Don’t change your whole life–just run some experiments

In previous articles, I shared how to identify your values and how to make big decisions using those values to start crafting a happier life.

But what about the rest of the time?

Days are made up of many small decisions. Many of these decisions rush past us with little notice. We dress and brush our teeth while planning our day in our heads. We routinely obtain our daily dose of caffeine. We rush into the office cramming in some podcasts or reading. We scroll down the inbox looking for the next urgent task. We say yes to that meeting even though we’re not quite sure what will be discussed.

Sometimes these small decisions culminate into a trajectory of life that just feels kind of… off and make you feel like you want to change your whole life.

It’s not that anything is particularly wrong or bad. We’re just a bit busier than we’d like. A little heavier than we’d like. A little sadder than we’d like. A little less inspired than we’d like. We put off experimenting with a new project just another year longer.

And then we sit down in front of Netflix and Facebook at the end of the day and ‘numb out.’

Numbing out when life feels 'meh'

Numbing out when life feels ‘meh’ (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

Stop.

Did you know there’s a solution to this ‘offness’?

One that doesn’t require a crash diet, a career change, a new partner, moving cities or changing your whole life?

What’s the solution?

Small decisions and consistent behaviours quickly accumulate to define the overall picture of our lives. This is both how we end up in a place that feels a little ‘meh’, and how we fix it.

But there is so much content out there telling us what ‘small’ change we should make to optimise our lives and increase happiness.

  1. Should I start saying ‘no’ more?

  2. Do I need to meditate?

  3. Should I do gratitude journaling?

  4. Should I only check my emails twice a day?

  5. Should I implement mindfulness practices?

  6. Do I need to overhaul my morning routine?

  7. Can I squeeze an hour of learning into every day?

  8. Do I need to make more of my meetings emails instead?

  9. How do I even start to implement one of these ideas when life rushes on endlessly and maybe I should just quit my job and move countries to start over?

I could go on. But there is no one size fits all solution. So let me propose a very simple human-centred design approach to craft your day to feel a little bit more like yours–without needing to change your whole life.

1. Identify the pain points

Take out a sheet of paper (or, if you’re a nerd like me and have a whiteboard in your house, you can use that).

Map out the key parts of your life. You can use whatever system makes the most sense to you. Try creating a mind map of the key areas like job, home, hobbies, community, and so on. Try journey mapping a week in your life or even a year. Try writing out tasks or topics on post-it notes and then doing a bit of affinity mapping.

Next take out your trusty post-it notes, some loose paper or on the torn out pages of that journal you never started using back in January. Considering the key parts of your life, start writing out the pain points or frustrations you experience.

Line up each of your pain points. Select the top 4 or 5 to focus on in the next step. The rest you can put on the backlog for another day.

Identifying pain points

Reflect on what’s working and what isn’t (Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels)

2. Generate some potential solutions

Take a quick 5 minute break between steps 1 and 2. Take a brisk walk or go empty the dishwasher (or any other chore you’ve been avoiding today). This will give your brain a break from focusing and clear your head before you change modes.

Set a timer for 15 minutes. Start writing on some post-its or individual pieces of paper on ideas for small changes you can make that will impact these pain points.

It’s really important to keep good brainstorming rules in mind here:

  1. No idea, no matter how strange, is off the table

  2. No criticising or censoring the ideas while the timer is going

  3. Build on ideas that you’ve already added

  4. Go for quantity over quality

Once your 15 minutes are up, filter through your ideas using this quick process:

  1. Flip over or remove any ideas that are about quitting something. Due to our natural loss aversion, we are way worse at giving things up than we are at starting new things.

  2. Flip over or remove any idea that will add anything more than 15 minutes to your daily routine, half an hour to your week, or 2 hours to your monthly routine.

  3. Group together all remaining ideas that relate to solving the same problem. Keep an eye out for any ideas that might apply to one or two of the pain points at the same time.

  4. Pick the group belonging to your most pressing pain point, or an area you would most like to see a change. A good test for this is looking back at that big change you were contemplating. If you wanted to quit your job, grab the pile of ideas relating to your job. If you want to break up with your partner, grab the pile relating to that.

3. Experiment and iterate

Now this step is incredibly important. This is the difference between an article about shoehorning a new 5-step morning routine into your already busy day and introducing small incremental changes to slowly shift your trajectory.

Ideally you want at least two or three ideas that relate to the same pain point. You are actually going to try all of them. This is important because if human-centred design has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t assume we know what is best for the user without testing. Even if the user is us.

Next, create a very simple data gathering mechanism. You can use a section in the back of your planner (if you carry it with you everywhere). Or capture notes in your notetaking app on your phone.

Over the next week, try out each of your ideas at least three times. Each time, make notes in your datasheet. Depending on your experiment, you may want to capture what triggered you to test your suggestion, what time of day did you complete it, how did you feel before and after.

At the end of the week, open the notes for all three ideas and reflect. Did you notice any change in the pain point you were trying to address? Which of the ideas did you find it hardest to incorporate into your day or week? Were there any new habits you did more than the planned three times? Were there certain circumstances where it was easy to do something and others where it was harder?

Finally, analyse the data and iterate your ideas. Evaluate which idea you found easiest to implement. Which idea had the biggest impact on the pain point.

Next, make some tweaks to the ideas, drop anything that really isn’t working and experiment again. If you keep experimenting for three weeks that’s 21 days of working toward improving your life, with ideas that are increasingly personalised to you as a unique individual. Maybe you’ll even discover something new that will change your whole life.

An example

Let’s say one of your pain points with your job is spending time in pointless meetings (or at least meetings that are less important than the deep work you are putting off).

Three ideas you might experiment with are:

  1. Scheduling all meetings within a set window in your day such as only after lunch,

  2. Leaving meetings 5 minutes before their scheduled end time

  3. Responding to all requests for meetings with a request to reduce the time (e.g. “Could we make this a half-hour session instead of an hour?”)

It would be crazy to try and apply all three ideas to every meeting in your schedule for the next week. Instead, request for a shorter meeting with three meetings that come up with your direct reports. Find a day in your week with only one meeting outside of the window and reschedule that meeting then block out the morning. Leave your daily team check-in meeting 5 minutes earlier (or maybe just 2 if it’s a genuine 15 minute stand up) three days that week.

When you get back to your desk, flip open your notes app or planner. Make a note of the relief you feel when your 60-minute project kick-off is cut to a pithy 30 minutes. Write down the sense of empowerment when your team runs the meeting on their own and come to you with the solution for endorsement. Make a note of the sense of FOMO you felt when you left the team meeting 5 minutes earlier even though people were still talking. Make note of the additional items you ticked off your todo list on that quiet, meeting-less morning.

The following Saturday over your morning cuppa, review the experiments and pick which ones to continue with. As you start to get a sense of direction and control back in your workday, then it’s time to evaluate whether it is the right role for you or whether you decide to change your whole life.

#personaleffectiveness #productivity