How to Experiment on Yourself, Safely

At the start of this year, a mate of mine said to me “I was watching this video the other day, where this guy was talking about the benefits of cold showers on the body’s autonomic system. Interested?”

With some trepidation, I said “yeah, sure. Cold showers, hey? Sure, send it through.”

And so I watched the video and learned about how cold showers help the human body produce natural anti-inflammatories, and helps create a less-acidic environment in the body. I noticed another video – a TED talk – of a guy who went 30 days taking cold showers, and sharing his insights.

I was curious. Could I experience positive benefits from this too? Would I be crazy enough to take cold showers, and if so for how long, and why?

I am three weeks in to my own self experiment to test the impacts of taking cold showers. And though I haven’t noticed any significant benefits, it has helped me feel more fresh and more awake (beyond the obvious awakening from cold water). And I have been impressed with how I have performed in this experiment.

It got me thinking – how many times an idea, concept or process interests you but becomes nothing more than a fast-fading memory? How many times have you heard or read something that you have thought “that’s a great idea (or concept)”, and then not done anything with that thought?

We have so much agency in our own lives to try new habits, processes and concepts to see if they are right for us or not. In doing so, we get immediate feedback and can determine if we have learned something from it, see a benefit, or flat out think it’s a crazy idea and not worth continuing.

To do this well, you need an experimental mindset. Use these tips to approach your own self experiment on an idea or concept.

Clarify your hypothesis

It may sound simplistic, but before you begin anything you need to have a clear idea why you are going to experiment/try something new in the first place. What is your hypothesis – your assumption that by doing this thing you will or will not experience X, Y or Z? For my cold showers, my hypothesis is that taking a cold shower will help improve my body’s immune system. If you wanted to run team meetings differently, your hypothesis might be that a new approach to team meetings will create greater energy, efficiency and effectiveness for the entire team. Knowing what you think the experiment will test helps you understand whether the experiment has been a success in testing your hypothesis.

Know what you want to measure

To help with your data gathering efforts, you need to know what you will measure and how you will measure it. This is tied to your hypothesis – what you gather and measure must be relevant and linked to your hypothesis. The explosion of wearable devices for fitness tracking have helped countless individuals gather and analyse their training data to inform their decisions about the types and timing of their activities. You may choose to measure the level of efficiency you have with a new habit, the quality of feedback you give and receive from a new conversation model you like or you could measure the quality of your behaviour with certain individuals over a period of time. You need to determine what you will measure from your trial and how you will gather the data so you can review and make adjustments or form decisions about the idea or process you are experimenting with.

Be committed (for a period of time)

An effective experiment needs to be measured over a period of time. The length of time you select depends on the frequency you have to test the idea/concept/habit and the avenues you have for feedback. For example, you might try a weekly reflection and preparation activity for your combined week’s commitments, say every Sunday, to see the difference this practice makes on your levels of stress but you might need to run this for at least 12 weeks to determine any impact (either positive or otherwise). If your experiment is a daily routine, like my cold shower experiment, you might only do it for a month before you have enough data gathered for analysis.

Reflect and share (if appropriate)

This stage is critical in order to truly realise the benefits of your efforts. Not necessarily the sharing aspect, although this may help others in both trying something you have already proven or disproven, but the review and analysis of your data in how you answered your hypothesis. By taking the time to reflect on the experience you give yourself the opportunity to learn from it to inform whether you will keep, modify or stop doing it entirely (in whole or in part).

Maybe cold showers aren’t your thing. And they may end up not being mine either. What idea/process/concept have you heard or read that you are curious about trying? Not sure where to start? Here are a few ideas:

  • Double your reading speed
  • Chair meetings more effectively
  • Stretch your whole body 4 times a week
  • Drink 3 litres of water a day
  • Put all electronic devices away at least one hour before you go to bed

By setting up these micro-experiments within your own life – and on your terms – you minimise the risks and maximise the rewards. No one else has to know what you are doing (unless you are testing something that affects others, in which case you might choose to share your plan in advance). If it fails, you learn. If it succeeds, you learn. Either way you can develop yourself further and determine whether a new idea or concept (to you) is something worth pursuing.

Leave a comment below if you have run experiments yourself. What was the outcome? What did you learn (about the process)?

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