So what ACTIONS might be included in a small, safe experiment?

What follows is not a spelling mistake: I cannot not behave. Whatever I do is ‘behaviour’ to a psychologist. OK, there are obvious behaviours – walking down the street, eating a meal with the family – but there are internal behaviours that go on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Breathing is one; noticing is another and feeling something is yet something more that  we cannot not do.  The only issue is: do we notice the doing?

That’s why I like small, safe experiments – taking small actions – as the possibilities are around me; I have only to notice those possibilities and make a record of the outcome.

So here is the problem: how do we notice everyday things that are just too easy to miss? One of the problems presented by this web site – particularly as the number of safe experiments grows – is that it becomes a jumble of possibilities. I leave you to decide on what might work for you, but it still looks random and arbitrary.  There is little evidence available to assess the relative worth of one action over another.

There are good reasons for doing this; I cannot decide what will work for you and, anyway, I value small random acts.  Even so, to help you organise things a little further, I thought it might help to produce a structure – a summary of most of the ACTIONS involved in a small, safe experiment.

If you like categorisation, then this exercise might work for you. Here it is:




The detail is not easy to read despite my best endeavours, so here is some explanation of the eight ways to categorise some safe experiments:

Write things down: describe the design of the experiment, how it moved along and any [final] result of the experiment. Some people keep a journal and others a diary. For me, it’s fine to use bullet-points on Post-Its, as long as you can follow the material you have created.

Draw things – or sculpt, shape and mould something such as a ‘problem’ or an obstacle to change. Such ways can make a ‘record’ of what’s needed Equally, not everyone is fluent in art so there is no need to share the outcome of such safe experiments; you may know enough about what it means and be able to see it differently.

Thought experiments: you can imagine all sorts of things in your head.  Some imagining are troubling and others can be very helpful. Thought experiments can create an inner world. It is a subjective reflection; a time when you think for yourself, in yourself and of yourself.  You can use meditation to give advice to yourself;  going into your safe place may provide the opportunity to invite in your ‘sage’ or wise person to ‘talk’ to you. You are in illustrious company when you do this work; Albert Einstein obtained his inspirations for Relativity theory from his thought experiments! There was no other way for him to make the leap of imagination that was needed.

Get advice from other people. This means you can benefit from another person’s perspective. This does not mean you have to act on their perspective; merely to hear other alternatives on offer and, indeed, to debate their likely consequences. Keep in mind, if you would, the potential for unintended consequencees. These are difficult to anticipate, for obvious reasons.

Self-talk: the way we talk to ourselves – inside our head – can be altered over time and with practice. Thus, our “internal dialogue” can be self-critical and negative. Affirmation work can impact on this and alter our balance of positive and negative thinking.

Diversions and Distractions: many safe experiments do both these things. For instance, controlled breathing has direct impact on your body responses and it is a distraction from thoughts that are obstructing your drive to better mental health.

Acceptance and Committment:  a process to help identify your options and to distinguish between what can be changed (and to accept what cannot be altered).  Committing ourselves to focus on the do-able is a life-time set of experiments.

Changing ways of talking to others: our communications with others can be adjusted by a realistically-designed safe experiment able to identify do-able small steps, e.g. editing ‘sorry‘ and ‘try‘ or ‘why‘ questions.  A special case of seeking advice from others is to organise some ‘special time‘: choosing to ask some-one to be with you for a fixed amount of time in order to talk something through.  It’s possible to involve several people but ‘special time’ can easily deteriorate into  more of the same old.  Another way to talk with others is through brain-storming. This ‘experiment’ generates a lot of ideas around an issue. If you use ‘brain-storming’, bear in mind that anything goes at first; zany is good. Only sort and filter ideas afterwards – not during the brain-storm.

Such ‘special cases’ could be labelled ‘feedback‘ – specifically asking other people to comment on something that is important to you. It enables other people to be ‘in your shoes’ for a moment and, indeed, you can return the favour sometimes!

Taking action: the middle box in the inverted tree diagram emphasises ACTION.  Doing something just a little bit different is fine – it does not have to be a large or grand action, e..g. listening to another person differently is enough, if not necessarily sufficient. Beware of efforts to tightrope over the Grand Canyon.

Summarise and paraphrase: in our head, or in writing. During and after any small, safe experiment it can help to stand back and look at what you’ve got. This can be done by a pithy summary around what you now know. Can you put your conclusion in one short sentence with very few words?  If you can do this, write it out, leave it for a time and come back to see if it still makes sense. Alter your understanding if you want, especially if it creates an interesting question about this afternoon or tomorrow.

Let me finish by asking: can you spot the categories that are not here? How would you categorise the experiments you have designed?

How much does this categorisation help or hinder you in your design and implementation of small, safe experiment?

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What is a Nudge

More on how to design safe experiments.

Action isn’t everything