My 2022 Life Experiments

Jonathan Swanson
10 min readDec 30, 2022

I’ve been running life experiments for a number of years now in my never-ending quest for total and complete life optimization. 😉 😂

In 2022 I ran experiments with:

  • Hiring an asynchronous tutor to go deep on a technical topic
  • Removing phthalates from my life to improve health and fertility
  • Dramatically reducing phone usage for more productivity + happiness

At the end I’ll also share some quick wins I discovered this year to:

  • Significantly improve jet lag
  • Reduce hangovers
  • Understand your current health more deeply
My role model: Ulysses was the original masochistic, self-experimenter (Ulysses and the Sirens)

For each experiment, I’ve laid out what I tried and what worked (and didn’t). Check out whichever ones interest you, and let me know what experiments you suggest I try in 2023! 😎

Hiring an asynchronous tutor: Thanks to a friend red pilling me on the remarkable progress of AI early this year, I did a deep dive on machine learning and large language models. But when I first (attempted to) read the canonical paper that unleashed this latest wave of AI I realized I needed a much deeper technical grounding. Reading a few blog posts was not going to be sufficient.

What I tried: A friend and I hired a machine learning PhD and created a chat group with our tutor and a few entrepreneurs and investors who wanted to uplevel their technical understanding of the latest breakthroughs. Instead of having weekly scheduled lessons (I hate meetings…) all the tutoring is async — each of us reads papers and drops in questions for our tutor. We pay our tutor a fixed fee per month and he responds to our questions at his leisure.

What worked (or didn’t): This has been an incredible way to learn and I plan to use it anytime I’m going deep on a topic in the future. What was particularly helpful:

  • Before I had the tutor in place, I would read a blog post (like this explainer on transformers) and I would grok parts but there would be large areas of confusion. With the tutor in place, I would simply do a deep dive on my own, write down all of my questions, and then get answers from our machine learning PhD to fill any gaps.
  • I also found it very helpful to read a paper, type up my own summary of the key insights, and then share it with our tutor to have him assess whether my summary was fully accurate.
  • I ended up learning as much from the other participants in the chat (not just the tutor) from the questions they asked and the research they shared. And, yes, once ChatGPT launched I would often go to my friendly machine assistant to answer my easy questions before I went to my live tutor.
  • One thing I would do differently next time I create an async tutor / chat group like this is have a set curriculum that everyone needs to read before they can join the learning group. People came into our group at different levels of technical depth, and the group would have been even more efficient if we forced everyone to read a common set of foundational materials.

Recommendation: There’s a Ben Franklin quote that goes something like “a person who teaches himself has an idiot for a teacher” which is exactly how I feel for not having tried this earlier. I will be leveraging this new learning method aggressively going forward. 👨‍🎓 (If you have an assistant with Athena, we’re working on a delegation playbook for this so you’ll just be able to say “I want to be async tutored in X” and your assistant will handle the rest. Team will have this production ready in a ~month.)

Machine learning tutor upleveling my understanding of how transformers work

Removing phthalates from my life: You may have heard that male testosterone levels and sperm count have been falling 1% per year for decades: the average 25 year old male today has about the same testosterone level as a 45 year old just two decades ago. Miscarriage rates have likewise been increasing 1% per year. Why? Exercise, nutrition, and obesity are obvious drivers, but Dr. Shanna Swan, a reproductive epidemiologist, argues persuasively that there is an additional, hidden cause: the presence of phthalates—a chemical manufacturers use globally—in our lives. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors which means they change our natural hormonal levels. The good news is that for adults, if you remove phthalates from your environment, your hormones will return to normal quickly, sperm count will improve, etc. However, for babies in the womb and children <2 years old their fertility can be impaired forever. This very much caught my attention.

What I tried: Tbh, if I couldn’t delegate this easily, I probably would have listened to the Shanna Swan interview on Rogan, been shocked by the data, and then…done nothing. Phthalates are everywhere — not just in plastics but also in soaps, cleaning products, food packaging, clothing and almost everything that carries a fragrance. Figuring out how to remove these things from your life is hilariously daunting. But since I’m lucky to have a team of Athena EAs supporting my crazy delegation experiments, here is what I did:

  • I asked an EA to read Shanna Swan’s book Countdown for me. (Yes, I sometimes delegate reading books. 😂 I highly recommend!)
  • While the EA read the book, I asked her to make a spreadsheet and note every type of product that has phthalates in it. The list is really, really long. 100+ items across food, kitchen, bedroom, and beyond. 😅
  • I then asked my EA to order replacements for dozens and dozens of replacements items — glass storage containers instead of plastic for food, soaps and shampoos, stainless steel bottles and plates for 2 year old instead of plastic, organic cotton underwear, and on and on.

What worked (or didn’t): Removing plastics and phthalates more generally from your life is an absolutely insane undertaking. We got rid of maybe ~50% of offending items with our first purging/purchasing wave but for *literally* months we continued to find stuff that needed to be replaced. For example, just this week I discovered there are phthalates in most tea bags. 🤯

  • Getting to 0% exposure is impossible, and shouldn’t be your goal, but even following the 80/20 rule is a real amount of work. But we’ve now mostly cleansed our life of these toxins which feels good!
  • I was mostly motivated to do this to protect our kiddos bc phthalates cause permanent fertility damage for kiddos <2 years old. But I also measured my free testosterone at the end of this experiment and it was 10% higher than my previous measurement — lots of moving variables with testosterone but that was cool to see.
  • If I could do this again I would have taken this test to measure my phthalate exposure pre/post experiment — that’s the best way to see how many toxins you’re removing from your body.

Recommendation: This was actually such an absurd undertaking 😂 I can’t recommend anyone try this on their own unless you are pregnant or have young kids. That said, removing phthalates is an important driver of health and fertility so my friend Justin Mares and I are are incubating a new startup that will productize this experiment. Our goal is to create a simple and seamless experience to remove all the phthalates from your life. Just as the gluten-free wave in the 2000s created $100M companies like Udi’s we believe the phthalate-free wave will be big in the 2020s. If you’re interested in being an alpha customer for this new company, or want to get involved, ping either Justin or me.

Partial screenshot from the mega spreadsheet we made from reading Shanna Swan’s book Countdown.

Dramatically reducing phone usage: I’ve run experiments to reduce phone usage in the past, like last year’s freedom phone. I highly recommend having a freedom phone but I still check my phone more than I want so I ran two new experiments this year. My goal here isn’t to work less. Rather my goal is to 1) work more productively (computer > phone) and 2) break the habit of casually picking up my phone. My theory is that total time on your phone is not a problem (e.g. making a long phone call to a friend is great), but the unnecessary pickups (e.g. wonder what new messages I have…) are not aligned with health and happiness.

Experiment #1: The first experiment I ran was to see if I could reduce phone pickups by 2/3, going from ~55/day (which is once every 15 min) to 15 per day (roughly once per hour). To reduce pickups I tried three things: 1) I start each morning by going to my desktop and don’t pick up my phone. I tackle all my messaging apps via Texts. 2) When I exercise I bring my freedom phone instead of my regular phone. 3) The rest of the day I try to use my willpower. Lol. 😅

What worked (or didn’t): This was harder than expected. With the 3 efforts above I was able to reduce phone pickups by ~30% but it didn’t feel dramatically better. And it felt like work. But while doing this experiment I had a useful thought — why do I ever use a phone at home? If I’m inside my house shouldn’t I exclusively work on my desktop (10x more efficient than phone)? I tried this for a single day and discovered I needed my phone to turn on Sonos at home, to receive a two-factor auth, to check baby monitor, etc. And once you use your phone to turn on Sonos…Whatsapp is just a click away. Which led to the next experiment…

My before/after on Experiment #1

Experiment #2: With the insight from above I realized the more radical way to break the phone-pickup-habit is to have 2 separate daily use phones.

  • Home phone: The home phone is basically a remote control for your home — Sonos, baby monitor, etc. It’s also where my 2FA goes for logins. It has zero messaging, email, or productivity apps. You can use it to turn on Sonos or get 2FA but you can’t get distracted. If I want to email or check Whatsapp, I am forced to do it on my computer.
  • Outside phone: The outside phone has Whatsapp which is a core communication app for me, Superhuman for email, Athena app for sending delegations. It doesn’t have any “I can read later” messaging apps like Telegram (I can check those on computer when I’m home).

I’m just kicking off this experiment right now. The plan is to have my home phone sitting at my desk in my office, and the outside phone sitting by the front door so I only pick it up on the way out of the house. This is an admittedly aggressive plan for slashing phone pickups, but I think it will both increase my productivity (way more work at computer) and make me happier and less addicted to picking up my phone. I’ll report back on the results next year.

If you want to check your own pickups + phone usage on iOS go to Settings → Screen Time → See All Activity → Scroll Down.

Those were the more time-intensive experiments I ran this year but I also tried some things that were quick wins that I highly recommend:

  • Significantly improve jet lag: If you travel 3–4 time zones it’s not a big deal, but 6–12 time zones can wreck your productivity for days. Fount.bio has a jetlag kit that is $100/flight and really works. They give you a protocol that is personalized to your flight and you simply follow the instructions in the app during your travel day. It’s a combination of tinted glasses and supplements you take every couple hours. On my last 6+ time zone trip I was able to adjust in a single day.
  • Reduce hangover: I hesitate to share this because it works too well 😂 and we’re all better off not drinking. But assuming you are drinking: Zbiotics has created the world’s first probiotic that prevents hangovers. You take one shot glass of the liquid as your first drink of the night and then drink as usual. I’m not saying this will make you invincible, but the 3 times I’ve used it it has been remarkably effective. HT to The Next substack for recommending.
  • Understand your health more deeply: I’ve been looking to do a deep dive on my health and fitness for a while. I explored various options, like Mayo Clinic Exec Health Program, but they were all too limited. I wanted a full body + mind deep dive that I could use as a baseline for my health in the decades ahead. I found it: Biograph. You show up for 6 hours at their clinic for tests including full-body MRI, VO2 max, blood tests, flexibility tests, mental tests, and more. A few weeks later you meet with a doctor, nutritionist, and personal trainer and review all your results and make a game plan for optimizing your health. My health and fitness is already pretty dialed in but I still found things to improve. This isn’t cheap but it’s incredible well done and I highly recommend.

That wraps my 2022 life experiments. 😎

Happy holidays everyone!

PS-For Athena clients reading this, our team is working hard to turn a number of the experiments above into delegation playbooks that will be available sometime in 2023. They aren’t ready yet but stay tuned. :)

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Jonathan Swanson

Co-founder & Executive Chairman at Thumbtack, former White House staffer, lover of life