Raptitude’s birthday is March 15th 2009, but it was conceived in the last days of 2008. My job was extremely slow and I was aching for both a new hobby and new career, and ultimately I found both.
The central idea at the time was to do self-improvement experiments, and I did, but those later became secondary to my essays about the human experience.
I have a strange relationship to my experiments. They are many readers’ favorite part of this site but they’ve never been mine. I’ve done 21 over the last seven years, and about half the time they founder to one degree or another—I attempt to do some new habit for 30 days, get sick of it and throw up my hands or limp to the end. I do always learn something however—about my habits, my motivations, my values—that helps me find a more sensible place in my life for the activity in question.
People are always asking where I am with a particular experiment, so for the last post of 2015 I’m going to update you on all of them, right from the start, even the disasters. I hope you enjoy it, and maybe consider doing an experiment of your own this coming year.
Goal: Meditate every day for 30 days.
I had been experimenting with meditation for seven or eight years by then, but had never made a daily practice of it.
What happened: It started out well, but I began to dread my sessions and was happy to take a break from it when the month was done. The lingering mental image I have of this experiment is sitting on the floor in my Archibald Street apartment, fuming at the sounds of my neighbors playing Rock Band on Playstation, because they were ruining my inner peace.
Where I am with it today: Happily practicing daily. I’m light years from where I was then, which is fortunate, considering I’m about to guide several hundred people to do a less-demanding version of this. I had been meditating intermittently for years by then, and had experienced correspondingly intermittent benefits, but there was a reason for that. The problem, I learned later that fall at a meditation retreat, was that I was being a “fairweather meditator”. I believed I had to be in a particular state of mind in order to meditate, which is missing a central principle—the idea is to notice your experience whatever it currently is, and I had a certain experience in mind that I was determined to have.
Goal: Complete a six-week kettlebell conditioning program.
This was my first ever attempt to stick with an exercise program. A kettlebell is basically a cannonball with a handle, and you press it and swing it to get stronger. I picked a program (from a book called Enter the Kettlebell) that promised noticeable changes in six weeks.
What happened: I hurt myself and had to take more than a week off, so my results were kind of negligible. I did work hard though and I was definitely in better shape. I continued working with kettlebells after the experiment and got much better with them.
Where I am with it today: I’ve since become much more serious about fitness and I no longer struggle to make myself work out. I lift barbells at a gym three or four times a week now. I still have kettlebells but I’m not currently using them.
Goal: Go thirty days without consuming caffeine or alcohol.
I was beginning to suspect these two legal highs were taking more from my life than they were giving, so I went off them completely for a month.
What happened: The experience was really enlightening and my final report is well worth reading. It really wasn’t that difficult and I felt physically great. My sleep was better, I was less aimless at work, and I saved a lot of money on the weekends. I remember how shocking it was on day 31 when I broke my abstinence with two beers. They tasted good but really didn’t like the feeling of the alcohol, I just liked the idea of drinking. The bottom line is that much of the reason I consumed either was my conditioning and habit, rather than any actual benefit or pleasure.
Where I am with it today: I drink far less alcohol now, but I haven’t given it up entirely. It does much less for me than it used to, and there’s so much about the experience that I don’t like. Caffeine is a little different. I still drink two or three homemade double espressos a day, although I’ve switched to half-caff. My next experiment will have something to do with sleep and I may go off coffee again.
Goal: For 30 days, eat according to these four rules: 1) Eat whatever foods you like, but 2) stop when you are about 75% full, 3) eat only in response to the feeling of hunger (not social cues or anything else), and 4) drink nothing but water.
What happened: It wasn’t especially pleasant and it made eating a lot more complicated. I learned that hunger is seldom the trigger for eating. Most of our food consumption revolves around social expectations and habits, and it’s really difficult logistically to eat only in response to your body’s needs. I did learn an important skill though—how to refrain from eating when some part of you wants to— which I would refine in Experiment 20 five years later.
Where I am with it today: Today I don’t think much in terms of “defensive eating” but I generally eat more slowly, and I overeat less often. This doesn’t have much to do with the experiment though. I’ve just become more conscious of food intake and I don’t feel such a need to defend myself against my impulses.
Goal: Go 21 straight days without complaining or uttering non-constructive criticism. (If I catch myself doing it, I must start again at day zero.)
This was inspired by Will Bowen’s book A Complaint Free World, in which he claims that if you stop pronouncing your negative thoughts, you stop having those kinds of thoughts, and that if everyone did this the world would change completely.
What happened: It took 55 days to get 21 complaint-free days in a row, but I did it. This experiment really does teach you not to complain, and I think everyone should do it once in their lives. But it didn’t create much of an inner change. My negative thoughts were unaffected, I just got more polite about whether to pass them on to others. Complaining can even be a worthwhile form of bonding, as I learned while I was working a painful manual labor job with new friends, and could never join in on the lighthearted griping. Still, it’s better to never complain than to complain freely.
Where I am with it today: Even though the exercise didn’t eliminate internal negativity like the book promised, the experiment left me much more conscious about expressing needless negativity, and I am pretty good at keeping it to myself most of the time. I’m also more patient with others when they’re complaining. This is one experiment I would recommend to almost anybody.
Goal: Log every single thing I do for a week.
The idea here was to do something almost every productivity expert recommends: write down how you spend your time, to the minute, for a week. It’s supposed to reveal the major time sinks in our routines.
What happened: This experiment went pretty much perfectly. I simply wrote down how long everything took, including the cooking and eating of meals, sleeping, going to the store, sitting listening to music, and surfing the net. The sheer wastefulness of certain habits became too obvious to ignore, and so it was easy to stop doing them. It really freed up a ton of time and no willpower was necessary.
Where I am with it today: It’s hard to know what I learned that I still make use of because this was a long time ago and I’m in a different career now. I should do it again, to expose and cut loose a few more time-sucking habits.
Goal: Meditate every day for 30 to 45 minutes, for 40 days.
This was a second swing at the elusive daily meditation practice ideal. For some reason I thought coming back to it with greater force was a good way to overcome the obstacles that derailed me the first time.
What happened: The timing was bad and I wasn’t really committed to it. I was in Australia, at the tail end of a really long backpacking trip. I was burnt out and having trouble writing, and I’m pretty sure I did this experiment just so I’d have something to write about that week. I just was never
very serious about it, and had trouble finding a regular meditation spot when I was sleeping in a different noisy hostel every night. I quit not too long into it. It was a really half-assed effort with no real intention behind it.
Where I am with it today: See experiment 1.
Goal: Establish five new habits (exercise, networking, visualization, curating my to-do lists, and preparing for the next day each night) by doing a tiny little bit of them every day.
The idea was that I’d expect a very small amount from myself on all five of these fronts, and then I could ramp up the effort and time investment for each once they were established parts of my day.
What happened: This was a really dumb idea. I was doing too little of any of these things for there to be any benefits, so all I did was make them really annoying. I accomplished nothing and quit halfway through.
Where I am with it today: I didn’t realize it until just now, but I have established solid habits for all of these five things over the intervening six years. Each of them became a habit on their own though, and took a focused effort.
Goal: Get rid of all “homeless” possessions in my home. If I was going to keep something, I had to give it a sensible place where it was properly away.
This was an attempt to achieve the fabled state of “A place for everything, and everything in its place”.
What happened: I completed this goal in about a month, and it had a revolutionary effect, not only on the state of my home, but on my entire philosophy of ownership and homemaking. I put everything away every night, because everything had a place, and woke up to a zenlike state of order. I fell in love with the idea of everything in its place.
Where I am with it today: Entropy returned my house about halfway to its previous state, although that took about a year. Many changes were permanent, and I have gone from being an untidy to a tidy person. I did a more focused version of this for Experiment 21.
Goal: Eat a vegan diet for 30 days.
What happened: I did it without any problems, and it seemed to make me healthier. During this time I explored the philosophical aspects of veganism and adopted the entire lifestyle, attempting to remove animal products of all sorts from my life.
Where I am with it today: I lived as a vegan for a year, then moved away from it. I have explained why to some extent here and here. My relationship to animal use is complex and the single-tenet vegan position doesn’t represent it very well. Today I reduce animal product consumption and source them more consciously but I do not attempt to eliminate them. My diet remains mostly plant-based.
Goal: Live according to certain anti-procrastination habits for 30 days, including daily planning and weekly reviewing.
What happened: I started off amazingly well, and my life seemed to be changing, but my habits began to reassert themselves after the initial enthusiasm faded. I also kept extending the experiment to try new strategies, and it kind of petered out. But I learned a ton about the habits that were causing me to procrastinate.
Where I am with it today: I have made serious breakthroughs in my lifelong procrastination problem, particularly in the last six months. In 2015, I strung together 8 or 10 highly productive weeks in a row for the first time, which beat my previous record of one. I finally feel like a reasonably productive person, and this experiment did help.
Goal: Write 1000 words a day for 30 days.
I had always felt like I could only write on days when I was “feeling it”, so the idea here was to write every day, to prove to myself I could write any time.
What happened: Total trainwreck from day one. All this regimen did was increase my dread of writing, and to make things worse, I was scheduled to be traveling for the last half of the thirty days. I unceremoniously abandoned the experiment shortly after starting.
Where I am with it today: Now that I write for a living I’ve found a fairly stable routine, and I’ve proven to myself that I can indeed write in almost any mood. I can’t say for sure if this experiment contributed in any way to that.
Goal: Spend 20 minutes a day visualizing having achieved certain goals.
Visualization is a proven technique for self-motivation and is used regularly by many athletes, businesspeople and self-improvement nerds. I have always wanted to make use of it to combat my tendency to default to pessimistic expectations.
What happened: Like so many other experiments, mostly I just succeeded in making this important activity into a chore that I dread. In hindsight, I was taking it much too seriously. Picturing my dream home, for example, I would get hung up on details like what kind of curtains I owned or what the room smelled like (cedar or ocean breeze?)
Where I am with it today: I have a much more casual practice now. I don’t use the word “visualization” any longer because it makes it feel too serious. Instead I simply sit in a chair at least once a day, and think about something I want. One thing. It works great.
Goal: Work an 8-hour workday working on my own goals, the way I do with my employer’s goals 250 days a year.
What happened: The workday was awesome, but it was only a one-day experiment, so it didn’t say much about how I would fare if I did this for forty hours a week. I guess it was more of a symbolic gesture than a dedicated self-improvement exercise.
Where I am with it today: Nine months later I quit my job to work for myself. It took quite a while to establish productive routines as my own boss, but I can safely say I’m there now. You can read about my experience in adjusting to my own bosshood here.
Goal: Wash dishes by hand for a month (instead of using the dishwasher).
What happened: I loved this. I really came to enjoy it and my dishes were a lot cleaner. It kept me more mindful throughout the day and it just felt more upstanding all around. There’s something noble about doing something with your hands rather than letting a machine do it in an inefficient and
Where I am with it today: At some point I returned to using the dishwasher. I’m sure it was when I was in a rush and decided to throw the dishes in the machine before I went out, and it’s been quite a while since I did them by hand. But maybe it’s time to go back to it.
Goal: Read a book a week for a year.
This was my first year-long experiment, inspired by a silly claim by George W. Bush that he read “A book a week” when someone questioned his intellectual rigor. But I knew many people did read at that rate, so I figured I could, and should at least try.
What happened: What happened should have been quite predictable: I grew to dread reading. The words and pages became work, and I was always conscious of my pace. I kept up the experiment for almost six months though, reading maybe a dozen books instead of the two dozen I meant to. But some of them were wonderful reads (particularly East of Eden and The Remains of the Day) and I’m glad I found a reason to get to them.
Where I am with it today: I don’t pressure myself to read a certain amount anymore. I just set aside an hour every morning to read whatever I feel like. When I’m into a good book nothing will stop me from spending my evenings reading anyway.
Goal: Learn to improve my posture by putting sticky note reminders all over my house.
What happened: I don’t really know. It’s hard to tell how your own posture is when you’re not looking. The sticky notes kind of worked, but after a while I almost didn’t see them anymore. I feel like it got a little better. It wasn’t a very exciting experiment.
Where I am with it today: My posture is improved, but that’s mostly from sitting meditation and doing deadlifts and squats at the gym.
Goal: Get two-thirds of my calories from a liquid food concoction that supposedly provides all the micro- and macronutrients we are known to need.
This was the famous “Soylent” experiment. If you haven’t heard of Soylent, it’s a powdered food meant to supply everything our bodies need, while eliminating most of the cooking, grocery shopping, lengthy mealtimes and food-related decisionmaking that goes with conventional food. It’s not for everyone but it was definitely appealing to me. There are a lot of DIY recipes you can get online and make yourself. That’s what I did.
What happened: I experienced a whole host of benefits, the greatest of which was probably that it freed up another two hours a day or so. I also felt physically better, although it’s not clear why. Perhaps I eliminated something from my previous diet that didn’t agree with me, or I finally got some vitamin I had been missing. Quite a bit happened to me, and the experiment log is well worth reading.
Where I am with it today: I kept it up for over a year, and in the last few months I finally drifted away from it. The main issue was satiety: it just didn’t keep me full long enough. This could have been due to my own recipe, although I found that the official commercial Soylent wasn’t much better. I also experienced “carb crashes” a lot of the time, and couldn’t seem to predict when this would happen. I’m not necessarily done with Soylent, but for now I’m good without it.
Goal: Work at a standing desk for part of the day, for two workweeks.
I didn’t do the experiment because I had back problems or any other problems associated with sitting, but because I thought it might help me be less distracted at work. I also just wanted to see what all the standing-desk fuss was about.
What happened: I liked standing, even though I thought it would be horrible. I did find I was less distracted. Standing makes you feel more active and engaged, and sitting seems to signal our bodies that it’s time to relax. I found my standing sessions especially conducive to writing and answering emails.
Where I am with it today: It’s been a while since I’ve worked standing up. Without a regimen to tell me when to do it, I seldom think about it. My relationship with standing work is much like my relationship with doing dishes by hand. I know it was good for me and I should do more of it.
Goal: Fast from 8pm to 12 noon every day for 30 days.
Intermittent fasting is fairly popular these days. It helps a person consume fewer calories overall, which is linked to increased longevity and lower rates of disease. I did it mainly for two reasons: to lose some weight, and to learn how to refrain from eating when it was inappropriate.
What happened: After a very rough first week, in which I felt weak and tired much of the time, I settled right into it and began to feel energized and confident. I did lose weight, and my running endurance improved, but the big achievement was that I gained a level of control over my eating that I never had. Food remained as appealing as ever, but I gained the ability to decide exactly when and how much to eat without having to resort to willpower.
Where I am with it today: I continued to go without food before noon for quite a while afterward, and I’ve retained the ability to refrain from eating whenever I like. Today I just have coffee when I wake up, and midmorning I’ll have some toast. I am not actively fasting, but I still feel like I’m ultimately in control of my food intake now, and before the experiment it always seemed like a struggle.
Goal: Declutter my entire home using Marie Kondo’s method.
The bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up made its way into my hands and I decided to apply it to my life. I took six weeks to go through every single possession and examine my feelings toward each, tossing whatever didn’t bring me some form of joy.
What happened: It was an extremely liberating process. I hadn’t quite realized that we have an emotional relationship with virtually every possession we own. Many of the items we keep make us feel guilty or disappointed in ourselves. During the process I got rid of hundreds of pounds of lukewarm possessions, leaving only items that made me feel good to own. It made a tremendous difference in how I relate to what I own.
Where I am with it today: My place has remained more or less tidy since the experiment, and it’s easy to put things away. I still keep my things in tidy little boxes, but there has been some entropy, and I don’t get too uptight about color-coordinating things anymore. But my relationship to my things has forever changed. I will never hold onto things I don’t use or which make me feel bad. During the summer I’d like to “audit” any areas that have gotten out of hand since the initial purge. But things are still pretty orderly.
Those of you who are fans of my self-experimenting: what kinds of experiments would you like to see in 2016? I know I’m going to experiment with sleep in some way, but other than that it’s wide open. Let me know in the comments.
Anyway, that’s it for Raptitude for 2015. Thank you all so much for reading, and for sharing it with people. I am blessed to be doing this.