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Gilbert microscope

I love the idea using the power of observation to better myself, and I've found that micro-experiments offer a simple, fast, and non-judgmental way to do so. I've collected and tested a handful of them, which I'll share here.

What I mean by micro-experiments:

  • Small: Low overhead in starting up.
  • Fast: Get results quickly.
  • Crucial: Tell us the most amount of information (i.e., at the frontier of our knowledge) with the least amount of effort.

This approach is informed by our nascent Think, Try, Learn effort, which treats everything in your life as an experiment. With, in this case, the application being intellectual performance. However, unlike other posts like these, I'm not claiming they work. Instead I'm suggesting as your fellow scientist-of-life that they could be useful experiments for personal/productive development. Like anything, take assertions with skepticism.

These are non-judgmental by way of using simple record-keeping not to bludgeon your self with guilt, but to simply provide information. I'm repeatedly surprised by how simply and effectively our minds translate this data into improvements. In this I've no doubt been highly influenced by Robert Maurer's One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.

Following is a list of some I've thought about, a few you've seen before, and hopefully some new ones. If one of these resonates, let me offer a challenge: Try one for 5 or 10 days and report back, either here as a comment, or directly to me.

Good luck!

Sidebar: Some of this clicked while watching IDEO's Tom Kelley: Young at Heart: How to Be an Innovator for Life. Why did the connections happen watching this lecture? I don't know, and this particular case doesn't matter. However, there's a recipe here that does matter: 1) Adopt personal systems to loosen up/lubricate your mind, 2) watch stuff that makes you think, 3) watch the magic happen, and 4) capture it. Facilitating this is why I teach this work.

A big thanks to Susie deVille Schiffli over at InnovationCompass for the pointer. She's a great marketing resource to have on your side.

Questions for you

  • What other micro-experiments have you discovered?
  • Which micro-experiments have you tried, and what were the results?
  • What efforts don't lend themselves to this approach?
  • How would you apply this to an media diet?
  • Any surprises after doing these?

Table of Experiments

Repeated Work

Stimulated while reading Cut to the Chase: and 99 Other Rules to Liberate Yourself and Gain Back the Gift of Time (and the rule To speed up, slow down in particular), I thought to keep a "repeated work" log. Save your to-do lists (i.e., GTD's Actions list) for a few weeks, then analyze for anything that looks like a redo that you could automate.

Inbox Quality

Over a week or so record for each incoming (email, paper, vmail) whether it relates directly to one of your life goals/objectives. Use a table with two columns, "+" and "-", and fill it with hash marks during the week. For example, if in one sitting you process 10 messages out of your inbox, and 6 relate to goals, make six marks in the "+" column and four in the "-" one. At the end, analyze both the incoming volume during the week (total "+" and "-") and the number of "-". Then start culling.

RSS Information Audit

In the spirit of my post Information Provenance - The Missing Link Between Attention, RSS Feeds, And Value-based Filtering, here's a simple way to analyze the utility of information you've invited into your life. (This assumes that your RSS chops are up-to-speed - see Afraid To Click? How To Efficiently Process Your RSS Feeds.)

  1. Select the feed(s) to track.
  2. For an approprite time (e.g., two weeks) scan the feed(s) daily and record those that were "hits," i.e., that passed the "Useful Information" test: Did it change the way you think or behave? (Thanks to Dan Markovitz for the genessis of this measure.) To track it just keep a list of feeds, and use tally marks each time a post was useful. Alternatively, if you have idea capture system then use its search or reporting features to track this. (I use a simply-structured text file, but anything will do, such as Evernote or OneNote. If you have a favorite tool, please let me know.)
  3. When done, analyze for value, with the threshold of your choice. Your intuition will tell you, and yes, slimming down will be difficult. Just remember, you'll likely encounter anything important again in the future via different ways. Then again, maybe not!

(Note: I'm using "Information Audit" differently from that of libraries. Do you have a better term? See Conducting an Information Audit for the more traditional definition.)

Time Log

This traditional micro-experiment tracks the class of task you're working on at regular intervals, e.g., every 15 minutes. The overhead of performing this is high (you're interrupting yourself after all, but it can be valuable. Analyzing the result of how you spend your time can lead to insights, with opportunities to eliminate waste and improve discipline. For more check out Tips For Tracking And Analyzing Your Time Use.


The 25 Best Time Management Tools & Techniques: How to Get More Done Without Driving Yourself Crazy describes the value of keeping track of tasks you procrastinate on, which you can examine to discern possible causes (and there are many). The author suggests performing the experiment for one week. Record both the activities you postpone and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them, then look for patterns and causes.

Action Input/Output

For one week or so, count daily how many to-dos/actions you create, and how many you check off. Tracking is simple - just use hashes in your calendar, or keep a daily list. Use The Productivity I/O Sweet Spot to evaluate. How do they balance?


In Take Back Your Time: How to Regain Control of Work, Information, and Technology, Jan Jasper suggests keeping an Interruption Log. Simply record who interrupted you, when it happened, the topic, and how long it lasted. Do it for one week, then study and analyze to find preventable ones. Decrease by using and teaching others better communication tools, or by delegating.

Five-Minute-Only Actions

This is a slightly radical one I dreamed up. If you're really stuck in general (i.e., across all your work), try breaking every task/action into five minute chunks. When starting each one just tell yourself you'll only work for five minutes, and stick with it for at least that long. If you really get into it, keep the fire burning and extend as long as you flow. Try this for a week to see if your motivation or progress change. This is a mind hack to overcome the mind's resistance to apparently threatening tasks. It's also an extreme example of chunking down tasks.


Here's a very common "success strategy" from decades ago. As described in a Time Tactics of Very Successful People, write your personal and professional goals on a 3x5 card and review them aloud at least twice a day. Make sure they're "SMART" (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely - more here), and treat the exercise with a patient, relaxed, and confident attitude. What do you think? Too woo-woo?

60,000 Thought Test

Finally, another radical one that struck me - keep track of the number of internal (i.e., mental) interruptions you encounter during one day. You've probably heard the common notion that we have 60,000 thoughts/day, but testing that requires a lab, a canvas sack of No-Doze, and 15 circus ponies, but here are two ways to play with this:

Distractions/task: Use tally marks to record every time you're pulled away from the task at hand. Start over for each new task. How many did you come up with? During a one-hour conversation I had well over a dozen, some of which I gave into before I caught myself. (Can anyone say "email?")

Constant brain dump: Similar to above, The Secret Pulse of Time suggests "When an unrelated idea crosses your mind write it down, then return to the original task without wasting any further thought on it. The next time you take a break, you will have time to consider that spur of the moment of thought." The author calls this a kind of self control training that capitalizes on the plasticity of the brain, and enhances executive function.

Reader Comments (8)


Fantastic post.

I'm one of those people who tend to break down projects into very small chunks of work. I take on multiple projects that span a few months time, but work on each one in bite-sized tasks per day. I know a lot of systems propose "just get it done," but this approach suits my creative disposition.

I also think that many of the above experiments can be incorporated as part of time logging, depending upon the format used.

February 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChris Cairns

Thanks for your comment, Chris. I agree re: apparently easy-to-execute ideas like "just get it done." Sometimes we need more than that, as you've done with *really* breaking it down.

> above experiments [as] time logging

Nice. Maybe part of a comprehensive work evaluation/audit... New product?

P.S. I liked your Smartlife article [ 25 Marketing Tasks & Projects You Can Outsource | http://smartlifeblog.com/25-marketing-tasks-and-projects-you-can-outsource/ ], in particular #6 (Finding Media Contacts) and #18 (Creating Expertise) via [ Help A Reporter Out | http://www.helpareporter.com/ ]. Also, heck-of-a [ resume | http://www.linkedin.com/in/chriscairns ], Chris.

February 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I love the idea of the micro experiments. One comment I'd add is: make sure the experiments are objective rather than subjective. Base the feedback on objective measures (something someone else could measure too and come up with the same number too). Subjective measures (eg how did I feel about that?) are useful sometimes, but also distorted by external factors.

Success is important - measure it well!

February 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBenjamin

You've given me a new idea for a post -- X Personal Productivity Consultants. After perusing your posts, I can see the benefit in hiring some like yourself who can apply a variety of productivity methods, tools, and techniques tailored to people's unique work, cognitive, and behavioral attributes, as opposed to a "one size fits all" system. The TAILORING is absolutely key in my opinion.

February 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChris Cairns

Nice approach.

It is surely useful if you want to TEST something. But this requires that some infrastructure or foundation is already present.

For bigger things that require lots of effort, like starting a business, or creating a product, it will probably fail. I think one month of focused effort will get you further than 365 days of one hour per work each day.

February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDanGTD

Objective vs. subjective

Excellent point. This goes to metrics, which I made a stab at addressing in [ How Do You Measure Personal Productivity? | http://matthewcornell.org/2008/04/how-do-you-measure-personal-productivity.html ]

Success is important - measure it well!

Nice phrase! I'm stealing it :-) Thanks for reading, Benjamin.

February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I can see the benefit in hiring some like yourself who can apply a variety of productivity methods, tools, and techniques tailored to people's unique work, cognitive, and behavioral attributes

Thanks! I'm always delighted to get referrals, Chris.

February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hi Dan,

> It is surely useful if you want to TEST something. But this requires that some infrastructure or foundation is already present.

Absolutely. These are more like diagnostic tools for already-running personal systems.

> For bigger things fail. I think one month of focused effort will get you further than 365 days of one hour per work each day.

Hmmm. I think they're different. One month of focused effort is just that - a focus on certain priorities or projects. How you *accomplish* them is still at the hour-by-hour level.

Thanks for the stimulating comment.

February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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