Test Patterns

The following is a guest post by Sam Spurlin. Sam studies positive organizational psychology in Southern California. He writes and coaches personal development at Sam Spurlin Coaching & Consulting and recently founded an organizational consulting firm called Outlier Consulting Group. Basically, he really, really likes understanding how to make work more engaging, meaningful, and enjoyable for folks around the world.

I’m a Ph.D student in positive psychology (the science of what goes right in life) so I tend to see the world through two differently tinted lenses: “Where’s the data?” and “How can I make this better?”

The simple idea that we have profound control over the way we experience our work is what drives me as a student and an independent professional. I’ve realized that not only does the way I work impact the way I feel about my life, but that I can figure out ways to systematically test out subtle changes that have far-from-subtle consequences.

All it takes is a little bit of thinkin’ like a scientist and a little bit of willingness to try something new.

Step 1: Start Keeping a List of Questions

Sadly, I don’t get to play with many bubbling elixirs and strange colored liquids in the experiments I run. As a budding social scientist my job is to ask questions about the world around me — particularly the humans in that world. There’s nothing special about my background that grants me the power to be insanely curious and it’s simply the first step to being a good scientist. It’s the first step you’ll need to take, too. You don’t need a lab, either. All you need to do is start paying attention to how you already do things and consider the possibility there might be better ways to conduct your life.

Step 2: Make a Hypothesis

As you develop your curiosity about the way you conduct your
affairs the next step is to develop some hypotheses that explain relationships between two variables. In the social sciences we have to base these hypotheses on the years and years of previous research done in our domains. When it comes to personal experimentation the rules are a bit more relaxed. My best hypotheses come from reading websites like Productivityist where guys like Mike write about some change they’ve made in their life. It’s easy to use their experience as the hypothesis for your own experiment. If it worked for them, maybe it’ll work for me, too?

Step 3: Determine Relevant Data and Collect It

You have a question and a hypothesis — now what? This is where the fun really starts to happen. In science, now’s the time to create your research design. In the world of psychology that means figuring out your methodology for collecting data you can ultimately trust to tell you something about the world. The basic premise is the same for a personal experiment. What type of data would shed light onto your question and confirm or disconfirm your hypothesis? How can you go about collecting it? Luckily, there are all sorts of cool tools like Rescue Time, FitBit, journals, and flashy things called “paper and pencil” that can make this easier.

Step 4: Analyze Data and Do Another Experiment!

I lied in the last section. Step 4 is actually the most fun. This is where you get to see if your change had any kind of impact on your outcome of interest. Did changing your work style for a week impact your productivity? Did changing your diet for a week change your daily energy levels? Whatever your question and hypothesis, if you collected the right data then it won’t be too hard to see if you’ve changed. If you think there’s room for more optimization — do it again!

Self-Experimentation in Action

Over the summer I decided to systematically explore a couple different methods of working to see what works best for me and the type of work I tend to do. As a full-time graduate student, the summer meant I wouldn’t have to attend classes but I’d still have plenty of work to do. In other words, potential confounding variables were limited because I was essentially doing the same thing every day and week — except for my variable of interest (method of working).

My first experiment was to see if using the Pomodoro Technique1 (essentially shifting between 25 minutes of working with 5 minutes of rest throughout the day) would make me more productive and feel better about my work than normal. In terms of data, I used Rescue Time (a nifty app that keeps track of how you spend your time at the computer) and a daily end-of-day work log where I wrote about what I accomplished and how I felt about it. After working normally for a week and tracking my data (to give me a base line to compare to later) I used the Pomodoro Technique exclusively. I let Rescue Time run in the background and record my time at the computer and I made sure to write in my work journal at the end of every day while paying particularly close attention to how I felt about my work. After a week, I analyzed my data, drew some conclusions, made some tweaks to my work method, and collected more data for another week. This continued for the majority of the summer and over the course of those weeks I explored multiple versions of the Pomodoro Technique, pushed myself to the very edge of burnout (to see what it took to get me there), added a new component to my work routine that made a huge difference (“eating a frog” each morning) and many other productivity tips and tricks I’d collected over the years (and had never actually tested on myself up to this point).

The end results?

Well, the crazy ending to all of this is that the end results don’t actually matter.

The process of thinking about your productivity like a scientist and conducting the experiments to test your assumptions and ideas will have far greater results than the actual ideas you’re testing. It’s the process that matters, not the results. Dedicating yourself to the process of constant self-improvement will prove two things to yourself; first, that you have a ton of control over your life, and secondly, you can make your own decisions about what does and doesn’t work for you.

Those two realizations will take you far further than any tip, trick, or hack. And if you don’t believe me…well, you’ll just have to test it out for yourself.

Photo credit: ezran via SXC.HU

1 Note from Mike: My thoughts on The Pomodoro Technique are here.