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Little Experiments

Earlier in the week, I posted about my personal experiment with using a calendar chain to establish a meditation habit. I didn’t like the idea of the calendar chain tool, and I didn’t think it would work. But it didn’t cost me much to try it out, so I went for it. And it paid off. Big time.

This was an example of the sort of “little experiments” I like to try on myself. I’ve been working on self-improvement for many years, and, this may shock you, I still don’t have it all figured out – not for myself and not for anyone else either. In fact, I don’t think it’s even possible to have it all figured out. I think that self-improvement proceeds like scientific progress: The best we can achieve is an incrementally improved understanding of what works.

I often learn from the examples of others, but I cannot be sure that their methods will work for me. The advice successful people have to offer simply tells me what might work, not what will work.

I also draw upon the findings of modern psychology, but psychological research can, at best, only tell us what works for most people most of the time. It doesn’t offer definitive prescriptions because everyone is different.

True, human nature can provide a great deal of guidance. There are some ways in which we are all fundamentally the same, and effective self-improvement strategies usually take this into account. But there are also enough differences between individuals that finding a self-improvement method that works for everyone is exceedingly rare.

The only way to truly know if something will work for you is to try it out.

My little experiment with the meditation calendar chain was an obvious success because the tool worked for me. But if the tool had failed to work for me, it still would have been a successful experiment because I would have learned what doesn’t work, and that would take me one step closer to figuring out what does. Such is the nature of experimentation.

Here are the little experiments I’m currently running:
  • Will collagen help my joint problems?
  • Will cutting dairy out of my diet make any difference?
  • Will using a guided meditation when I get home help me detach from work and relax?

Admittedly, doing the first two in combination violates the principle controlled experimentation because they are both dietary changes, but I’m not trying to publish my findings. I’m just working on becoming better, and I don’t have the patience for genuine science.

And here are some examples of little experiments you might run on yourself:
  • Will you feel less stressed if you spend more time in airplane mode?
  • Will you sleep better if you put your electronics away earlier in the evening?
  • Will your mood improve if you take a walk in the park?
  • Will you read more if you schedule it as a recurring appointment in your calendar?
  • Will listening to an audiobook related to your field give you ideas to use at work?
  • Will writing about your ideas lead to greater clarity and creativity?
  • Will you get more work done in a study room at the library than at a coffee shop?

I can’t say whether or not those ideas will work for you. They certainly work for some people. So they might work for you.

And remember, you can’t trust your feelings about these ideas. The results of my little experiments are often the opposite of what I expect, as was the case with the calendar chain. The only way to truly know if something is right for you is to try it out.

So consider taking a somewhat scientific approach to your own life. If you think something might help, test it. If something works for other people, consider testing that too. And whatever happens, there are only two real outcomes that can come from little experiments: Either you win, or you learn.

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Calendar Chain

Two years ago, as a personal experiment, I printed a calendar: one page with three months on it. This was to be my “calendar chain” for meditation. And since September 4th, 2015, I have missed just seven days of meditation, and I have spent over 10,000 minutes meditating.*

The weird thing is, I thought the whole idea of a calendar chain was stupid. The concept sounded cheesy, lame, and unnecessary. I was sure it wasn’t for me, and I did not believe it would work.

But I was desperate.

My mind was, to put it mildly, a mess. I had trouble focusing, my emotions were volatile, and anxiety was ever present.

I knew that meditation could help. The research certainly made that clear, and I had tried it enough times to have tasted the benefits. But despite knowing that I should be meditating, I could only get myself to do it sporadically. I would set the intention of creating a regular, daily practice, but I couldn’t get the habit to stick. I would avoid it, make excuses, or simply forget.

In the meantime, I was also studying behavioral change. And one technique that kept coming up over and over again was the calendar chain.

The idea is to print out a calendar and set a daily minimum target for some new behavior – in my case, three minutes of breathing meditation. Then, for any day that you hit that minimum target, you put an X in the box on the calendar. If you start to build up a streak of several days in a row, you’ll see a chain of X’s on the calendar, and you won’t want to break the chain. In theory, this should encourage you be consistent about your new behavior, helping it become an ingrained habit.

I was stunned by how well it worked. I didn’t miss a single day until March 19th, 2016, over six months later. And remember, I thought the notion of a calendar chain was absurd. Luckily, some part of me was open to personal experimentation. I guess I figured that it couldn’t hurt to try. And I’m sure glad I did.

As the months went by, I increased my daily minimum from three minutes to five, and then from five minutes to seven, and then from seven minutes to ten. In July of 2016, I added a second type of meditation to my daily minimum and tracked that by using a green Sharpie to fill in the boxes.

The Benefits

Meditation is akin to exercising and eating vegetables: It’s a healthy thing to do, but you don’t see big benefits immediately. True, I felt that I generally had better days when I meditated in the mornings, but I didn’t notice any radical change for quite some time.

But I was changing, slowly and steadily. As I approached the one-year mark, I realized that my brain had improved dramatically. I was much better at focusing and staying present, I was far better at regulating my emotions and detaching from unhelpful thoughts, and the anxiety that had permeated my life for years was now mostly absent. I also noticed that I was more patient, I found it easier to make good choices, and I was happier with my life overall.

Now, two years into my meditation practice, it’s clear that brain is significantly stronger and healthier. I’m a much more resilient person, I have far greater control over myself, and I have a larger capacity for compassion.

Why it Worked

The topic of why meditation helps and how to do it will have to be saved for another day. For now, let’s explore why the calendar chain tool worked so well. Bear in mind that you could use it for any new behavior you’d like start, such as writing, exercising, or eating salads.

For starters, the calendar chain simply serves as a reminder. It sits on my desk, so I see it every day. That way, if I don’t meditate, then it wasn’t because I forgot; it was a choice. Legitimate forgetting is off the table, and convenient “forgetting” is also no longer an option: I can’t lie to myself and pretend I forgot.

The calendar chain also serves a concrete “implementation intention” because it is a pen-and-paper expression of my goal. You’re much more likely to achieve a goal if you write it down and set a specific target.

And lastly, it creates an opportunity to praise myself for engaging with the process of becoming better.  Every time I put an X in today’s box, I’m giving myself a little pat on the back for doing what I committed to doing. I know that when I meditate, I’m doing my future selves a favor, and it’s nice to have a record of all that self-kindness.

The calendar chain tool is a fantastic way to keep your eyes on the process and demonstrate to yourself that you’re living up to your chosen, process-based identity. It won’t make change easy, but it might make it less difficult. You’ll never know until you try.**


*Note: 10,000 minutes is just 1/60th of the way to 10,000 hours. I am not a meditation guru.

**To get yourself a calendar, type “printable calendar (and the three months you’d like)” into Google Images. For example, if you’re going to start a calendar chain this month, you would search for “printable calendar September October November 2017.” But don’t use the quotations in your search because that will limit the results.

Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. Text added.

Calendar Chain Pics: Loper, Chris.