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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist psychologist to discover that New Year’s resolutions don’t work.  In fact, it turns out that the data scientists at location based check in service Foursquare can predict the exact day that you’re going to fall off the wagon.  Consider this anecdote from Foursquare’s Sarah Spagnolo:

“We know that people go to gyms and fast food restaurants. Right after New Year’s Eve, people return to the gym in droves. This is something that everybody understands. But there is one day when people’s bad habits catch up with their New Year’s resolutions, and that date is the first Thursday in February, which in 2017 is going to be February 2nd. That’s the day that we call ‘Fall Off The Wagon Day,’ and that’s when the downturn in visits to gyms and the upswing in people going to fast food restaurants intersect.”

— Sarah Spagnolo, via TMSIDK

Knowing that I have the willpower of a preschooler with a bag of marshmallows, I gave up on making resolutions years ago.  Goal-setting, on the other hand, has measurable impacts on a number of metrics, including job performance and satisfaction. With the right strategy and incentives, goal-setting can be an effective means of personal development.

So this year, I’m taking advantage of the arbitrary turning of the calendar to explore goal setting and personal development in an experiment inspired by the uncontested, bona fide master of lifestyle experimentation.

Meet King Solomon

At first glance, King Solomon had it all. He threw epic parties and had more money than you could possibly imagine.  Yet he authored a book that begins, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”

The book of Ecclesiastes is King Solomon’s version of The Four Hour Workweek, only written 2500 years earlier.  In it, Solomon recounts a lifetime of unbridled self-exploration; the pursuit of ultimate fulfillment and satisfaction.

I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. — Ecclesiastes 1:13

As we read about Solomon’s lavish lifestyle, we follow along with his story of exploring the pursuits of men to ridiculous extremes. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Solomon was ridiculously wise. We know from 1 Kings 3 that God gave Solomon wisdom and made him the wisest man who ever lived.  But Solomon soon discovered that knowledge and wisdom alone don’t lead to fulfillment — in fact, just the opposite is true. The more Solomon grew in knowledge, wisdom, and experience, the more meaningless things seemed to become.
  • Solomon was ridiculously wealthy.  Ecclesiastes 2 begins, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure, enjoy yourself.’” Think Trump Tower.  He built lavish parks.  He built massive homes.  He married 700 wives.  He built homes for all of his wives.
  • Solomon was ridiculously powerful. Solomon ruled a kingdom.  He had power and influence beyond what you or I could possibly imagine.  By all measures, Solomon “had it all.”

Yet after a lifetime of pushing worldly opulence to the limits, Solomon declared, “I considered all that my hands had done and all the toil I had expended in doing it and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

That’s because, Solomon says, we are designed to “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”  All of our other pursuits will come up empty and unfulfilling if we fail to put God first.

The book of Ecclesiastes is designed to reveal to the reader that even when the vain pursuits of man — wealth, sex, wisdom, power — are taken to their logical conclusion, they will never give you the fulfillment that you’re trying to find by pursuing them.

While worldly pursuits won’t provide the ultimate fulfillment that we often expect to find in them — Solomon’s thesis is that we can find ultimate fulfillment in God alone — that doesn’t mean that worldly experiences are inherently unhelpful.

I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

In short, we are to enjoy the gifts that God has given us within the constraints of his commandments, and we are to do so in light of the truth that joy and fulfillment come only from the gift-giver, not the gifts themselves.

Lifestyle experiments in light of Solomon

We’ve all heard stories of pursuits of joy, excitement, and fulfillment gone awry. It might be the story of your life in college after growing up in a conservative home.  It could be the recurring story that shows up in the lives of celebrities, who spend their entire careers seeking fame and fortune, only to succumb to drugs and alcohol when those pursuits turn up empty.

Thankfully, Solomon saved us all a lot of time and puts up some “guard rails” for the pursuit of joy and fulfillment.

  1. Holiness should be our top priority.
  2. We should enjoy what God has given us.

These principles necessarily impose certain constraints on how I should design and carry out my experiments.  If holiness — represented by love for God and obedience to the commandments that he has given in his word — is the greatest good and our highest end, then I can rule out anything that would come between me and my pursuit of holiness.

Further, if enjoying God’s gifts is a virtue, then anything that would come between me and my enjoyment of the gifts that God has given me — the good gifts, namely my life and my family — should be removed.  The exception, of course, is if those gifts lead me to violate the first principle to pursue holiness as a first priority.

The desired outcomes of my lifestyle experiments

The principles above — that holiness should be our top priority and that we should enjoy what God has given us — bring a surprising simplicity to defining my desired outcomes for the coming year.

  1. Enjoy God more.
  2. Enjoy life more.

To those ends, I will be embarking on a series of two-week lifestyle experiments. I’ll maintain a list throughout the year, adding and prioritizing potential experiments as I go.  I will select and focus on one experiment at a time, each with a defined start and end date, and I will document the experiment and the results as I’m able.

Most experiments will fall into one of the following three categories, with some exceptions.

  1. Becoming more healthy — spiritually, physically, and emotionally
  2. Enriching my family life
  3. Enjoying my work and ministry
  4. Pursuing the absurd *

* A little “hat tip” to Solomon, this category is designed to help me break out of my comfort zone and routine, experience new things, to account for random ideas that may pop up, and to provide flexibility for changing life situations that I can’t predict. Don’t worry: “acquire 700 wives and concubines” isn’t on the list. See my note on wife veto power below.

Despite the pop psychology claim that it takes 21 days to develop a new habit, more nuanced research says that the time required for a behavior to become “automatic” is closer to two months. I’m intentionally keeping the duration of each experiment short to lower the barrier to entry and make it more likely for me to commit to each one, so I’m not expecting major life transformation from each individual experiment. Instead, what I expect to happen is a shift in my overall outlook and the development of some new habits that may continue beyond the two week timeline.

Guidelines for lifestyle experimentation

In addition to Solomon’s “guardrails,” I’ll be exploring the following guidelines and principles as I design my lifestyle experiments.

  • Cultivate self-experimentation as a way of life.  I got this idea from A.J. Jacobs, editor of Esquire magazine and self-experimenter extraordinaire.  He actually wrote the book on self-experimentation, aptly titled, “My Life As An Experiment.” One nugget from his approach to lifestyle experimentation: his wife gets full veto power.  Smart man.
  • Rig the game so you can win.  This is a recommendation from Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour everything, human guinea pig, and professor of all things optimization.  In his books, Tim advocates for setting the bar low so that you can experience some initial successes — which provide the fuel for continued growth.
  • Set the stakes.  Two predictors of success in meeting goals are accountability and risk.  My wife and I were recently discussing how we both feel undisciplined in our journey to grow personally and spiritually, mostly because there is no immediate, obvious consequence to skip over bible study and prayer, or to eat an extra cheeseburger and skip the gym.  To be honest, I haven’t quite figured this one out yet (see my first experiment below), but I will likely pursue an app like Stickk and some close friends to promote accountability and risk around meeting (or not meeting) my goals.


So, what’s next?

My first two week experiment is going to be take an inventory of my life in light of my two goals — enjoying God and enjoying the gifts that he has given me.

To do this, I will use the Best Self Journal — a journal that I’ve personally used in the past, but fell off of the wagon — to keep a daily record of my progress and identify the things that bring me closer to my desired outcomes and those which bring me farther away from my desired outcomes.  That list will serve as the basis for future experiments.

After two weeks, I’ll write a post here with the results and announce my next experiment.

Ideas for upcoming experiments

The list below is a quick “brain dump” of some initial ideas for lifestyle experiments.  They may or may not happen, but this is the direction I’m thinking of going.

  • Commit to one hour of daily scripture reading, meditation, and prayer.
  • Write a blog post a day for two weeks
  • Take a two week media fast.
  • Commit to a two-week exercise regimen, with a minimum of 3 days per week.
  • Drink only water for two weeks — no coffee, soda, or other beverages.
  • No screen time after dinner.
  • Take a two week trip with my family (possibly a short term mission trip).

Will you share your feedback?

Have any thoughts or feedback?  I’d love to hear them, and value your ideas and encouragement.  Leave a comment below or find me on the Twitter @roblaughter.