Drawing upon your own life experiments

Story highlights

  • Don't think of long-term commitments as a means to an end, but the goal itself
  • The theory of "deliberate practice" is linked to success in medicine, sports, spelling bees, chess and playing the piano

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here.

(CNN)Life unfolds by the scientific method, in a series of theories we test and outcomes from which we learn. We're all just trying to figure out the best way to live and we do so by trial and error every day.

We are kicking bad habits, searching for happiness, improving relationships, saving the planet, advancing our careers, getting in shape and so on. Or at least trying to, by converting our thoughts into action and then trying over and over again until we discover what works (and doesn't). "All life is an experiment," wrote the science-minded transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. "The more experiments you make, the better."
    Life itself is an experiment, but you can turn up the heat on that Bunsen burner by concocting your own DIY experiments toward various short- and long-term objectives. I personally have about a half dozen going at any given time, which is probably too many, but good fodder for Wisdom Project columns.

      The spoils of long-term commitment

      One of my longest is the choice I made to become vegetarian 20 Thanksgivings ago. The only other idea or project I've committed to longer has been keeping a journal (26 years and counting).
      A longitudinal experiment that spans decades has unique challenges and rewards. The challenge is sticking to it, not just in moments when it's a struggle, but also during periods when you lose touch with its value or purpose. The rewards come later, sometimes subtly and unexpectedly, so you have to keep faith in them in the absence of short-term payoffs. There's no easy hack for this. The closest I've come up with is revisiting the initial reasons for my choice and, when that doesn't work, sticking with it anyway.
        This theory is often referred to as "deliberate practice" and research has linked it to success in medicine, sports, spelling bees, chess and playing the piano. Simply persevering and sticking to any long-term goal has the added benefit of increasing the likelihood of general success. It's more predictive than IQ or talent. You may even be able to extrapolate that the benefits of long-term dedication to a goal or ideal are akin to benefits of a long-term, committed relationship, which research ties to a greater sense of life satisfaction and happiness.
        Sticking with vegetarianism for two decades has taught me a lot -- about myself, about ethics, food, culture and even human nature. Some lessons took years to reveal themselves. What started as a simple and surprisingly easy ethical choice has been a portal of growth and self-improvement when it pushes me outside my comfort zone.

        Make the action itself the goal

        Most of our experiments (resolutions, mantras, lifehacks, diets, new habits, etc.) have some end goal in mind. But despite the worth of those goals, we often don't stick with them. New Year's resolutions, research has shown us, have a discouraging 8% success rate, with more than half given up by summer.
        So part of the secret of a long-term commitment is not thinking of it as a means to an end, but as the goal itself. Instead of focusing on losing 15 pounds, make two hours of exercise every week the commitment. By staying resolved to that week after week, the weight loss will follow, along with more energy, better sleep and perhaps a longer life.
        Some commitments bring less predictable outcomes. In a fascinating TED Talk, "planet walker" John Francis reflected on unexpected lessons in environmentalism and education over 30 years of refusing to take motorized transportation, and an overlapping 17-year long vow of silence. "Leave behind the security of who we've become," Francis says, "and go to the place of who we are becoming."
        Having a self-improvement goal be the action itself is often more successful than trying to reach an objective. The Japanese have a business philosophy that sums up this concept of small changes, over a long period, leading to big change: