Designing a safe experiment

Consider this quotation 


It is the big choices we make
that set our direction.
It is the smallest choices we make
that get us to the destination.”

— Shad Helmstetter

….. for more on this writer, take a look at:

…. where you will find some useful information about small, safe experiments called affirmations!

If you wish, you can listen to my comments on designing and implementing small, safe experiments, or nudges at:

…. this podcast is based on the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

My website focuses a lot of energy on the nudge as a small safe experiment

Recently, I was asked if small, safe experiments are a planned test or do I just wait for them? A most helpful question.

Each approach can help and present a different way to do a small safe experiment. There are few rights and wrongs here – unlike in scientific experimentation.

These very different approaches to the small safe experiment will have strengths and limitations.

  • Thinking it out means you will be watchful and organised;
  • just waiting to see what crops up is spontaneous and it is more likely to arise if you are curious in your own, everyday life.
  • just waiting to see assumes we do see, yet – sometimes – opportunities simply pass me by,  unnoticed.
  • thinking it out is more likely to help you record important data as it is a problem when I miss evidence in front of me.

The way of doing something different is rather less important than YOU do it in the first place. Milton Erikson makes the point better than I do; take a look at the quotation at the head of this page.

The key is to finding out what works for you, that is, to look out for the MY-NUAL way;  YOUR way.

The Illustrated Guide to designing experiments is another path that may lead you to YOUR way.

What’s involved in the design of such experiments? The aim is for you to do something just a little bit different, but systematically – and your way. It has to be different otherwise we simply do more of the same. One definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting things to be different.

At the same time, doing a large experiment makes it difficult to know what made the important change. Large experiments make it difficult to be systematic. In that situation it is not always possible to ask the question: what do I do next? It is not so obvious what to build on.

There are several other obstacles to designing small, safe experiments – to name just a few – a preoccupation with actions, political inequalities, high emotion and ingrained negative thinking,

All these features distract me from my ‘scenic path’ and rush me to the extreme responses having stepped outside my Window of Tolerance (WOT).

Experiments really have to end up with a ‘result’ that works for you and it’s better that any result is clear to you. Writing something down, however briefly, may be important.  That result will be either a ‘small victory’ – it is something you value and feel good about. The other feasible result is a ‘small defeat’ and you may be tempted to avoid them. Please do not avoid them; I reckon I learn more from my small defeats than I do my small victories. Why? Because I can ask myself: what can I do next time that is just a little bit different? That question promotes curiosity and – in my experience – curiosity is the one quality that really helps in therapy.

By the way, the only other result I can foresee is neither one thing or another; often a kind of confusion. Just let me know when that is the result you get.

Please keep in mind that the small defeat makes it is easier to try something else that is a little bit more different next time. A possibility to find your way back, or to somewhere else.

So the small safe experiment is one that enables me to just notice a difference in my life. The result can be visible enough to build on a little bit more. That experiment can be digested and does not take me too far into the ‘new normal’ as seen on my inverted tree.  Anything more ambitious and I might learn to tight-rope across the Grand Canyon only to discover I have ended up in the wrong place, if on the right side!

With small, just noticeable differences, recording can be an important part of the experiment. This is tricky; not everyone likes putting pen-to-paper and even diary-writers need to know what to record. That’s why developing your own MY-NUAL might be helpful.

Some folk have asked me whether there is a systematic way of collecting information to prepare for all this. Well, as you might imagine, there are many alternatives even on this web site and your researches may come up with a few.

However, here is a simple set of questions to ask yourself as you start to plan:

  1. What do you want to change? this is the most general and, if needs be, most vague idea about your wishes for your future. The Road Map experiment may well help here – it’s toward to end of this page-link.
  2. How might you get want you want? This is a brain-storming exercise to finish the question raised here. This means just write everything and anything down on a bit of paper as it comes out of you head! Only when you’ve exhausted everything possible – however zany – you can then sift through the material to see if some particular things ring a bell.
  3. From all you now know: can you identify a problem that you’d like to solve about your current situation. Consider your life as thoroughly as possible – your physical health and well-being, your emotional health and well being, your present emotional state and the beliefs you possess about yourself and the world you live in. Body Scans, and all the exercises associated with them, can help here.
  4. In particular, identify negative thoughts that appear to be stopping you making changes. What things might be stopping you – in your work, home and your community; what limits do you appear to place on your self?. Beware of blaming others here as blame IS a major stopper. Remain aware of YOU – your body, your sensations, your emotions and beliefs. Be open to unpleasant feelings of shame, jealousy, fear and bitterness.
  5. For some people there may be critical incident(s) in their life that haunt or plague them. This is particularly likely where there has been some abuse or trauma in your personal history. Make a brief, factual note of any incident(s) noting, all the while, how easy it is to be drawn into them. This is one time, at this early stage, where avoidance is OK – on a temporary basis!
  6. From all this information, can you discern one or two specific opinions or beliefs that you  have developed about yourself – who you are. Can you record those thoughts briefly and to the point, e.g. I have failed in life; I am my own worst enemy etc.
  7. Does a single life message emerge from it all; e.g. life isn’t worthwhile, I don’t deserve to succeed.

Bear in are mind, as I have said a few times, these can be unsettling exercises. It would be wise to have available a back-up plan. Some-one to talk to and share with.

That said, one helpful rule that applies when designing small, safe experiments is that we seek permission when we want to involve others.

Even asking some-one to listen to you might be best done with a request.

If another is actively involved – spouse, parent, friend or work colleague – then a permission can make all the difference. After all, the other person is then given the chance to say ‘no‘ and you’ll have the experience of a safe experiment requiring us to demonstrate respect to another.

Also, this outcome does not mean that they will not come back later or, indeed, that you cannot ask them again. It often pays to foster curiosity in yourself and other people,

Once you’ve completed some of this work, you may find it possible to return to the section on AIMS AND OBJECTIVES.

If the page raises more questions, than answers, then why not tell us about that and ask a question to take things forward.

Alternatively, if you have designed a really helpful safe experiment, are you willing to share it for the benefit of others. Anything you tell me will be published anonymously.

CONTACT FORM relating to the design of small, safe experiments


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