In conditioning a new habit, creating a consistent schedule is absolutely vital. During the initial phase, using a trial period can be a great way to ensure a commitment to your schedule. The usage of trial conditioning periods is prevalent in a lot of self-help information, often in the form of 21 day periods. Steve Pavlina recently popularized the 30 Day trial as the standard for changing habits, a standard that I follow as well.
What is often neglected is that trial periods have so many uses beyond simple habit conditioning. Trial periods, like goals, are an excellent tool for many different uses. By varying the length and purpose of the trial you can use trial periods for various aspects of personal growth. Using a trial period even has several distinct advantages over more casual approaches to personal development.
In all areas of life there are many choices we have to make. Unfortunately, many of these choices are fairly ambiguous. Is eating a vegetarian diet better than Mediterranean diet with fish and lean meats, or is the other way around? Is it better to use your intuition or rational mind when making critical decisions? There aren’t any easy answers to some of these questions. Opinions on these matters tend to be polarized with little middle room. In many cases the best way to find the best choice is simply to test both.
Experiments are also critical to making slight optimizations. I use Google AdSense on this website and most AdSense publishers try to carefully optimize their ads so they can bring the most revenue with the least irritation to readers. Without carefully run experiments it can be hard to optimize which ad positions are the better choices. Many of the discoveries I have made even in my brief run with AdSense seem to run counter to common sense or even AdSense optimization guidelines (e.g. preliminary testing shows the larger footer ad has done well even though it is below the fold). Similarly, using experiments in your own life can make steady improvements.
Trial periods are a great way to run experiments. By deciding in advance how much time and focus you are going to devote to exploring one of several choices you can be more thorough in finding an answer. Without using a trial and just guessing, your experimentation efforts will likely be far more biased, and will likely lack the thoroughness necessary to produce a meaningful result.
As an example, I feel new dietary changes should be given at least a month for the short-term effects and closer to six for you to fully appreciate longer term effects. Making a haphazard decision about the effectiveness of a diet after the first few days probably won’t be that accurate. Scheduling a trial period ensures better results.
People, as a rule, tend to do what has the most immediate significance to their lives. So things where immediate beneficial consequences are known tend to be pursued before activities which may have significant, but still undefined long-term consequences. This is clearly evidenced in many peoples decision to smoke or drink excessively to look cool, because the long-term impact of a shortened life and reduced health are far-off and vague.
Skills often require a great deal of practice and familiarity before they can have any practical advantage. Playing the piano, swimming and speed reading all require a large up-front investment in time before they have a useful benefit to the person practicing them. So unless someone is forcing you to practice a skill, as in a parent enrolling their young child in music lessons, or you have to master a skill to get a job or degree, we tend to only get good at things that we enjoy. If you enjoy cooking, you will master it, if you don’t enjoy cooking currently you probably won’t invest time in getting better.
Although I don’t think mastering activities you don’t enjoy is particularly worthwhile, there are many cases when you may not like an activity initially, but once you gain proficiency the skill could be incredibly fun and useful to you. Technical issues are a prime example. You may not like computers at first, but once you master technical skills you will enjoy the benefits of technical skill and the activity of using computers. In these cases, using a trial period can allow you to stick to mastering that skill.
Speed reading is an incredibly useful skill that has doubled my speed of reading and it has also improved my flexibility with my reading speed to scan items where only relevant information is necessary and slow down when every detail counts. I have read close to seventy books in this past year alone, including seven in one week. Since reading is one of the most fundamental skills in gathering new ideas for personal development, speed readings apparent uses are obvious.
Unfortunately speed reading is not exactly an exciting skill to learn. I bought a book and followed the lessons it outlined by myself, so I had to motivate myself to stick with it. The first part of speed reading seems pointless and is certainly very boring. There is a lot of practicing to improve your speed and comprehension and until you start noticing your rate improving and you get used to the techniques, it can be tempting to quit. I used a trial period to stick with speed reading so that I could push through the initial boredom phase and reap the immense benefits this skill can offer.
Simply decide how long you are willing to invest in practicing the skill. Smaller skills may need only a month. If the skill is incredibly important, you may want as much as six months to a year of focus. Second, decide the duration and how you are going to practice it each day. Some skills can simply be practiced in a time commitment, others may require special situations to practice and may need a more ingenious format for practice.
Just like speed reading there are thousands of other skills that are boring or frustrating to practice but the practical benefits are immense. By using a trial period you can stick with it long enough to begin reaping the benefits. Furthermore, you may discover that once you break the frustration barrier, you actually enjoy it!
Adding Commitment and Focus
One of the best reasons to use a trial is when you want to get a little added commitment towards something. Trial periods are temporary, so it is far easier to push through a trial period than it is to commit to something that has a vague duration. This truth is why trial periods are so effective in changing habits. Because only the initial conditioning period is difficult, trial periods leverage extra commitment during this time to ensure you stick with it.
Trial periods also add an extra element of focus. When personal development ideas are being thrown at you every single day, it can be hard to stay focused on one idea long enough to see any benefits. I write a new article here every day or two, but many of these ideas took me months to implement or fully realize. If you only worked on an idea while it was still fresh in your mind, it may not have any effect. A trial period ensures that you focus down on one idea long enough to get the benefits.
The final and sometimes subtle element of trials is that they make energy easy to keep track of. Consider energy like a bank account. Running a trial has a certain energy cost associated. If you were just spending your energy on various ideas, you may not spend enough on any one of them to get a benefit. But if you designate a certain amount of energy expenditure to a trial in advance, you are less likely to overload yourself.
I almost never attempt more than one trial at once. When I was starting with trials my energy levels were much lower than they are today and I would often require time in between each trial to keep my energy levels stable. I think I could probably run two trials at once now, but even that would be pushing things. This is why I have to shake my head when I hear people setting three or four habit trials at once when they are just starting out. Sure, you may be able to get several habits set with that approach but if any of the habits have even a small bit of difficulty, you have far less extra energy resources to put towards them. Overdoing a trial is generally a better approach.
Once you get a general feeling for how much energy it takes to run a trial you can be far more systematic and effective with your personal growth. Instead of practicing speed reading one day, going running the next and trying to eat healthfully on the third, you can successfully implant the benefits of one trial before moving onwards, whether it is for a habit or not.
Here is my call to action from you. If you aren’t currently running a trial period, I want you to decide upon just one thing that you would like to use a trial period for. You may want to set an experiment, build a skill or simply boost your focus and commitment towards a particular objective for a period. Decide upon an appropriate length of time for your trial and commit that you will follow this trial without a shadow of doubt. Finally, and this can sometimes be the hard part, promise that you won’t set another trial until you have successfully completed this one.
Now that you have done this I am opening the comments as a place for you to publicly make your commitment to your trial, you can also post it on your own blog if you have one. If it is an experiment, tell us what you are trying to weigh the benefits of. If it is a skill, tell us what the skill is and how you plan to commit to practicing it. If you are simply trying to leverage more commitment and focus to an area of your life for a period of time, tell us how you plan to do that. Finally, so long as you make your post within the next few days, I will try to offer my own personal advice to anyone who makes a comment to this post. Go ahead, make a change, test an idea, build a skill, start a trial to get more out of life!