Live Like a Mad Scientist: Self-Improvement Via Self-Experimentation

In the movies, the mad scientist toils in his lab, developing an experimental super-soldier serum.  Then when he thinks he has it right, impatient to put it to use, he injects himself with it.  And lo and behold, he becomes superhuman!

As a kid I always wanted to do that.  It turns out I can- minus the needles, experimental steroids, and insanity.  But running experiments on yourself- well that’s totally possible, and very very effective.

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 on 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, or which workouts make it easiest for you to fall asleep later that 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 record how rested you feel the next morning.

Finally, figure out which potential confounding variables need to be controlled for.  If testing breakfasts, you can’t have a diet coke an hour after breakfast some days but not others.  If testing workouts to help you sleep, you need to work out at the same time every day.    

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.

Experimental conditions: High-carb, low-carb, paleo, vegan, zone, 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 two hours before bed.  Yoga an hour before bed.  No screens (other than Kindle) 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.  Combinations of the above.  Again, you have a ton of options so you should probably spend a couple 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 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.  

Do protein bars give you more energy than protein shakes?  Does putting cinnamon on your food keep you full longer?  Are you happier when you play with your pet for fifteen minutes before going to work?  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 turning your life into 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 with them.