More on the Experimental Mindset vs Change

The idea that change is a particularly difficult part of our lives keeps coming up for me of late. I did a brief post about the experimental mindset approach to My Year of TED, but I thought I should expand on that. This extended post is for those of you who might want to make ‘changes’ but can’t seem to convince yourself to do it. It’s a plea to reframe these changes to experimenting with your life.

How do you view change?

Many people view change as risky and difficult. We’ve all had habits we would like to make or break in our lives. Sometimes it’s hard to motivate ourselves to make those changes – if we are able to do it at all. There are many reasons why this might be the case, but I think one of them is the way we approach the topic in the first place.

Change is “to make or become different”. It seems like a daunting task, and is a lot of work without guaranteed outcomes. Who knows if the change you are making will give you the outcome you desire? What if the change causes problems or issues you hadn’t considered? What if you don’t like the change?

This is why My Year of TED was not about change. I had no expectation of the outcome; how doing these activities might impact my life. Of course, I knew this project would bring about change in my life. But there was no expectation of what that might be, or how it might look. And this is important because we tend to think of change as a binary process – an all or nothing game where we either succeed or fail.

Life isn’t like that, which is why experimentation is a better approach. Undertaking an iterative process of trying, adjusting and trying again.

Why experimenting is different

The concept for My Year of TED came from two great talks about playing around with your life (Matt Cutts’ Try something new for 30 days and A.J. Jacobs’ My Year of Living Biblically). For me, these talks focused on trying ideas and evaluating their impact. There is a distinct difference between this idea and wanting to make defined changes in your life. I think that difference alters everything.

An experiment is “a scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact”.  My Year of TED might not have been scientific, but there was definitely a basis of discovery. Experimenting is fun and exciting; you never know what the outcome might be. Change has a perceived outcome; a final destination that you set at the beginning and judge your progress against.

For me, the experimental mindset is an openness to try new things, without a fear of failure. As a shocking perfectionist, there is no way I could have embarked on My Year of TED without this mindset. Even though it was another subconscious decision about the structure. Okay, I might have mentally punished myself when I didn’t achieve the planned actions – my inability to meditate for example. But I didn’t define the ‘change’ or expected outcome for the activities, and I didn’t define outcomes because they didn’t exist.

The project was about ‘trying on’ the wisdom of TED Talks to discover what I could learn from them. It was a project in focus and understanding how this wisdom could potentially improve my life.

What this means for you

There are so many suggestions about habits and techniques that you can use to create a happier life for yourself these days – I even have a freebie for subscribers about reducing stress with five daily actions. They are often presented in prescriptive ‘do this thing’ ways, which essentially means ‘change your habits and how you are in the world.’ It’s difficult to take a habit from someone else, plonk it into your life and expect the same/desired outcome. We’re all a little too complex for that.

The world is full of great ideas. So many tips and tricks that might work well in your life. But I think it’s important to approach any potential changes as experimenting with your life.  Below is the five step process for how you might apply an experimental mindset:

  1. Consider the tip, advice, lifehack etc. that you want to apply to your life – what does it look like as a daily or weekly action?
  2. Define what you are going to do to experiment with that idea – including how you are going to evaluate it.
  3. Do that for 30 days – and on days that you forget, gently remind yourself that this is an area of focus for a short period.
  4. Evaluate the contribution of those actions in your life – what will you keep? what will you reject? what might you try again?
  5. Apply the lessons and start your next experiment.

We find it too easy to remember everything we do poorly, all the reasons we aren’t enough. Changing the habits of a lifetime is challenging enough – it’s even more challenging when we are judging our ability to do those things.

The experimental mindset is an essential component of being kind and compassionate to ourselves. Go in with no expectation of the outcomes and no concept of failure. You are simply trying ideas on the see how they might work in your life.

What experiment are you going to conduct for the next 30 days? Or is this a mindset that you already use in your life? I know how influential it’s been in my world, I’m sure that it can help you too.

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