Deliberate Experiments, Personal Finance, and Living a Better Life

I recently came across a great article at Medium by Michael Simmons entitled Forget The 10,000-Hour Rule; Edison, Bezos, & Zuckerberg Follow The 10,000-Experiment Rule. The article’s chief argument is that one of the most common traits of successful people is that they’re always experimenting and trying new ways of doing things to see if the results exceed what they’re currently doing, which is decidedly different than the heavy level of routine that most people apply to their daily choices.

It’s a great idea, well worth digging into, but let’s back up a bit.

Deliberate practice The initial premise of the article stems from a well-known claim by Malcolm Gladwell from his book Outliers that in order to achieve outstanding success in a particular area, one must devote ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to that area. In the book, Gladwell points to a lot of examples of this, with The Beatles’ absurd practice and performance schedule in the late 1950s through the early 1960s as they developed as a band being one particularly memorable example among many.

Deliberate practice, for those unaware, is a practical and systematic approach to practice, with the intent of being more mindful at building up the specific small skills that make up the larger skill you want to master.

For example, Benjamin Franklin used to apply deliberate practice to his writing by taking an article he respected, writing down the meaning of each sentence, rewriting the original article from the list of sentence meanings, and then comparing the original article to his new one. This process worked most of the skills one needs to be a writer and breaks them down into deliberate individual steps, but where the practice really hit home is when Franklin looked at each step in the process to identify where he was weakest in his writing process. Was it in the careful notes he took? Was it in his process of translating those notes into writing? Was it his vocabulary? His prose? What was good? More importantly, what wasn’t so good? Franklin used that to figure out where he really needed to bear down to improve his writing.

James Clear has a great beginner’s guide to deliberate practice if you want to learn more about it.

One might quickly see some practical applications in life for deliberate practice. You might use it to improve the skills you use at work, for example. It can also help you build up skills you rely on in daily life, such as cooking, and such skills can have a huge impact on your finances, because (for example) if you’re a good cook, it becomes easy and pleasurable to make meals at home which are far less expensive and just as good as restaurant meals.

Deliberate experiments Simmons’ article, however, focuses not on deliberate practice, but on deliberate experiments, which are a decidedly different thing.

Deliberate experimentation simply means that you’re constantly testing things in your life. You might test things at work, test things in your relationships, test things in your day to day living – anything.

The goal of such testing isn’t to constantly disrupt everything in your life. The goal instead is to constantly gather information about different approaches to things in your life, then evaluate which approach really is the best.

Unsurprisingly, for those who read The Simple Dollar, I am a serial deliberate experimenter. I am doing this kind of thing constantly to figure out how to improve my own life.

Deliberate experiments in the morning I’ll give you a concrete example, one that comes from my own life in the last few months or so. Lately, I have been toying with various elements of my waking routine to figure out which one produces the best results over the course of an average day. What can I do during that first hour of waking that produces the best results?

The way I’ve been testing it is by trying lots of different variations each day and then keeping track of how productive each day was and how I felt. Think of it as flipping a bunch of switches in the morning and then seeing how bright the “light” of my day is.

I’ve been varying my wakeup times on a range from 5 AM to 7 AM, as well as keeping track of when I went to bed.

I’ve been varying what I eat and drink when I get up. Do I immediately drink water? Do I immediately drink coffee? Tea? A mix of those beverages? Do I immediately eat something with a lot of protein in it? A lot of carbs in it?

I’ve been varying whether or not I meditate as early as possible, whether I do a short round of exercise, whether I stretch, and whether I do a morning review of my to-do list. The more of those things that I do, the less time I have to write before my children wake up and start the day, so that’s another thing to consider.

The thing is, as I’ve kept track of all of these variations – I’ve just been writing down my routine each morning and then evaluating my day and planning the next morning’s routine in the evening – I’ve really started to figure out some things that work for me and some things that don’t.

While I’m not quite done with everything I want to try yet, I’ve figured out a general framework that seems to produce the best days for me:
+ I wake up at about 5:30 AM – 5 is too early, and later than that seems to eat away at my routine somehow
+ I immediately pour a big glass of water and drink a bit of it, then stretch for about three minutes – touching my toes and so on.
+ I don’t exercise in the morning – I’ve learned that it makes me feel really tired and lethargic in the mid afternoon.
+ I’ll slowly finish off that glass of water while looking at my to-do list for the day.
+ I eat something small with some protein in it, like a hard boiled egg.
+ I meditate for ten minutes.
+ I then immediately start working until my children get up, mostly doing things that get me as “set up” as possible for being productive as soon as they leave for school.
+ I stop working when they get up (around 6:45, though if they’re not stirring by about 6:50 or 6:55, I stop working and wake them up myself).
+ When they leave (at about 7:30), I pour myself a cup of coffee and a cup of green tea and start working, sipping them both as I work for the first half hour or so.
+ I turn on some white noise in the background, and my work day has begun.

I arrived at that routine (which I’m still experimenting with) through many deliberate experiments and what I’ve found is that it produces amazing results in terms of the quantity and relative quality of work that I’m able to get done that day. My thoughts always start trailing off in the early afternoon, but I usually feel like I’ve managed to get a lot done and then I fill the next few hours with other tasks and I feel energized to do those, too. The deliberate experiments that led to this routine were well worth the time, because it’s led to a way to start each and every day that improves the day.

Deliberate experiments and money The thing is, you can apply deliberate experimentation to almost every aspect of your life. You just break the routine things you do down into little pieces, change up the pieces a little, and see if the results change for you.

This is particularly powerful when it comes to your spending choices. How we spend our money is an enormous space upon which we can conduct deliberate experiments to improve the effectiveness of all of the money we spend.

Here are ten such experiments, right off the top of my head.

+ Is this store brand garbage bag / toilet paper / any other household product as good as the name brand I’m already using for a lower price?
+ Is life worse enough if I don’t watch any cable or satellite for a month to make it worth the cost of cancelling it?

+ Is there a way to make dry rice / dry beans / other cheap staple ingredient into dishes I really like at home?

+ Does super-inexpensive homemade laundry soap get my clothes clean enough to be worth the small amount of effort to make it?

+ Can you find enough engaging things to do to make a money free weekend / money free week an enjoyable experience?

+ Do I save time by making a meal plan, writing a grocery list from that plan, and then going to the grocery store (which saves a lot of money) versus just going directly to the store?

+ Do I get more value (time and money invested) by spending a Sunday preparing meals in advance and freezing them as compared to preparing individual meals as I go?

+ Is there any negative impact from washing my jeans every other time I wear them if they’re not visibly dirty? Every third time? They last longer that way.

+ Do I get enough financial return to make it worth the time to do a first pass through Craigslist or a secondhand store when shopping for something? Try it both ways.

+ Can I make things work without using my car for a week? If you can, it might be worthwhile to ditch the car and rely on other forms of transportation, saving a lot of money.

You can also try such experiments in related areas, such as earning more money, applying for jobs, and being more productive at your work. Here are ten such experiments to try.

+ What strategy works best at a job interview? Intense seriousness? A casual approach? Treat each interview as an experiment to see what works best for you.

+ Are you better able to focus at work or studying if you meditate for ten minutes at the start of it? Try some sessions with it and without it.

+ Are you better able to focus at work if you drink coffee or tea or water while working? Try some sessions with each beverage option.

+ Do you get better rest if you turn off your phone an hour before bed and let it charge in another room?

+ Does a ten minute walk every hour or two improve the quality and quantity of your work when you’re working on a big task?

+ Do you feel better if you exercise first thing in the morning or after a day of work?

+ Do you feel better if you sleep in until the last minute and go to bed late, or go to bed earlier and wake up earlier?

+ How does your work change if you literally turn off email and notifications for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon to focus on deeper work?

+ Do you find yourself more mentally prepared in the morning if you spend your commute listening to a thoughtful podcast or audiobook? Music? What puts you in the best mindset?

+ Do you find yourself having a better week if you spend an hour each weekend doing a weekly review and also planning ahead for the next week?

All of these things can be done experimentally. How can you really get value out of it, though?

Executing deliberate experiments Let’s say one or two of those experiments sounds interesting to you. You think there’s a chance that one of them might lead to a better average day or better financial outcomes and you want to give it a try. What do you do?

The first thing you’ll want to do is define what you’re doing now versus what you want to try changing. For example, let’s say that right now you never turn off your email, notifications, or web browser when you’re working, and you want to see if a disturbance-free hour of deep work each day at work produces better results for you. In that case, you have two different scenarios to evaluate: a day with an hour of deep work and a day without an hour of deep work. You may also want to experiment with a few variations on that hour of deep work – maybe it’s the first thing you do when you get to work, the last hour before lunch, or the second hour when you’re at work. Choose a few variations.

Then, set up an experiment. Over the course of a month or two, vary which of those options you choose on a given day. Maybe for one week you simply don’t use a “deep work hour.” The next week, you use an early morning “deep work hour.” The next week, it’s a late morning hour. The next week, maybe it’s a mid afternoon hour.

At the end of each day, take note of how productive the day seemed. Was today a pretty productive day? Try to grade it on a scale of one to ten, or use any metrics you have that measure your productivity.

At the end of the week, assess your week as a whole. Was this week a pretty good week? Jot down an assessment of the whole week, and try to give it a score on a scale of one to ten, too.

Repeat that week and that measuring system for each variation you want to try. In fact, you might want to repeat each of the weeks a few times, just to iron out any variations. After all, the more data you have, the better.

Then, at the end of your experiment, sit down with all of your notes and see which type of day resulted in the most productivity. Which one has the best average daily scores? Weekly scores? Is there one that stands out above the rest (I’m willing to bet that there will be)?

If you have a clear winner, then adopt that as your new “normal” work pattern. Spend some time hammering that into place so that it becomes the new normal. Maybe, each day from ten to eleven, you have an hour of “deep work.”

You might then want to start a follow up experiment – is an additional hour in the afternoon helpful? What about a two hour block from ten to noon? Start testing that one.

The goal here is to keep questioning how you do things and pay attention to the results. Design little experiments, run them several times, keep careful track of the outcomes, and see what the results look like as a whole after running these experiments several times.

For example, maybe you’ll start doing blind tests of store brand products versus name brand products. Fill up two blank bottles of shampoo, one with store brand and one with name brand, and then see if you can figure out if there’s actually a real difference for you. If not, then the store brand makes more sense because it’s cheaper.

Maybe you’ll try five different ways of preparing dry rice at home, just to see if you can find some rice dishes that you like. Try different methods of cooking it and different seasonings and keep track of whether you liked them or not. If you find a few you like, you’ve suddenly got a very cheap staple that you can add to your routine that reduces the cost of meals.

It goes on and on and on like this.

Personally, I generally have several such experiments running all the time in my life. I’m always trying new things, reflecting on whether they’re really better, and sticking with the option that seems to be the best. Sometimes, I find that no change at all is the best option. At other times, I’m completely surprised to find that a new approach really does work better for me.

Never stop experimenting, because experiments where you keep track of results and then, when you have a lot of results, make lasting choices based on the best results almost always lead to a better overall life. You can save tons of money. You can save a lot of time. You can have better work results in less time.

It all comes back to deliberate life experiments. I consider deliberate life experiments to be an invaluable tool in getting the most value out of your money, time, and energy, and that simply leads to a better all around life.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.