Humans are very good at pattern recognition. We’re so good at it, in fact, that we “trick ourselves” into seeing familiar patterns in clouds or in Rorschach blots. But we can’t recognize a pattern anywhere if we don’t look for one. Keeping the record isn’t going to do you any good if you don’t go back and analyze it.

Conversely, we might feel a sense of accomplishment if we make some change “for our health”, but we can’t have real confidence in it unless we can point to a pattern of cause and effect linked to it. Put those pattern recognition skills to work, and quell any doubts about the value of your adopted habits—whether those doubts are your own, or those of others who look askance at your strange new ideas about food, medicine, and movement.

baseline patterns

If you started your record before you made changes, you can look in it for baseline patterns in your health:

  • Review your record, and look for anytime you felt particularly bad, particularly good, or particularly weird: migraine, nausea, panic attack, carpal tunnel; made a creative breakthrough, smiled at strangers, felt lucky; got turned around in my own neighborhood, forgot my co-worker’s name, lost an hour wandering in the internet. These could be isolated events, or “flare-ups” of chronic or recurring conditions you’re already aware of.
  • Search for other instances of that same bad, good, or weird feeling in your record.
  • Look at the days prior to those unusual feelings, to see if you can find any intake/output differences from your norm: changed my workout routine, tried a new restaurant, had ice cream for the first time in a month.

Some patterns will have a short time frame, like a few hours or a day. Had cheap take-out for lunch, headache at 2pm. Skipped breakfast Monday, snacked three times that day. Went to bed early on Wednesday, got a lot done on Thursday! Others will recur weekly. Pasta night on Thursdays, diarrhea on Fridays. Four hours’ sitting in the Tuesday status meeting, backache every Tuesday night. Still others could be on the scale of a month or longer. Drank Nettle and Friends every day this month, PMS & cramps were much less intense. But it should be possible in almost all cases to find some connection worth investigating.

(If you jumped right in and switched everything around on the day you started keeping your record, don’t worry. You can still get useful information to drive good results. But do take some time to reflect on your pre-change condition, and write down some notes about recurrent health problems, along with anything you suspect makes them better or worse.)

making changes

Generally, when starting a self-experiment, you’ll already have some information to work with. You’re not likely to spontaneously decide to start eating or exercising differently out of the blue: change takes work, and you’ll only put in the work if you have some expectation of benefit based on information you trust. Depending on your personality, this could be anything from a recommendation from a friend, to an article you happened across while browsing, to an intensive review of studies and reports on the subject.

So you’ll probably have some idea, when you start changing your diet and habits, about which areas of your health you’re hoping to affect. But, I would suggest that it’s best to keep your goals general. Don’t get too caught up in the adjustment of one number or another, be it your body mass index, cholesterol count, or one-rep max for the benchpress. Try to see the whole picture.

If you don’t have a specific health target in mind, you don’t have to worry too much about isolating variables—determining the individual effect of each dietary or lifestyle change. You’d do this if your goal was to determine whether a reduction of your sugar intake by 100g/day resulted in more favorable A1C numbers after 60 days, or whether taking 10ml of hawthorn extract three times a day reduced your incidence of heart palpitations by 90%—but that’s not your goal. Your goal is to feel better, and fast. Making multiple simultaneous changes will be more effective. You can always rechallenge some individual pieces later, if you have a nagging doubt that some aspect of your new program isn’t doing you all that much good.

Mark down in your record when you decide to make a change, and don’t be shy about telling your friends and family. Having it on paper, and letting others know about it, will keep you accountable!

making connections

After you’ve made your changes (gone soy-free, made your sleeping space as dark as possible, started walking 30 minutes a day) and—and this is key—stuck with them long enough for your body to adjust, then you can begin to evaluate their effects. The process is much the same as when looking for baseline patterns.

Review your record over the whole period of your experiment, and try again to find any bad/good/weird feelings. This time, keep a particular eye out for those symptoms you were hoping to address with your changes; note both their frequency and their symptom scores, and whether and how they changed over the course of your experiment. But look, too, for general trends: are you feeling good more often than not? Are your energy levels higher, overall?

It can be especially helpful to compare your condition now, after a month (or more) of your experiment, to your condition at baseline, before you changed anything at all.

Once you’ve found those trends and patterns, drawing a conclusion should be simple. If your habitual complaints have lessened, if a previously deteriorating condition has stabilized or begun to turn around, if you’ve gotten more done or felt less stressed — if you’re meeting your definition of health — then your experimental change has been working.

If it’s working, stick with it! If it isn’t, you can turn your attention to other options. If you’re not sure one way or the other, you have choices—you can try to identify and eliminate some confounding variables, stick with it for another period to see if effects will emerge after more time, or just leave it in the “undecided” category and focus on things that do have apparent success.

In any event, you’ve gained some useful information about how this change works in your own particular case, and because you’ve done your due diligence, you can feel confident in your decisions about it as you go forward.


In the next, final article of this series, I’ll summarize the process and give some tips for putting this into practice.


Other articles in this series:

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