These experiments will reveal the truth about when you’re most productive

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Know thyself. Trust your gut. To thine own self be true.

These are likely phrases you’ve heard before. You’ve probably seen them on motivational posters, usually with a picture of a lone figure on a mountaintop contemplating customer acquisition strategies and also the enlightened path of the Buddha.

I’ll start by saying that I really dig motivational posters of lone figures on mountaintops. But these phrases can be so incredibly dangerous, especially to a freelancer or entrepreneur. So, here are five things you might want to think about instead.

Dear guinea pig

Schools and most jobs train us to be the product of a recipe. Take ingredients, put them together in a specific, agreed upon recipe, and output the desired result. In many businesses, this seems to make a lot of sense.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

But there is one huge problem with this unified theory of production; every person, and therefore every ingredient, is unique.

As such, what works for one person, in one company, in one scenario, may not work for someone else. So instead of thinking of your life like a recipe, work or otherwise, try to think about it like one giant experiment.

When you’re experimenting, the idea is to try to see what effect various inputs have on the overall output.

What does adding this chemical to this chemical do? And what if you then heat it up? And then let it cool?

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The process of scientific experiment is one of the most creative processes on the planet and we would do well to consider it as such. You are one big experiment. So what impact should that have on the way we do things?

Well, when we think about the way we run experiments what do we think about? We think about controlling variables. We think about introducing stimuli. We think about monitoring the results. And then we think about one other crucially important thing, but we’ll get to that later.

Pay attention to details

The first thing that you have to do when you’re setting up an experiment is to set some controls. And when you’re experimenting with your life, it’s no different.

If you want to know if you can write better at your desk or at a coffee shop, you need to control the other variables.

Do you listen to music? Do you drink coffee? When do you write? What are you writing?

When I first started experimenting with my life, I was writing my second book, my first piece of non-fiction. I wanted to know when I did my best writing. So if I was going to allow the variable to be “what time am I writing” then I had to control the other variables. I had to make sure that I was writing the same basic content.

I can’t write a blog at 7pm and a book at 9pm and then compare those things. Those are apples and oranges.

When you’re trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, you need to control some variables. This is not a spontaneous process. Scientists don’t just run into a field with some knowledge and a dream. They make a plan.

Let’s mix it up

I’m sick and tired of hearing people tell me how great something is when they’ve never tried anything else.

I LOVE ice cream. Love. Oh my god. It’s the best.

Now, if I had only eaten vanilla ice cream in my entire life I’d still feel pretty happy about ice cream. I’d probably tell people that vanilla ice cream was the greatest thing in the world.

But have you ever had Dulce de Leche?

Loosely translated it means milk candy, and it tastes exactly like it sounds. Two years ago I would have told you that pralines and cream ice cream was the greatest thing in the world. So what changed?

I tried something new.

But so many of us never…try…anything…new.

We tell people that we work best at night. We’re night owls. It’s when we’re focused and we do our best work.

Sure. But there’s also a good chance that we’re full of shit. Why do I say that? Because that was me.

I told everyone that I did my best work at night because that’s when it was easiest for me to work. I didn’t have to find people to watch my children. I didn’t have to rework my schedule. I could just wait until the kids went to bed and then I would do work. Since it was when I worked, I told myself it was when I did my BEST work.

Until you’ve tried something different (and really tried) then you have absolutely no place making statements about what’s good and what’s bad, or what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t say that you’re a night owl, because that happens to be when you work.

Don’t say that you’re good at multitasking, because you’re not good at focusing.

Don’t say that you don’t need a to-do list, because you’re too lazy to make one.

Introduce the stimuli.

Google analytics for your life

You know how when a scientist runs an experiment they just sort of casually observe things and then guess what they think actually happened? No, of course not. That’s not how experiments work.

For an experiment to have any value whatsoever, we absolutely have to measure the results. It is irresponsible to do otherwise. And if we’re treating our life like an experiment, we absolutely have to measure the results.

Sometimes those measurements are hard to manage.

Does changing when you go to bed and when you get up make you feel happier? Well, you need to measure it.

You’ll be tempted to think anecdotally about this. You’ll be tempted to say, “I went to bed, but I wasn’t any happier,” because you happened to have a bad day or because you happened to think about whether or not you were happy when you weren’t particularly happy.

So how can you change that?

In the beginning we talked about controlling variables. Embrace that.

Set your phone to ask you every day at 8am and 8pm whether or not you are happy. Set a scale, but don’t make it too intricate.

Maybe it’s 1-5, or maybe 1-10, or maybe it’s cumulative? Are you happier today than yesterday?

Decide when and how you will measure what you’re going to measure. And then measure it.

When I was writing my last book, I said that I changed WHEN I was writing. I wrote in the same place, on the same topic. But I wrote from 8pm to 11pm and I measured on an hour-by-hour basis.

What I noticed as a clear trend was that each hour there was a drop in productivity of at least 50%. And when I worked passed those hours, I noticed that it dipped so low as to be almost non-existent.

If you want to know if the changes in input are changing the output, you have to measure it.

A complete waste of time

If you go through all of this work of controlling the variables, and introducing stimuli and measuring the results and you don’t do anything with that data, I openly weep for you. But, know that you’re not alone.

It is a trend I see across so many platforms.

People run Google Analytics on their website and do nothing with the data.

People attach sleep monitors to themselves and then look at the pretty graph the data creates and don’t do anything with it.

We are surrounded by data all day long and yet we so rarely use it for anything.

So what did I do when I found out that after 10pm, I sucked at writing? I stopped writing after 10pm. I used that time to read, to watch, to listen and (sometimes) to sleep.

Now it’s your turn. Create an experiment in your life, measure the results, and follow through with changes based on your findings. Comment below with your experiment, I’d love to hear it. 

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About Mike Tanner

Mike Tanner is a writer, consultant and community builder in Halifax, NS. He has written for publications such as Yummy Mummy Club, Hustle & Grind and CBC while building his digital agency, OneRedCat, over the past 5 years. He is also a full-time stay at home father of two and a director with Podcamp Halifax. When he’s not writing, building or breaking up toddler fights, he’s typically controlling a Level 11 Ronin in Dungeons & Dragons, trying to figure out how to do yoga or playing/designing board games.

Mike is currently finishing up his first non-fiction book, a guide to productivity titled, Really Little Wins. It should be available in late 2017.

Also, make sure to check out Mike’s weekly podcast, Riding In Cars with Cats, where he talks all things entrepreneurship.

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Comments

  1. Great article Mike! Never thought about it this way before – I’m not exactly scientifically inclined I must say.

    I always thought I had to have complete silence before when trying to write blog posts, but while watching TV I decided to jump on my laptop because I felt like being productive. I found it was actually quite easy to write! I’d tune out to the show to concentrate, but when I got stuck I’d watch a couple of minutes and then refocus. It was nice to have a little bit of a break but still continue writing efficiently!

    • Thanks Sasha. Glad you enjoyed. I think the biggest takeaway is that as humans were pretty poor judges of what we’re good at and these experiments can help with that.

  2. Great article Mike! The potential gains from running a few of these experiments and optimising time are immense. Thanks

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