How to Create New Habits: Self-experiment

Simon Scotting: runner, self-experiment

Self-experiment is the easiest way to create new habits.

What is self-experiment?

If I want to start doing something or stop doing something, I will set myself a self-experiment. This means I will start or stop doing that one habit every day for the next 30 days. At the end of the 30 days, I will decide if the new habit is worth keeping. The key is to be genuinely curious about how it feels at the end of these 30 days.

My 7th grade science teacher told me every experiment must have a hypothesis to test. In general, my hypotheses for self-experiments are:

“If I do/avoid <insert habit> for 30 days my life will be better”

This can be tweaked, but I find that enjoying a better quality of life is sufficient to cover most experiments. “Better” could be quantitative or qualitative.

How does self-experiment work?

Telling ourselves that we will never do something again, or we will always do something everyday is bound to fail fast. Our minds are not able to fully understand the concept of infinity so it’s better to set an end-point. Having genuine curiosity about the results creates some distance from ourselves to be objective. This means we are able to step outside of our stream of consciousness and simply notice our feelings as an outsider.

An average month is about 30 days, so starting a new self-experiment on the 1st of any month is a good way to let the calendar track the length of the experiment for you.

Self-experiment: the first week

It will be very hard to fight existing habits. Our brain likes habits because it automates our decision-making process. Decisions take energy and mental bandwidth which could be better applied to other things. This means we are fighting against our programming. Knowing there is an end point (now less than 30 days away) helps to overcome the urges, but it is difficult during this week.

Self-experiment: the second week

It will be easier but you will still be going against your natural tendencies. As motivation, I remind myself that I have come through the worst of it. Sticking to the self-experiment means I will not have to repeat the more difficult first week again. Focusing on reaching the half-way point at the end of week 2 helps too.

Self-experiment: the third week

I feel some satisfaction from crossing the half-way point. Most physical and mental cravings should be minimal or disappear completely by the end of week 3.

Self-experiment: the final week

I can start feeling the difference in the new habit. Or maybe not. Perhaps it’s not a habit worth keeping. Either way, I’m almost done now so I want to see it through.

Why does a self-experiment work?

Usually by the end of 30 days, whatever you are self-experimenting will become a new habit. That’s the trick. Then you won’t need to try to do or not do something. You will just do it. Your brain will be re-programmed and you can apply your decision-making bandwidth to something else. Maybe a new self-experiment?

What is the best way to do a self-experiment?

  • Approach the self-experiment like a child. Be genuinely curious about the results. Think of this as a game with yourself you can win.
  • Choose ONE (1) thing to self-experiment with at a time. If you try to do a few things at once it will be exponentially harder. You don’t want it hard. Make it easy. Running multiple simultaneous self-experiments also means not knowing how much each individual habit improves or degrades your life. I’ve broken my own rule a few times and it always ended in failure.
  • Pick something easy for the first self-experiment (or two). Failing to complete the self-experiment feels like a waste of time and will knock down your confidence. Build success on success by completing one self-experiment, then going for another.
  • Starting a self-experiment on the first day of a month, first day of a season, your birthday, a holiday, etc means it will have a higher chance of success.
  • Try alternating self-experiments between starting new habits (approach goals) and stopping old habits (avoidance goals). Cutting out negative things without adding more positive habits can be emotionally rough. Psychologists have found avoidance goals to be more difficult to achieve than approach goals. Fill the voids you create with good stuff, or try to re-frame your avoidance goals as approach goals.
  • Choose a relatively low threshold when choosing a self-experiment. For example, if you want to start reading books everyday then set yourself a goal of reading 10 pages per day. If you want to start running, try to run 3km per day. If you want to start going to the gym and running, just self-experiment with one activity this month and add the next activity next month. I’ve made this mistake too. You will have a better chance of success by aiming low and exceeding your goals rather than feeling miserable about not attaining improbable results. You can always set a higher goal as another self-experiment.
  • Sometimes the self-experiment will not result in a noticeable improvement in life. Give it time. Feel free to sample the old habit again and you might notice a difference. Identifying the negative effects of a former habit can help you decide if it is worth resuming.
  • This is for you and you alone. It is your game. Pick a self-experiment for yourself which you really want to try. Your motivation will fuel the curiosity you need to complete it. If you succeed, use the accomplishment as momentum for another self-experiment. If you fail, try to analyse why failure occurred and how you can redo it with a better chance of success.

Perpetual improvement

By doing a new self-experiment each month, you will have created 12 new habits each year. Perhaps you decide that only 10 of the 12 monthly self-experiments have improved your life. Keep what works, discard the rest. This is 10 more improvements than most people will make in a year. After 5 years, you will have made 50 improvements to your life.

I’m very curious to hear about your own self-experiments, both successful and not so much. Leave a comment or send me a message.

If you want to hear about some of my own self-experiments, click here.