How to Live Intentionally in the 21st Century: An Experiment
Do you ever find yourself doing half of one task, while doing half of another — and doing both badly?
We’ve all been there: lying in bed in our silky pajamas, with morning breath and bedhead, mindlessly checking our phones. Perhaps it feels harmless to reply to that email from your boss or your professor while waking up… but is it? Isn’t it actually a little odd to be spending such an intimate moment addressing your professional life?
Of course, modern technology has made our lives easier in so many ways. However, just because we can travel faster, access information instantly, and communicate at any time does not mean that society lets us off the hook to spend our saved time relaxing.
Instead, the expectations for our productivity simply increase in proportion to our improved technology. You can get there faster? Great, get there faster. You can access any information? Great, now you’re responsible for all of it. You can communicate anytime? Great, be available all the time. Such demands are so ubiquitous that one must take a step back to realize they are unnatural, and that modern life quietly violates our boundaries. We must be vigilant and reclaim our lives.
In an effort to do just that, I ran my own experiment to track what happened in my life if I set a simple boundary around where I did my work. The results showed that setting this single constraint had a positive aspect on my life in several ways. And it set into motion a new paradigm for how I lived in general.
In my junior year of college, I took a class with psychology professor Allen Neuringer, a well-known self-experimenter. Allen has been conducting experiments on himself for years, taking a special interest in how his thinking improves while walking outside instead of sitting inside. He believes that people benefit from studying their own behavior. “Imagine that,” Allen exclaimed, “…being able to walk up to anyone on the street and already have something to talk about: ‘How’s your data?’”
One major assignment of the class was to run a controlled, scientific self-experiment on ourselves. I struggled to think of a project, then I remembered an anecdote Allen told us in class about his old professor at Harvard, the famous B.F. Skinner.
B.F. Skinner was a highly influential 20th-century American psychologist, best known for his contributions to behaviorism and research on operant conditioning. Behaviorism is an approach to psychology which involves observable actions rather than internal thoughts. Operant conditioning falls within this approach and refers to the control of behavior through consequences. For example, you may have heard of lab rats pressing levers for food pellets. This paradigm is a prime example of operant conditioning. The action of pressing the lever results in food, which is reinforcing, so the rat becomes more likely to repeat the behavior.
Now, let’s say the lever press only produces a pellet when a light is on. This light would then be called a discriminative stimulus. In other words, the light sets the stage for the event of food. Solidifying these associations is known as establishing contextual control over behavior.
Not only did Skinner test these principles of rats, but he also applied them to his own life. Allen told us about Skinner’s legendary chair. At his work desk, the professor used a special chair that was hooked up to a lamp. When he sat down, the light would turn on, much like the light in the rat cage signaling the availability of food. Instead of indicating the opportunity for banana pellets, Skinner’s light meant it was time to work, and only work. Could Skinner daydream, or chat, or relax throughout his day? Of course, he could — but not in that chair. The effect was profound: by only working in that chair, B.F. Skinner established contextual control over his behavior, creating a strong association between focused work and the chair-light-combination. “Skinner claims that with his setup he could get done in 2 hours what would take another man 8,” Allen told our class.
I thought, “Hey, I could try this.”
My Self-Experiment: Separating Work and Home
When I was in college last year, my work-life balance was not ideal. I would find myself procrastinating essays until I would finally grit my teeth and pound out an assignment at midnight after stressing over it all evening. I would spend my free time in guilty limbo, thinking “If I can’t work right now, then I don’t deserve to do anything fun.” I would then proceed to do neither, and simply half-nap, or scroll on my phone, or be around friends stewing in anxiety instead of being present. In that time, I could have watched two movies or made a painting! Instead, I just felt uncomfortable, in between, unable to commit to any activity. I found myself in denial of all the time I was spending like this. I had to try something like the desk.
I decided to track various aspects of my life while only making a single change: doing homework only at a desk in the library at school.
Working at home was probably so difficult in part because so many associations already existed at my house. The bed was already for sleeping; the kitchen table was already for eating; the living room couch was already for chatting with friends. However, the library was already for working, and it proved to be a reinforcing environment for working. I didn’t want other students to see me scrolling through social media! Look at everyone working so hard. Back to the dense French literature pdf… plus, the school was full of built-in reinforcements for homework, like printers or available professors.
Below, you can take a look at my simple tracking chart, which includes the date, hours of sleep/time awake, number of meals a day, hours spent on homework, and fun activities I did that day. The first row, “Baseline”, is my estimate of these measures before the start of the experiment. Weekends and spring break were excluded.
My results really surprised me — doing homework at school not only granted me free time for fun activities at home, but it also balanced my eating and sleeping habits! The amelioration of my physical health, no doubt, played into a positive feedback loop: when I felt good, I was probably more effective at the work I did.
Because I wanted to come home as soon as possible after school (but knew once I did, I could not do homework) I started doing my homework in the mornings. This led me to wake up earlier. When I woke up earlier, I would want coffee. Since I would have time to buy one, I would usually grab breakfast then, too. Thus, indirectly due to my self-imposed rule of “no homework at home,” I started waking up earlier and eating breakfast (which I used to skip). Then, when I would arrive home, I could truly relax and have fun, which led to more activities. I was able to fully enjoy my social time, unriddled by anxiety.
It was as though making one small variation led to a domino effect of beneficial changes. I had to make accommodations for each aspect of my life, and those accommodations reinforced each other. School became a place where I was really at school, and home became a place where I was really at home.
I also noticed that my workload was like a liquid: just as water would fill any container in its shape, my homework would fill whatever time block I had. If I had 2 hours, it would take 2 hours. If I had 4, it would take 4. The quality would be the same; I would just be on my phone quite a bit more if I had 4 hours. To maximize my free time, I got it down to an art. Through trial-and-error, I learned how long certain assignments would take so that I could complete them with maximum efficiency. Needless to say, I had a successful yet fun semester.
I also presented the results of my experiment in a “Show & Tell” talk at the 2018 Quantified Self Conference:
Designing Your Own, Similar Self-Experiment
The really great thing about this method is that you only need to change one small thing (and stick to it!) to see significant results in several parts of your life.
- First, identify an issue in your life. Are you also trying to best enjoy your free time? Or is something else feeling very out of your control? The effects will be most dramatic if you focus on a problem which affects many aspects of your day, as homework did for me, but narrowing in on something small is just as effective.
- Next, decide what associations you are trying to make. What is your Skinner’s chair? It does not have to be a location. For example, if the dishes stress you out, consider a specific time you will associate with doing the dishes each day, like 8 PM. It does not matter what associations you choose as long as you stay consistent.
- Create rules for yourself based on these associations. For example, “When I check my email, I sit at my desk,” or “If I’m not in my closet, I don’t need to worry about laundry.” Any kind of “if X then Y” is perfect for gaining contextual control over your behavior. In a sense, you are hacking your own psychology by using old biological tricks.
- Decide what you are measuring. You could measure just one variable, like “hours I got to watch Netflix worry-free today.” Or, you could do like I did and measure several variables. Even if you don’t expect many parts of your life to be affected, it can be interesting just to see. Of course, this takes more effort, but it can reveal more patterns.
- Record your progress! Whether you write in a notebook or keep a running table in a Word document, honest, daily reporting is crucial to examine your behavior. We are much less aware of ourselves than we think, so keeping track of objective facts can be illuminating in an almost uncanny way.
If you find that your manipulation is not working, or working too slowly, or is too difficult to actually stick to, don’t worry! You might be working on an issue too large; break it down. Try changing your associations. Try changing your rules. Remember, sometimes an environment will do the work for you (like the school library was already full of associations I needed). It’s no wonder artists and musicians have designated studios where they create their pieces. Figure out the perfect situation for your task, and then make that situation.
Creating Intentional Spaces
The summer after my self-experiment, I decided that I wanted to carry this out further and live “on purpose”. After studying psychology for years, I had learned a lot, but these 3 points stuck out to me:
- You really don’t know yourself
- Attention is the key to volition
- There’s far less between the “internal” and “external” worlds than we think
In other words, we go through a lot of life on auto-pilot, but we can choose to pay attention and make more conscious decisions. This kind of self-awareness takes practice. However, the easiest way to start is not by controlling your thoughts, but by controlling your environment. We are much more used to making external rather than internal changes. Luckily, as the third point states, there is less of a difference between these two than we might think. Our environment holds a massive influence over our mood and cognition.
Here are the ways I learned to manage the environment around—and within—me, to help reinforce this goal of living intentionally.
There’s nothing like a messy room to keep you stuck in unfulfilling patterns. In the same way that work can keep us from enjoying our free time, so can our own homes, if unmaintained. I’ve definitely found myself unable to get up in the morning if there are piles of clothes on the ground, simply because I do not have the energy to deal with that issue. Like with homework, I feel too guilty to do anything else, so I do nothing. For anyone with mental health issues similar to mine, I am sure this scenario is quite relatable. Whatever piles up in your physical world will also pile up in your mental world, preventing you from relaxing and enjoying your day.
To deal with my physical space, I have (over time) set the following habits:
- Auto-clean: This habit serves as a direct response to a preceding action. These actions may happen several times a day. For example, when I get out of bed, I make the bed. When I get back from going out, I immediately unpack my whole purse or backpack and hang up my clothes. When I finish eating, I do the dishes. I have made these associations so strong that the actions feel automatic. Nothing ever piles up. In the end, you save time and mental energy which would otherwise be spent dreading the activity.
- Form follows function: I am sure to put items in places where they make the most sense. For example, my water bottle is on a shelf by the bed. Everything I use is sorted into drawers with like items, such as art supplies or electronic chargers. Books which I am currently reading are in more accessible places. All of my drawers slide easily and close. The more I use something, the closer I place it to an easy reach.
- Purge: Physical clutter leads to mental clutter, conscious or not. Do you sort through mountains of shirts to find the two you wear? Do you have no idea what is even in the top left drawer of that one dresser? Get rid of that stuff! It’s only weighing you down! I purge everything I own several times a year.
These tactics could be applied to your room, house, office, or even your car. Everyone has a different standard of cleanliness, so cater to your own needs! All of this article is really just meant as a starting place for you to develop what works for you. I am sure many others could be developed based on personal values for physical spaces.
Increasingly, virtual space becomes a larger part of our lives. For me, knowing that my phone or laptop is a mess tenses me in the same way as physical space would. Depending on your personal sensitivity to this kind of clutter, the devices you own, and what you use them for, your own method will differ from mine. Here is what I’ve found useful:
- Phone: First of all, is my phone working properly? I was shocked to realize the amount of stress a really old, slow phone with an awful camera was causing me until I got a new one. I like to delete apps I don’t use, label all my contacts, upload my photos, and clear my voicemails regularly.
- Computer: Like with the phone, I did not realize how much my old, impossible laptop weighed one me. If you’re able to afford it, a laptop which starts up quickly and isn’t virus-ridden is absolutely worth it. I like to organize my files and stay on top of my emails. I prefer to answer emails on my laptop at a desk or café to maintain separation between fun entertainment and work-related communication.
Our free time never feels free because there is always something we could be doing, especially online. Consider developing an etiquette around technology that serves you. Where does work end, and home begin? Where does real end, and virtual begin? If you don’t choose, culture will choose for you. Without your consent, it will draw those boundaries. Luckily, with careful attention, you can take back those boundaries.
As I mentioned, thoughts often prove harder to wrangle than our personal environments. Nevertheless, I find that writing out my thoughts can declutter my mind. I keep a collection of moleskin journals for different purposes.
- Reflections: I mostly use this journal to vent onto paper about whatever might be making me anxious. I have a hard time enjoying my free time if I’m worried about some situation. Once I get it onto paper, I feel as though I can let it go.
- Goals: Setting clear goals helps me direct my free time in a productive way towards what I want in life. Particularly effective is breaking big goals down into daily tasks. For example, if I want to draw a graphic novel, I can create four panels a day.
- To-do lists: Sometimes when I’m relaxing, I may suddenly remember that I need to call my friend, or that I need more strawberry-scented body wash. Rather than worry about forgetting these details, I immediately take a note on my phone, and then resume chilling. Later, I transcribe these notes into a to-do notebook. Sometimes, I plan specific times in my calendar to tackle these tasks depending on urgency. Colored pens and multiple calendars personally soothe me deeply. I love scheduling specific times to deal with issues, because then they don’t weigh on me while I’m enjoying my time.
Depending on your personal level of organization needs, you may not need such a rigorous system. Conversely, you may want even more notebooks! I have certain friends who prefer online notes or Google Calendar. Your worries and responsibilities will still be there (in writing) when you’re done having fun. Just have fun, and deal with them when it’s time.
If you decide to run your own experiment on setting boundaries with your time or implement some of the suggestions that have helped me do that, I cannot stress enough: pace yourself! This kind of thinking may help you consider how you want to maximize your own time and energy.
Another secret? If you don’t want to do something, don’t do it. You’ll do it faster (and actually have a good time!) when you want to do it. Saying no and taking care of your body will also improve, well, everything.
Since I have committed myself to living intentionally, I feel more present in whatever I am doing, I can complete work faster, my spaces stay incredibly clean, I feel no guilt when taking time for myself, and I have plenty of time for social and creative pursuits! Before I made an effort to change my habits, I was often stressed and felt “in between” activities.
Best of luck, and I hope you see some amazing changes in your own life!