 minutes every morning. Do 1 push-up. Read 5 pages before going to sleep. The accumulated small wins will raise your motivation. You can increase the difficulty as you go along. The next important thing is to make only one change at a time. You can do 12 of these babies in a year, so there’s no rush. It’s very tempting to try and rework your whole life in 30 days, but people mostly crash and burn by week 2.

If 30 days sound like too much, modify the length. A 7-day trial will give you a lot of info and experience. And if you’re a monster who’s got multiple behavior changes under her belt or a bulging self-discipline muscle, go crazy and try a 30-day supertrial. 😀

Identity-based change

Motivation dries up quickly. Seeing your results and performance can only take you so far. The best way I’ve found to stick to changes I’m trying to make is to create a new identity for myself. For example, if you see yourself as a person who hates exercise and vegetables, switching to a healthier lifestyle is going to be tough, because you believe you’re going against the flow of who you are.

Start calling yourself a “writer”, “regular meditator”, “ex-smoker” or whatever you’re trying to achieve. View everything in your life through that lens. You might not live up to that title completely, but if you always go back to it, it will change the way you see yourself.

The next step is proving it to yourself with small wins. This particular morsel of wisdom came to me from James Clear and this article. That’s why you should start small. Each day you succeed is solid proof that you really are the type of person who can succeed in making the change.

You can combine that with a time-limited trial mentioned above, and hold your new identity only for a set period of time. “For the next 7 days, I am a total fitness freak!” How about “For the next 30 days, I am a prolific writer”? Or “For the next year, I am a top-tier, high-earning prostitute!” Wait what!? Just kidding, but that would be an interesting one. 😛

Real decisions vs. fake decisions

A fake decision is when you decide to achieve a goal or have a certain experience, but resist or deny some of the logical consequences of that experience. For example, you want to achieve financial abundance, but you’re scared that a more luxurious lifestyle requires you to make a lot more money to maintain it. Or you want to be fit but don’t want to maintain a more disciplined diet. In the end you’ll probably sabotage yourself from reaching your goal, or barely make it but it will slip through your fingers very soon.

It’s basically like trying to pick up one end of the stick without picking up the other end. Like it or not, the other end is coming along. The best thing to do is try and predict the far-ranging consequences of a goal or change you’re trying to make, and accept them. The goal and the consequences are a package deal.

Look at it this way. The consequences are free bonuses that come along with your goal, called life lessons. With a successful business you get bonus lessons in productivity and responsibility. With your ideal body you get bonus lessons in self-discipline. And with a new relationship you get a bonus lesson in communication and negotiation.

Accountability and social drag

Boost your chances of success by becoming socially accountable for completing your experiment. Tell your spouse or a friend. Do it in a group and report to each other every day. But keep in mind that you might experience some social drag as well. If you’re trying to start a new business but your friend is constantly telling you how “you can’t succeed in this stinking country”, that’s going to bring you down. Distance yourself from those people while making the change. It’s going to be challenging enough without the unnecessary social resistance.

A personal example

Recently I started experimenting with fasting. I used to think that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) go through any extended period without food. “Extended” meaning more than 45 minutes. But I realized that a lot of authors I respect, like Brett McKay, Steve Pavlina and Tim Ferriss, practice and recommend fasting for boosting performance and well-being.

Reports say fasting will:

  • Rest the digestive system
  • Detoxify the body
  • Promote greater mental clarity
  • Enhance mood and stabilize emotions
  • Heal a host of minor health disorders
  • Strengthen your immune system and natural defenses
  • Promote weight loss (Duh!)

… and a whole plethora of other positive effects. Whatever, you had me at mental clarity. I was further motivated by this list of myths about fasting and meal frequencies. It cites 49 studies that I’m not going to read in detail. 😛 I’m also not going to argue with anyone about it. My MO is to dive in and see for myself.

Of course, phase one is always to check out possible dangers and side effects. I’ve read everything I could find on fasting and tried a sissy, training wheels version called the apple fast. Basically, you’re allowed to eat 4 apples during the whole day. It’s easier than a real fast because you get to experience the effects while still having some calorie intake. It was also a great exercise in self-discipline and mental resilience.

In short, the hunger pangs weren’t too bad and I made it without a problem. My energy was high during the whole day and I didn’t experience the sluggish haze that often happens after a big lunch at work. I experienced some mild detox symptoms (like having the cold, with some light headaches) during the afternoon, but it passed within a few hours. The mental clarity and emotional stability bit was true, I felt grounded and handled some unexpected stresses much better than I usually would.

I wasn’t especially careful the day after, breaking the fast and introducing back food, so I experienced some minor discomfort that could have been avoided.

This is still new grounds for me and the benefits supposedly deepen over time, so I’ll continue with the apple fast once a week until I have a good feel for the process. Then I’ll try the water fast, meaning I won’t eat or drink anything except water for 24 hours. I also plan to experiment with intermittent fasting, where you have a window during the day in which you eat. A popular type is called leangains, where you eat all your meals within 8 hours and fast for the other 16.

Most other diets or eating styles sound easier, but to me they were more difficult to implement. Fasting may sound complicated in theory, but it’s super easy in execution. It simplifies your life for the day and saves money.

Don’t be afraid of trying new things. You don’t have to commit to anything forever. Frequent personal experiments force you to read more books, expand your world view, build self-discipline and are great conversation topics. And they’re almost always an awesome memory to have. 😀

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