When it comes to personal growth, it's easy to just wing it.
We live life and believe that we'll automatically learn from our experiences and log those lessons into our memories. We're heavily influenced by the self-improvement fad of the month or the advice we're hearing from friends, family, colleagues and the media. This take-life-as-it-comes approach is often inefficient because you never build on the lessons you learn. If you’re lucky, your lessons learned end up changing your outlook and behavior, which in turn changes your environment. If you’re not, you can end up stuck in the same unproductive loop.
To reach your full potential, you need to understand who you are. The more you know about yourself, the better your decisions will be. This is where science can help.
Being a former chemist, science has always been a big part of my life. I see it as the discipline for exploring the unknown and learning how things work. Now, instead of being in the lab figuring out how to use electro-conducting polymers to create flexible screens, protect against corrosion or sense noxious gases, I spend most of my time with high-performers helping them figure out how to create lasting behavioral change to reach their professional and personal goals.
There is no better tool to learn about something as complex as human behavior than the scientific method. You don't need to have a science background to use this approach and I'm sure you've all seen this at some point in your life even if you don't remember it.
Before we go into the steps of the scientific method, it's important to recognize that although as humans we have many similarities, we are also all unique. This means while some of the research and insights on human motivation and behavior may apply to you, it'll always be incomplete. To best understand who you are, you need to research and experiment on yourself.
Use the following steps of the scientific method to help you learn more about yourself:
In any science experiment, you start with:
How do you currently see yourself and the world? What do you notice about the way you react to and interact with others? What aspects of your life grab your attention?
- "When I work more hours, my career prospects improve but my family life suffers."
- "My pants don't fit me anymore."
- "My mother-in-law hates me."
Problem or Question
Based on your observations, what is the underlying question or problem that you would like to learn more about or resolve? What do you want explained or fixed in your life? What have you read recently that has challenged the way you look at the world?
The beauty of science is that YOU choose the problem or question you want answered. What do you want to know about yourself? Before deciding what your issue or question will be, review your previous experiences to make sure your question hasn't already been answered.
- "How can I achieve career success while keeping my family happy?"
- "What can I do to lose 35 lbs?"
- "How can I build a better relationship with my mother-in-law?"
Once you have a clear and unique problem or question to tackle, you formulate your:
The hypothesis is your educated guess on what you think will happen. You draw upon your experiences and findings from previous experiments to predict what you think the answer to your question will be. You can also look at what others have tried when it comes to the problem you're looking to solve. An easy way to do that is to read what others have written on this topic.
Your prediction drives what your experiment will be designed to validate.
- If I leave work early to spend time with family and if I bring work home to do at night, I can achieve both career and family goals.
- If I remove sugary drinks and fried foods from my diet, I can lose at least 35 lbs in 6 months.
- If I spend more quality time with my mother-in-law, I can better understand how to improve our relationship.
Once you decide on your hypothesis, it’s time to design and run your:
How will you show whether your prediction is right or wrong? What will you do to isolate other factors that may affect your outcome?
For example: If you were successful in losing 35 lbs by removing soda and fried foods from your diet, how do you know the weight loss is due to removing soda and fried foods and not from something else like increased exercise?
To accurately learn something new about yourself, you need to design controlled experiments. In this example, you may want to keep a log of your exercise and diet habits for 1 month before embarking on your diet change. With this knowledge, you can control the exercise variable. By exercising the same amount before and during the experiment, exercise is no longer a factor for your weight loss.
As part of the experimental design, you'll decide:
- How long your experiment will be - will you stop at 6 months or will you stop when you lose 35 lbs?
- How and how often you'll measure your weight?
- What data to log - food and activity journals, mood, work hours, etc?
- What other relevant information to collect?
Scientists keep meticulous journals and so should you. The success of an experiment is determined by how replicable it is. If you can lose 35 lbs every time using this approach, then you've learned something true about yourself.
Once you've finished your experiment and collected the data, it's time for:
Analysis and Interpretation
What do your results and experimental data say?
Was your hypothesis right or wrong? In the weight loss example, if you lost 35 lbs within 6 months, then your hypothesis was true. If not, then you were off the mark. What's great about science is that even if your hypothesis was wrong, you've learned something about yourself.
If we continue with the weight-loss example and assume we did lose 35 lbs within 6 months, here are some possible theories:
- The weight was loss because eating less fried foods decreased total calories consumed.
- More sugar leads to raised insulin levels which stores more fat in your fat cells. When you decrease sugar intake, you decrease the amount of fat stored in the body.
- In this experiment, it took 15 days to lose the first 15 lbs and then another 30 days to lose the next 15 lbs. As body fat % decreases, weight loss slows down with decreased fried food and sugary drink intake.
When interpreting your data, beware of our natural tendency to find meaning where there is none. If you're not familiar with the phrase, correlation is not causation, read this short yet hilarious explanation.
Scientists often publish their findings in journals so other scientists can leverage their experiments and conclusions. If you feel compelled to do so, share the results of your experiments. You can write or speak about them using whichever platform you deem fit (for those in my generation, visions of oak tag comes to mind).
In science, every theory or conclusion leads to even more questions. This means every experiment results in even more experiments. What makes science powerful is that you're constantly building on what you've learned.
In this example, our next question might be to see "how much exercise is needed to keep the current weight steady?"
Science never stops its search for knowledge. Use the scientific method to keep learning about yourself and apply that knowledge to improve your life.
The steps in the process are:
- Observation - what are you seeing now?
- Question or Problem - what do you want explained or what outcome would you like to achieve?
- Hypothesis - what do you think will happen?
- Experiment - how will you test your prediction?
- Analysis and Interpretation - were you right or wrong? what did you learn from your experiment?
- Your observations in step #5 becomes the first step of your next experiment
- What works for others may work for you but will most likely not be a perfect fit because we're all unique.
- Keeping accurate journals is paramount for reproducing your results
- Both success and failure will teach you something
- Correlation is not causation
- Share your results so others can learn from you
- Science never stops and neither should you
“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
What's your next experiment?
Adapted from my Fast Company article.
Photo by evan p. cordes
Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.