If you have a true optimization mindset, you (can) apply it to all areas in life.
My interest in optimization started in 2007 in the field of personal growth. With my increased knowledge of experimentation over the last 10+ years, I enjoy combining the two fields today.
One of my main personal goals in 2021 was to become a morning person and reduce the amount of sleep by 1–2 hours per night. This would help me improve my physical health, meditate more often, and have more time to build my company (Conversion Ideas).
With New Year’s Eve and the associated resolutions coming up, this seems to be the right time to write about this topic.
In essence, optimization on a personal level follows the same process as in CRO, with some critical distinctions. Let’s start with those distinctions.
Personal optimization requires more work when the experiment is live
The main difference between personal optimization and CRO occurs when the experiment is live. In CRO, you can sit back and relax. For personal optimization, it is hard work to keep it live.
As in CRO, there are easy and complex experiments. The easiest experiments are those that require a minor tweak. For instance, buy light-blocking curtains to optimize sleep.
The complex experiments require behavioral change, like losing weight, meditating daily, or eating healthier. These can be a challenge.
To run complex experiments, you need to find your element and build habits.
Find your element
Your element is a combination of aptitude (talent) and passion. Your aptitude is your natural and intuitive ability to accomplish something. With passion, you feel a certain pleasure and delight while doing it.
When you find your element, you will often find yourself in a flow state. Flow means you are totally immersed in the task at hand.
When you find your element and get in a flow state, it is much easier to keep up with the new behavior.
For instance, I tried different sports to get in shape, ranging from football to boot camp and cross fit to HIIT. Eventually, kickboxing was the one I loved the most. Next, I tried six different gyms. I found one where I feel at home and motivated. Every time I start the training, I get in a flow state, making it very easy to keep up.
The coding and design phase of personal development is creating a plan to keep up the new behavior. The skill required for this is habit building.
A habit arises with a cue, followed by a craving, a response, and a reward.
The process of building healthy habits looks like this:
- Cue: Make it obvious. For instance, have fruits on your kitchen counter if you want to eat healthily. Or set alarms on your mobile to remind you to stay mindful. You can also stack habits: after going to the toilet, I will do a 2-minute breathing exercise.
- Craving: Make it attractive. Pair something you want with something you have to do. I.e., the anticipation of a delicious protein smoothie after a workout.
- Response: Make it easy. Start with repetition, not perfection. And make it small. A new habit should take less than two minutes. I.e., putting on your sports clothes after work or when making your breakfast, also make a vegetable smoothie (habit stacking) for later that day to eat more vegetables.
- Reward: Make it satisfying. Give yourself an immediate reward and keep track of your habits to see yourself grow.
In other words, know what to do, make it easy, tweak your physical environment, and have the right rewards in place. Also, don’t forget to use your social environment for support (like working out with a friend) and being a role model for you.
Furthermore, in CRO, you want to run as many experiments as possible to increase your chance of finding a winner. In personal optimization, you only want to run one or a few experiments simultaneously. It is impossible to build several new habits at once, making it hard to keep all experiments live.
For bad habits, the opposite counts:
- Cue: Make it invisible.
- Craving: Make it unattractive.
- Response: Make it difficult.
- Reward: Make it unsatisfying.
How I became a morning person using the CRO process
When you want to optimize your life, use the same process and mindset as in CRO.
- Research: What do you want to improve? Find great resources on that topic.
- Design and coding: Build a plan to keep up the behavior.
- Experiment: Test and find out what works and does not work for you.
- Measure: Reflect, track your progress, use a scale or trackers such as a Fitbit watch or Oura ring.
- Implement winners: Keep the winners and discard those things that don’t work for you.
When done, draw learnings and start your new experiment.
With a full-time job, I struggled to build my own business (Conversion Ideas). In the evenings, I am most productive. However, I often have other things planned, such as spending time with my partner, friends, and sports.
The mornings were not my best time of day. I needed 9 hours of sleep and some time to wake up. I wondered if, step-by-step, it was possible to reduce this to 7 hours of sleep, be productive in the morning, and have sufficient energy throughout the day.
I started reading several books and talking to people who wake up early. The most important books I read were The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma and The miracle morning by Hal Elrod.
Both books suggest a morning routine that focuses on mindset, physical health, emotional health, and spirituality. It roughly looks like this:
- 20 minutes of vigorous exercise
- 10 minutes of meditation
- 10 minutes of affirmations and journaling
- 20 minutes of learning.
(Building) the experiment
The goal was to implement the routine suggested by the books. However, this is a rather big change (usually, I aim for much smaller changes), so I had to make the change as small as possible.
The habit to implement was to set the alarm clock at 05:30 AM the night before. Then, to ensure I would not snooze, I asked my partner to kick me out of bed when the alarm clock rang.
The next habit was to start the interval timer on my phone to start my workout.
Every morning, during the journaling time, I reflected on my happiness, energy, and work done the day before.
At first, it did not look promising, as I lacked the energy at the end of the day, but as the experiment progressed and I got used to the new habits, it got better and better.
After completing this experiment, my energy was still a bit low at the end of the day. However, I got much more work done with increased happiness and extra workouts. Therefore, I decided to implement the winner and optimize from there to increase my energy throughout the day.
- Intermittent fasting (failed twice)
- The 20 minutes of learning seemed to make an impact on my energy. After testing it out, reading in-depth articles drained my energy. Reading inspirational content increased energy. (success)
- Skip routines in the morning to leave more time for work. (failed)
- Experiment with nutrition during the day. (success)
- A cold shower in the morning. (success)
- Take an extra hour of sleep after a bad night. (failed, surprisingly. It is better to stick to the routine)
- Take an extra hour of sleep after a late night. (success, cheat days increase happiness)
Did an experiment improve your life? Then keep it. If not, learn from it and start your new experiment.
As long as you have something you want to improve and enjoy experimenting on a personal level, keep going.
Currently, I have two experiments running. The first is finding the best timing for my protein smoothie, right after my morning workout or later in the afternoon to prevent craving food. And the second is planning more meetings on the phone instead of behind my computer. This helps me walk during a meeting (and make my Fitbit stop telling me I have to take more steps :-) ).
Are you experimenting on a personal level? I would love to hear about it!
Sources / Recommended books:
- The Element — Ken Robinson
- Flow — Csikszentmihalyi
- Atomic Habits — James Clear
- The power of habit — Charles Duhigg
- Switch — Dan & Chip Heath
- One small step can change your life — Robert Maurrer
- Tiny Habits — B.J. Fogg
- The 5 AM Club — Robin Sharma
- The miracle morning — Hal Elrod