The Rest of 2023's Experiments

by Cody on 2023-12-20 filed under experiments

At the start of 2023, I declared I'd make it my year of experiments and document them here. Surely you remember the breathless coverage this received from the New York Times. I started off strong by experimenting with daily meditation in January, daily expense tracking in February, and daily coding in March + April.

It was fun and challenging, but also a lot of work. As the year went on, I kept experimenting but deferred sharing these experiments just to lighten the workload. Here's my chance to catch up on a bunch of these experiments.

Successful Experiment: Consistent Wake Up Time

When I was 25 and basically an honorary teenager, it didn't matter what time I woke up. I got really good at waking up at the last responsible moment and rolling into my day. Over the years, the start of my day became increasingly important as my responsibilities accumulated. I am a parent to 3 humans who need to eat and make it to school. I tend to 1 dog who expects an unreasonably high quality of life. I have a job and a Wordle streak to uphold. I had been able to meet all these responsibilities by continuing to wake up at the last responsible moment, but it sure made things stressful on all of us.

The hypothesis: if I wake up at the same time every day, my mornings will be less stressful and I can layer productive habits on top of this steady start.

How does it work? I knew I would undermine this new habit in a hurry via the Snooze button if I could. I made a routine to combat this. I set an alarm every day for the same time (6:45am) on my phone, I moved my phone to the far side of my bedroom so I had to physically get up to acknowledge it, then I would get in the shower immediately.

What happened? It worked! I followed this routine every single school day of 2023. A good habit earns its keep. You don't need to persuade yourself to keep it up; it makes its own case. That was certainly what happened here. Each day started the same way, which brought some predictability and stability to everything that followed. I got more quality time with my kids in the morning, instead of panicked conversations about waffles vs. Cheerios. I also found it easier to keep things on track for them, get them out the door on time, and keep the house tidy before shifting into Work Mode.

Did I have to sacrifice anything in order to get up consistently early each day? I am a father of 3 in my 40s who works at home. I pretty much leave the house only on accident at this point. So, no.

What did I learn? I think this was highly successful because there's a forcing function here. I can't just turn the alarm off from my bed, I have to get up and move. I am forced to do the thing I want me to do. Once I'm up, I move on to the next thing, which is the shower. It's a consistent, physical progression. I even do this now when I am on the road for work and my children are thousands of miles away and unable to demand things fron me. It also brings a couple of side benefits in consistent separation from my phone. By setting my phone down when it's time for bed, I can't doomscroll my way to sleep. By getting into the shower straight away, I get time to think and plan before I get into the day's notification stream.

Mixed Success Experiment: Less Than 60 Minutes of Phone Time Per day

When I switched back to iOS recently, I enabled screen time reporting. It gave me a whole new thing to feel terrible about. I realized I was spending 3 hours a day looking at my phone. Granted, a lot of that is related to work as I am checking Slack, email, Google Docs, etc. Another chunk of that is also productive, as I'm reading the news and tracking my finances. But the bulk of that is just garbage time spent on Reddit, Instagram, Hacker News, Sudoku, etc. Diversions are necessary and fun, but it felt like the diversion was becoming the main thing at 90+ minutes per day.

The hypothesis: if I spend less than an hour a day on my phone total, I will experience decreased anxiety, increased focus, and an increase of interest in other hobbies.

How does it work? I tried a lot of different things to drive down phone time. I set app limits in iOS for pretty much every app. These were aggressive initially, where I gave myself like 15 minutes a day of Chrome, Reddit, and Instagram. This didn't work. First, these app limits are easily bypassed - you can just give yourself 15 more minutes every time you hit the limit. Second, the limits often got in the way. There were many times where I needed to look at something for work in the evening after I'd already hit my Chrome limit. Both of these felt dumb and I quickly got in the habit of ignoring these limits.

I kept experimenting and found something that was more effective. When I want to be intentional and mindful about what I am doing, I will physically separate myself from my phone. If I am at my desk working, I will throw my phone on my couch across the office. If I am watching a movie, I put my phone on the mantle where I can't reach it. Then I can be fully plugged in and annoyed at whatever Netflix is showing me.

What Happened? It worked, but it was kind of annoying. I made it to a weekly average of less than 1 hour of screen time per day. There were some real benefits to this in terms of increased focus and time to go deeper on certain hobbies. For example, I watched a LOT of foreign films on the Criterion channel this year. (If you want to talk Wong-Kar Wai, I'm your guy.) However, work got harder. I take a lot of pride in keeping the people around me unblocked. It's hard to unblock them when I've exhausted my phone time for the day and I can't see what they're saying. I felt the same thing when I got a text from friends or family that I wanted to respond to. The intention was to decrease anxiety, but I actually felt it creeping up at times like this.

What did I learn? I learned that all phone usage isn't bad. Physical separation from a device is a great way to make time and space for focus. Today, I'm at 96 minutes for my weekly average and that feels reasonable. And I got here without jeopardizing my Wordle streak.

Complete Failure of an Experiment: Play Guitar Every Day

I have been a terminally mediocre guitar player for like 25 years. One of my favorite acts is to plonk my way through the entirety of The Bends album by Radiohead. One of my cherished possessions is a Gretsch that hangs right behind my monitor, sending a constant message of "You are not good enough to play me."

Here's the thing though: when I would start playing consistently, I would get better. But it was so hard to maintain consistency. If I could just play every dayfor a month straight, would I shred like Jimi Hendrix? Or at least have fun and be able to play a few songs well like Larry Hendix, the lesser known cousin of Jimi?

The hypothesis: if I play the guitar every day for at least 30 minutes, I will get better and enjoy myself.

How does it work? Here's where I got into trouble. I kept this up for a couple of weeks, but I did it after I put the twins to bed. For at least half of these days, my energy was low and I was doing it out of grim determination. I thought that maybe I'd enjoy the guitar enough that it would boost my energy. It just didn't happen. Then I had to travel for work and I had no good way to keep the streak alive, at which point I stopped.

What did I learn? When it comes to building a habit that sparks joy, you can't grit your teeth through it. Creative acts aren't the same thing as waking up early every day. If I really wanted to be good at guitar, I'd pick a time of day to play when my energy was high and my time was abundant. Unfortunately, I don't have many of those right now, so I am just going to be mediocre at guitar for the time being. Jimi and Larry Hendrix may rest easy, for their fanbases are safe.