How to Rapidly Improve Your Life Through Self-Experimentation

by | Feb 8, 2017
Photo by Alex "Skud" Bayley

Photo by Alex “Skud” Bayley

John Fawkes is a fitness expert who helps people lose weight and get into the best shape of their lives by gradually changing their habits. His sustainable approach to fitness allows people to look sexy and feel great about themselves, on fitness programs that are easy to follow.

In the movies the mad scientist works in his lab developing an experimental super-soldier serum. When he thinks he has the formula right he injects himself with it, and lo and behold he becomes superhuman.

As a kid I always wanted to do that. And as an adult, I learned that I can––minus the needles, experimental steroids, and insanity. Running experiments on yourself is totally possible, and very very effective for improving your habits and quality of life.

Unlike traditional scientific experiments, self-experiments don’t have a bunch of research subjects. They just have one: you. That means they aren’t very good at finding out what works for people in general, but they’re great for finding out what works for you specifically.

In fact, I’ve run over a dozen self-experiments lasting one or two weeks each, and many of them have produced massive improvements in my life and health. If you want to learn how to do this for yourself (or copy a few of my most successful experiments) read on.

How to design your own self-experiments

First off, choose what you’re going to test. For instance, you could be testing how different breakfasts make you feel later in the day, or which workouts make it easiest for you to fall asleep at night.

Second, you need a few experimental conditions to test. For breakfast, this would be something like low-carb, high-carb, vegan, etc. For workouts, it would be heavy weights, light weights, jogging, yoga, etc.

Third, pick your evaluation criteria. If you’re testing the effects of breakfast on your energy levels, perhaps you’d record how energized you feel at periodic intervals after breakfast. If testing workouts to help you fall asleep, you might use a smartphone app that uses the accelerometer to detect when you’ve gone to sleep, or you might write down how rested you feel the next morning.

Finally, figure out which potential confounding variables need to be controlled for. To know that the results of your test are due to your experiment and not something else, you must keep other things that may impact your results constant. For example, your caffeine intake should remain constant if you’re testing different breakfasts on your energy levels. That is, don’t have a Diet Coke an hour after breakfast on some days but not others. If testing different workouts to help you sleep, you need to work out at the same time every day and not in the mornings on some days and in the evenings on other days. Only change one variable at a time.

Three self-experiments you should try in the next month

Here are three of the experiments that have made the biggest impact on my life, as well as the lives of my readers and clients. Each can be performed in one or two weeks. Do just one at a time, and you can get through all three in as little as a month.

Experiment 1: The breakfast test

What you’ll test: The effects that different breakfasts have on your mind and body. Ideally you’ll test each breakfast 2-3 days in a row, both to confirm your results and see if there’s a cumulative effect after multiple days.

Experimental conditions: High-carb, low-carb, paleo, vegan, raw, smoothie, etc. Once you find the breakfast that works best for you, you can also try intermittent fasting by skipping breakfast and having that same meal for lunch.

Evaluation criteria: Your energy levels. Record how energized you feel on a scale from one to five, every half hour, from breakfast until lunch.

Things to control for: Hydration, how well you slept the night before, and consumption of other food and beverages in the morning.

Experiment 2: Morning routines

What you’ll test: The activities you perform immediately after waking up in the morning, and how they set the tone for the rest of your day.

Experimental conditions: Take a walk, then eat. Exercise, then eat. Eat, then exercise. Exercise, meditate, then eat. Check work emails first thing in the morning. Start the day with a leisure activity of your choice. There’s an infinite number of possibilities here, so you should probably run this experiment for 2 weeks.

Evaluation criteria: How you feel in the morning. Track your mood and/or ability to focus on work on a 1-5 scale, much as you did for energy levels with the breakfast test.

Things to control for: How well you slept the night before, what you eat for breakfast (I recommend doing the breakfast test before this experiment), anything happening in your life that might distract you or affect your mood.

Experiment 3: Evening routines

What you’ll test: The activities you perform for the last hour or two before bed.

Experimental conditions: Work out for two hours before bed. Do yoga an hour before bed. Don’t use screens that emit blue light for the last hour before bed. Stop working one hour, two hours, or immediately before bed. Read for the last hour before bed. Have sex. Eat a small fruit snack, or meat/cheese snack, before bed. Stop eating at least 3 hours before bed. Combinations of the above. Again, you have a ton of options so you should probably spend a couple of weeks on this experiment.

Evaluation criteria: How quickly you fall asleep. You can measure this with one of several mobile apps that use your phone’s accelerometer to detect when you roll around in bed.

Things to control for: Stimulant consumption (timing, quantity) during the day. Anything happening that might cause anxiety that would make it harder to fall asleep. Sleeping alone vs with a partner.

Living the experimental life

I suggest starting with these three experiments since they tend to produce big wins for almost everyone. After that, start brainstorming experiments of your own.

Does eating solid fruit and vegetables give you more or less energy than mixing them into a smoothie?

Does putting cinnamon (which has been shown to slow digestion) on your food keep you full longer?

Are you happier when you play with your pet or children for fifteen minutes before going to work?

Do you feel better if you do bodyweight exercises vs jogging in the morning?

Do you eat more, or faster, if you’re watching TV versus eating in silence?

When you allow yourself to get creative, not only can you dramatically upgrade your healthstyle, but the process of doing so can be very fun.

By testing your habits with a series of one to two week experiments you can greatly improve your quality of life in a short period of time. Start with the obvious big wins like what you eat for breakfast, and how you start and end your day, then find other areas of your life you think could be improved and start experimenting on them.

Do you have an idea for a great self-experiment? Share it with your fellow readers in the comments.

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15 Responses to “How to Rapidly Improve Your Life Through Self-Experimentation”

  1. Darya and John, this sounds like a great idea. And it’s a very thorough plan. Can’t wait to try it!

  2. Kirsten says:

    This is exactly what I didn’t know I needed since reading Foodist. I have had a hard time and think this will help immensely. I will start with the evening routine since the other two depend on how well you slept. Then breakfast, then morning routine. Thanks!

    • John Fawkes says:

      Perfect- whatever you do, don’t try to do more than one at a time. Pick one, stick with it for two weeks, and get that one thing optimized for the rest of your life.

  3. Hanro says:

    Nice one John. I prefer this approach to automated dogmatic responses like carbs or fats are the devil. I see you also follow Ray Cronise on twitter. Are you a fan of his work? Cheers Hanro

  4. Nancy says:

    You said: Work out for two hours before bed – did you mean to say that we should leave 2 hours between our workout and going to bed? 2 hours seems excessive.

    • Nancy says:

      *2 hours of exercise seems excessive

    • Chantel says:

      lol, that’s what I was thinking too. I’m pretty sure he meant leaving two hours between working out and going to bed, but that’s not what he said. 🙂

      Or, that’s what he meant? As an experiment? 🙂

  5. Ruth Griffin says:

    Darya & John , Thankyou sooo much for this article. It’s given me such a boost and I suddenly feel hope and positivity flooding back !
    I’m starting with the breakfast experiment as I have struggled to get that right so far . I’m so happy I discovered Summer Tomato ! Darya have a wonderful trip to Japan ! Hugs from Ruth in the UK

  6. Debbie says:

    Would this self experimentation work if you were to eliminate a food group for a week? For example, eliminating dairy to see how you feel. Or maybe gluten elimination for a week. Do you think I would notice a difference?

  7. Inspiring, John! And so much practical tips. This is similar to the concept of challenging yourself except you put it into work on a daily basis. I try to challenge myself every now and then to do stuff and I am not good at, or stuff that I am scared of but I totally love your idea about experimenting on a daily basis. I desperately need to change my morning routine – I am so trying this out! Yay, thanks for the inspiration

  8. When I did this with breakfast here’s what I discovered. I really only get hungry around 10.30 or 11am – if I eat before I get physically hungry, it seems as if I’m hungry all day. And if I eat a heavy meal late at night, I wake up ravenous early in the morning. It sounds opposite all the advice I’m given by ‘breakfast experts’ but then let’s not forget that much of their research is funded by cereal etc… companies.

  9. Francis says:

    I’ve always had a bit of a struggle with a healthy lifestyle, especially sticking to habits.
    As someone with a rather analytical mind, I’m in awe of how much sense this makes to me. Especially what you mentioned in the comments about fixing something about your life for good, that sentence send bells ringing in my mind.
    I’m looking forward to my first experiment!

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