Welcome to the IdeaMatt blog!

My rebooted blog on tech, creative ideas, digital citizenship, and life as an experiment.


Micro Experiments

getting a measure

[Cross-posted to Quantified Self]

What's the smallest thing you've tracked that had a short turnaround time but generated useful results? I've noticed that the kinds things we try in the Quantified Self community are often longer-term experiments that seem to be a week or two long at a minimum. I think this is primarily due to the effects of what we try need time to emerge. (This brings up the issue of how much value there is in investigating subtle results, which came up at our recent Boston QS Meetup - recap here.)

However, as I work to adopt an experimental mindset about life, I've noticed these efforts can vary in scope, duration, and complexity. Because interesting things happen at extremes, I've been exploring the very smallest class of activity, what I call micro experiments. I've found that trying little things like these is a great way to test-drive treating things as experiments, and maybe offer the chance for non-QS'ers to dip their toes in the idea of tracking on a tiny scale. (Of course you shouldn't risk shortening your life over any.) Researching the idea didn't turn up much, though Micro-Experiments and Evolution was stimulating.

Here are some examples I've tried and their results. Are they true experiments? Are they useful? I'm curious to know what you think.

Jing: I tried using Jing, a free tool for doing short screencasts, to explain a bug I found in my site. I usually write them up, but because it was complex, it would have taken a lot to explain it. Instead I created a four-minute screencast, emailed the link to my developer, and measured the results. Conclusion: Worked great! Time to record: 4 minutes. His understanding of the problem: High. Enjoyment level of trying a new tool: Fun.

Testing expectations: Left unchecked, I tend to be pessimistic and anxious, which I continue working to improve. Here's a technique I stumbled on that works well in micro experiment form. The idea is to treat your expectations as a model, make your assumptions and predictions explicit, then put them to the test. I applied it to two difficult phone calls I had scheduled, and found that my expectations were way off. In one case I was asking a fellow writer for a favor (mentioning an ebook I created), and instead of turning me down (my working model), he was happy to help. The other was a sales call in my last career to a prospective client, which I expected to go swimmingly. Instead it was a disaster! After analyzing what happened and comparing it to my model, I formed a couple of new ideas on how to do future ones. Surprisingly, the minute I thought of these as an experiments and wrote down my expectations, I felt immediate relief before the calls.

Pay for someone's parking: As a touchy-feely micro experiment, I was standing in line to pay for parking at a garage, and on a lark I decided to pay the next person's fee (it's almost always $0.50). I didn't know how they'd react (find it odd and refuse, for example), but the result: Evident happiness level of subject: High (I got a nice smile). My feeling: Walked away with a lighter step.

Disabling email: I continue to struggle keeping email from sucking my time and attention, so I tried disabling my email program for a day. This email vacation was helpful, but surprisingly uncomfortable. Not being able to monitor it clearly indicated a bit of an addiction. I didn't end up adopting it.

Decisions and glue: I sometimes stress about getting something new perfect the first time. Yes it's unrealistic, but that's the brain I'm stuck with. Treating the decision as a micro experiment helps me enjoy things more. For example, I had to repair two broken lawn chairs at home, and couldn't decide which of two glues to try. Then I realized this was a natural parallel type of experiment, and tried them both, one per chair. Result: Gorilla glue worked far better than the GOOP. Trivial? Maybe, but next time I don't have to wonder.

Not eating before exercise: Eating breakfast is commonly considered important, so I wondered what would happen if I skipped eating all morning then mountain biking at 1pm for an hour. Result: My performance was just fine, but I was hungry afterwards! Now I don't worry so much if I'm pressed for time.

Getting a bank fee waived: My wife needed a document notarized, so I brought her to the mega-bank where I was forced to do business for a time. The teller said she couldn't do notarize it because my wife wasn't listed on my account. In a bold (for me) move I did a social experiment by asking for the manager, who ended up OK'ing it, no problem. I was a little embarrassed until I thought of it experimentally.

Chocolate skin, cranberry sauce: There are lots of ways to experiment in the kitchen; here are two micro experiments I tried. First, I drink hot chocolate every morning (melt the expensive dark stuff into milk) and it sometimes develops a skin on top. (Hey - I discovered pudding!) To avoid that, I tried putting the heat on high and stirring constantly, instead of my usual medium heat with less stirring. The question was whether heat/time would affect skin forming. Result: ~50% reduction. As a second example, we had some leftover cranberries (I live in New England) and I wanted to make a sauce, but I was too lazy to follow a time-consuming recipe. Instead I microwaved a handful of them in a bowl with a little orange juice and honey. Result: An explosion of flavor. (Literally - it blew up while cooking.) Edibility was marginal.


Famous Examples of Self-Experimentation [Guest Post]

Toledo Scale

Continuing my guest post experiment, here's one by Louise Baker who writes at Zen College Life. Feel free to propose one of your own. Thanks to Louise. -- matt

Lab rats aren't always the chosen subjects for scientific experiments. Throughout the history of the field, scientists and physicians have been putting their own health and well-being on the line in an attempt to better understand the human body. Some of them were simply trying to better understand the body better; others were actually trying to prove their own theories correct. While they were not all successful, their contributions have led to a greater understanding of our bodies.

The Weighing Chair

In the 1600's, Sanctorius wanted to study metabolism. He weighed himself, as well as everything he ate, drank, and eliminated; every day for 30 years. More than simply weighing himself, he literally lived on the scales. His efforts paid off with a better understanding of perspiration.


Albert Hofmann, the man who gave us LSD, was the first person to experience an "acid trip." It happened while riding his bike home after accidentally ingesting some of his creation. He intentionally took the drug again and then went on another bike ride to determine if the trip was accidental, or a direct result of the drug.


Donald Unger wanted to prove that cracking your knuckles did not contribute to the development of arthritis. He spent fifty years cracking only the knuckles on his left hand to make his point. He proudly displayed his hands when he was awarded the Ig Nobel Award in Medicine. His hands are both healthy, with no arthritis. He also pointed out to his mother that she was wrong.

Self-Mutilation for Science

Patients with nerve damage can have trouble expressing how or what they are feeling. Dr. Henry Head wanted to study the effects, and was frustrated by this simple fact. His solution was to slice open his arm and sever some nerves himself. He was very specific, and had another doctor help him. He initially lost all sensation on the arm, but less than 3 months later had almost all the sensation back.

Staring at the Sun

Sir Isaac Newton started at the sun for so long that a black mark developed on the back of his eyelids. He was 22 years old and stared at the sun through a mirror. He wanted to study those after-images that this kind of exposure leaves on your retinas. He nearly blinded himself.

The Cause of Ulcers

Wanting to prove that the microbe Helicobacter pylori would cause ulcers, physician Barry James Marshall drank a Petri dish full of the bacteria. As a result of his research, thousands of ulcer patients have been treated and ultimately cured with antibiotics instead of taking lifelong courses of acid suppressants.

Scientists that are truly dedicated are often willing to experiment on themselves in order to more accurately collect data and test theories. The potential benefit to the medical field is great. However, they still should take care not to permanently injure or blind themselves in the name of science.


Productivity Group Experiment: The 96 Minute Rule

96th Street subway, uptown side, Oct 2009 - 15

If you're interested in ways to get more productive, check out Chris Crouch's new group experiment, The 96 Minute Rule. I mentined the idea of breaking your time down into chunks in The best "chunking" time block - 96 Minutes? Here's the idea, from the experiment instructions:

Since the 80/20 rule states that we typically get 80% of our results from 20% of our efforts, it is a good idea to totally focus on important tasks for at least 20% of your workday (480 minutes x 20% = 96 minutes). This experiment is designed to lend structure and create a framework for implementing this theoretical idea.

Anyone want to give it a shot?


"lots of time you don't know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn't interest you most"

"But what I mean is, lots of time you don't know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn't interest you most. I mean you can't help it sometimes."

Quill From Writing habits of the the best writers | Psychology Today.

Question: Have you had this happen to you? What was the result?


Are you a worrywort? Make some experiments and get a free book!

I'm playing with different ways to get people excited about personal experimenting, and I found this book on my shelf: The Worrywart's Companion: Twenty-One Ways to Soothe Yourself and Worry Smart. I talked about it in my post Handling worries: keep a list, schedule them, and have a worry place, and I'm asking for a volunteer to help others by creating some group experiments for the ideas in the book. Experiments are pretty easy to create, and I want to have a batch of onging ones for people to get started in Edison with. For example, people might try this for two weeks:

  • keep a worry list,
  • schedule worry time, and
  • have a worry place

We can get creative on what to measure (what would you suggest?) Anyone up for it?

Page 1 ... 3 4 5 6 7 ... 89 Next 5 Entries »