Using Experimentation to Explore Three Themes in 2023
Plans are made to be broken and goals are simply a snapshot in time. Both have a misleading way of giving a sense of clarity and certainty that rarely lasts long. I am no friend of predicting-and-planning my way into inevitable disappointment when my best laid January plans inevitably become June pains. I’m supposed to set a goal today that’s going to be relevant and worthwhile and motivating seven months from now? I barely know what I need to do next week.
That being said, I do think there’s something to be said for intentionality. I think themes are a nice way to put some very light guardrails around some intentions without turning them into a yearlong goal-slog. Even better than guardrails, articulating a theme is a way to create a useful attentional lens that you can use in surprising ways to notice what’s going on around you in new ways.
I’ve used theme(s) in the past, but I’ve never tried to use them in explicit conjunction with my other favorite method — the personal experiment. It seems like an obvious connection, though, right? Set a theme or two that basically gives a useful directional heading for the year and then use relatively short (one to three week) personal experiments to explore within those themes. So, that’s what I’m going to try this year: set a couple broad themes that describe the general areas I feel like I need to explore this year and commit to running as many experiments that investigate, challenge, and push against those themes as I can usefully metabolize over the next twelve months.
In no particular order, here are the three general themes I want to use to bring some structure to my personal experimentation in 2023.
As David Allen says, the better you get the better you’d better get. I’m seven and a half years into an intense consulting career. As I’ve gotten better at my job I’ve found myself in progressively more complex environments that seem to regularly come with higher-stakes moments than ever before. I love it, but it requires that I keep getting better at what I do. If I stay stagnant I will get overwhelmed. One way to stay stagnant is to constantly feel like I’m being pulled in many directions simultaneously and not actually developing deeper expertise in anything.
One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that because I have such well-considered and robust systems for being productive, I have a tendency to take on way too much. Because my capacity for work is high, it’s very easy for me to fill that capacity with relatively low-impact busywork that fills the hours but doesn’t necessarily create the outcomes I want to see. It’s time for me to really start figuring out how to eliminate those attractive nuisances and focus on the highest impact stuff that only I can do.
Possible Areas to Experiment
- What kinds of caps/rules/limits can I put in my days/weeks that will force me to get better rather than just working harder?
- What commitments feel inviolable but are actually distractions? Do I have what it takes to step away from them?
- How do I better match the type of work to the energy it needs? How do I build the most important work I have to do into my most naturally energetic periods of time?
- What does it look like to take my existing hobbies and interests deeper?
- How can you be a curious person and also focused?
- What does it look like to always take the most direct moves from where I am to where I want to be?
I often focus on myself too much. I can take my interest in personal development too far and in doing so become insular. I often lose sight of the fact that I’m part of a network of relationships that are incredibly important to me. I’m a new husband as of this year. I have four younger brothers who are my best friends but also live many states away. As The Ready grows I have friends/colleagues who I used to work with side-by-side every day but now only seem to see or talk to a couple times a year. I have friends from graduate school who I only periodically exchange text messages with. I don’t need to sustain every friendship forever and I don’t need every friendship to be deeply intimate. But I wonder if I’d feel better about myself and my life if I spend more time and energy on my relationships in 2023?
Possible Areas to Experiment
- If Emily and I are going to stay in the Washington D.C. area long-term, as it looks like we might, are we building relationships with people and building community here?
- What’s the right cadence and format for keeping my most important relationships healthy?
- How can I be a better friend? Brother? Son? Husband?
- I’ve neglected my social life pretty consistently for most of my life. Is that something I want to do? Am I missing something by being aggressively reluctant to “do things”?
A solid 75% of my journal entries from 2022 were me lamenting that I wasn’t writing enough and how terrible that made me feel. I know I only tend to feel my best when I’m consistently writing. I used to think this was evidence of some kind of latent narcissism that was looking for a way to express itself. I worried that my writing was a way to demonstrate my intelligence to people I admired. Writing as head-pat-mechanism, basically. I’ve recently learned I really don’t think it’s about that for me (although I won’t turn down a head-pat from someone I admire). It’s the fact that writing consistently means I’m thinking consistently. And, on the flip side, if I’m not writing it means I’m not actually thinking very deeply about much of anything. I want to be a deep thinker. I want to wrestle with big questions and make sense of the world around me. I can only do that if I’m regularly prioritizing the time to make my thinking visible (even if only to myself).
When I don’t write enough I feel like I’m wearing a damp sweater that I can’t take off. It’s profoundly uncomfortable and all encompassing. Every subtle movement is a reminder that this sucks. Sometimes, it even seems like I don’t have the power to remove it. Which is stupid, right? I can just take it off. I could just write more. That’s it. Simple. It’s time to hang the Damp Sweater of Non-Creation in the closet and never look at it again.
Possible Areas to Experiment
- How much do I need to write in a given day, week, month to feel like I did enough? Is it time-based? Page-based? Publication-based? Something else?
- How much can I write in a week?
- What types of writing should I experiment with more?
- What would it look like to make a concerted effort to actually participate in social media more (rather than primarily as a consumer)?
- How can I lean into working-in-public while still having the patience and discipline to spend the right amount of time to create something really great?
- Can I build some sort of momentum around a body of work related to The Deliberate?
My intention is to use my Deliberate Pattern Library as the ongoing record of what experiments I’m doing throughout the year and what I’m learning from them.
I imagine I’ll write about most of the experiments as I do them in The Deliberate, too. I’m not necessarily going to hold myself to always be running an experiment (it can be nice to take a break) but I imagine more often than not I’ll be doing something toward one of these themes (even if it’s quite small or simple). I’m also not saying that I won’t do an experiment that doesn’t align with one of these themes if it feels useful or interesting.
Ultimately, I’m hoping the commitment to both themes and a rhythm of experimentation will help me uncover the things that I’m not even thinking about right now. These three themes of Focusing, Relating, and Creating have interesting overlaps, tensions, and implications that I can’t see from my vantage point today. Only by digging into them through experimentation will I start to uncover what they have in store for me.
This article originally appeared on SamSpurlin.com and The Deliberate newsletter. Sign up for The Deliberate to be the first to know when I publish new articles. Follow me on Twitter to be the first to know when I have an inane thought that I decided to share with the world.