How to do safe experiments for yourself

Win some and lose some

This page offers some ways for you to do safe experiments for yourself.

I hesitate at this point. I write it knowing that my page on Motivational Interviewing demonstrates how even well-intentioned advice can undermine progress of good therapy! The proverb highlighting when we learn best offers a salutory less as well. My advice may tells you more about me, and less about the opportunities in front of you, NOW.

It could end up just another self-help sheet and that works only when the words are translated into your own world.  For instance,  I had one person interested in sleep-related issues. In the end, what worked for him were pictures of World War One planes flying sorties; who’d have predicted that one!!

Knowing a Snake from a Ladder

The truth is that change can follow an unpredictable path. It can be like Snakes and Ladders. The only problem is that the board game makes the Snakes and Ladders very clear and visible. In my real world, I may not know what is a Snake and what is a Ladder!

So when you design and implement your own safe experiment please keep in mind that you are not likely to travel on your own scenic route without sliding down a Snake, somewhere along the way.

This is one of my central ‘messages’ – sliding down a snake might be uncomfortable, yet there are things to be learned from the experiences and the way we handle them.

In this website, I assert that things may get worse, indeed, may need toget worse before anything gets better; and it may take time for it to do so!

There is no short cut to experiencing defeats and victories, yourself, through your own efforts

Even so, I want you to adapt ideas – from anyone and anywhere –  to your ways of thinking and operating.

If you look back at my inverted tree, you will see that you can use small, safe experiments to create a route to a new normal that is more of your own choosing. In effect, you are moving out of a comfort zone Dan Siegel calls the Window of Tolerance, and into the working area where you  manage your own changes. A revised version of the Window of Tolerance (WOT) can be found further down this page.

The tricky thing is that even the smallest and safest experiment can have unexpected consequences. Often the amygdala comes into play, and it does so very rapidly.  If it picks up danger signals when you do something a little bit different, it can appear to be dangerous. Then it will want to protect you. It operates with good intention but can promote an extreme response. 

Four of those extreme responses appear in each corner of my WOT illustration, below.

The art of ‘just noticing’

In the work I do, I ask people to ‘just notice’ each and every response they make. That attention to detail helps to appreciate the impact of the smallest responses.

For an audio input on this topic, just a few minutes long, take a look at:

You can measure your response on the Subjective Unit of Discomfort Scale (SUDS) using ‘1’ as the mimimal response and ’10’ as the most extreme reaction.

Please bear in mind that the purpose of this Scale is to help us notice whether a reaction is going ‘up’, ‘down’ or staying the same. If we cannot register such changes, then it is tricky to know what to do next.  When SUDs go down it possible to recognise a ‘small victory’ and build on the action taken. When SUDs go up it is possible to consider “what small thing can I do differently next time“, rather than simply repeat history.

That said, I’d ask you to be careful with your own feelings. High emotions are not ‘bad’ things to be kept under control. They provide invaluable clues to our relationship with the outside world.  Sometimes, that ‘outside world’ needs to know how we feel – if not always!

Small defeats that can appear on the scenic route

Most folk tell me that they move to a ‘favourite’ reaction, some examples being:

  •  yo-yoing between catastrophising and ritualising;
  •   yo-yoing between catastrophising and chaos;
  •  yo-yoing between ritualising and rigidity or, finally,
  •  yo-yoing between chaos and rigidity.

It’s possible, as you might imagine, to simply head for one particular corner. In my experience, catastrophising is common for me, and many of us.

You can explore these ideas further on web page: does this make sense?

The circling arrows surrounding the Window of Tolerance (WOT) are the ‘scenic route

When things go wrong, do you find you slide towards the left hand side of the diagram (the dreadful and the awful), or the right (the strict and ordered way of doing things)?

Another alternative is towards the top (yo-yoing between the awful and a strict way of doing things) or toward the bottom (yo-yoing between disorder and rigidity)?

That said, we are all individuals and you may find it is difficult to find a pattern. If this is so, then just notice what happens when the going gets tough and your order of things is threatened.

In the recent and current public health crises, you will have found opportunities to notice your own reaction to disorder, loss and destruction of a sense of ‘normal’.

These principles for doing ‘safe experiments’  in the ‘working area’ are included as I think you may find it useful when you want to design your own experiments. Tell me how you have developed your own ideas after completing some experiments and you have assessed some result.

Ways to think about designing a safe experiment

Let’s start, in no particular order, to summarise some of the principles and practices used to inform the ‘safe experimental’ way to ‘nudge’ ourselves along.  I encourage myself and you, the reader:

• To value any experience and to ask: “what do I learn from this and in what way is it inviting me to change”.

• To welcome change through safe experimentation, even if the results are not always what was expected.

• To improve the ‘safe’ element by taking small risks and inviting small changes one after another.

• To shift your attention to  small details and respecting them. Dismissing ‘small’ outcomes as unimportant or trivial may block your ability to change. Recently, I was working with some-one who discovered the benefit of making statement (“I’ll do that as well“, rather than asking questions (“Can I do that“) see the webpage concerned with communication; see item 7 on that page.

  • There I placed value on asking questions instead of making statements. This person discovered the value of the exception to the rule! It is important to ‘just notice’ often very ‘small’ experiences. Noting them down can be important as they are so small, they can be easy to miss.

• To be patient in the face of defeats and victories and learn from all of them.

• To translate other peoples’ ideas into your own view of the world. Please do not just read this blog or any self-help book. Find a page that means something to you and make it work in your own way.

• To work and play with your experiments and keep just noticing any outcomes you obtain.

• To be creative. Do not assume this web site, or any other teacher, has The Answer; it offers possibilities only.

• To be open to spontaneous change when something happens, just because …

• To keep moving. If you find an exercise continues not to help you then let it go for now, and move on to another one. Even so, be willing to come back later. Discover what works for you and when it works. Timing might be crucial.

• To find other ways of viewing your past, present and future. Look at the inverted tree to explore a range of possibilities lying ahead of you. Work to see how you are journeying from your ‘old normal’ to your ‘new normal’.

• Make notes. This does not require you to write a journal. As stated, I recommend you to note outcomes in bullet-point form, as they arise.

Revisit notes and experiences as often as you wish.

There is a useful brief, self-help note-making guidance available to assist you at:

Other lines to follow

Welcome to Find Your Nudge

How to give yourself a nudge

Designing a nudge

Categories of nudges or small experiments

Models that might help

Limitations to action

Robin’s further thoughts

An index of all pages on Your Nudge

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