Optimal Daily Experience

Everyone knows about RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances) of various nutrients. In a speech to new University of Washington students, David Salesin, a computer scientist, advised them to “maintain balance” by getting certain experiences daily:

  • something intellectual [such as a computer science class] (not so hard in college);
  • something physical (like running, biking, a team sport);
  • something creative (like music, art, or writing); and
  • something social (like lunch with a friend).

This served him well in college, he said, and he continued it after college.

I think he’s right — we need certain experiences to be healthy just as we need certain nutrients. My rough draft of such a list would be this: 1. Social. 2. Physical. Nassim Taleb’s ideas about exercise seem as good as anyone’s. This is really several requirements, for different sorts of exercise. 3. Travel. About an hour per day. 4. Hunger. The data behind the up-day-down-day diet suggest we should experience a substantial amount of hunger every week. 5. Face-to-face contact in the morning. About an hour. 6. Morning sunlight. An hour? 7. Being listened to. I suspect the therapeutic value of psychotherapy derives from this. I believe this is one reason blogging is popular — it provides a sense of being listened to. 8. Being helpful. 9. Being recognized as having value. Blogging helps here, too. 10. Being part of a group effort, something larger. Of course #1 (social) and #5 (morning faces) can come from the same experience, and so can #2 (physical) and #3 (travel). I wouldn’t say we need #7-#10 every day but perhaps several times per week.

I might add two more things: 11. Learning. After I started studying Chinese via Anki/treadmill, I started to sleep better. It wasn’t the treadmill; that wasn’t new. Several studies have found that people sleep more when they are learning intensely. After I became a professor, instances of concentrated learning — such as learning to use R — became rare. I remember how good they felt. How intense learning could go on throughout your life during the Stone Age isn’t obvious, however. Presumably all the experiences we need to be healthy were easily available then. 12. Foot stimulation. In a Beijing park, I came across a cobblestone track about a hundred yards long. Walking on it is supposed to be beneficial. I took off my shoes and socks and tried it. I was astonished how painful it felt — but day by day I could stand on it longer. This is a topic for another post but of course in the Stone Age people got a lot more foot stimulation than anyone reading this. Commercial cobblestone track. Thanks to Tim Lundeen for reawakening my interest in this.

22 Responses to “Optimal Daily Experience”

  1. Anthony Says:

    “How intense learning could go on throughout your life during the Stone Age isn’t obvious, however.”

    Have you ever tried to survive in the wild? I’m guessing there’s lots of learning involved …

  2. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    I would add: 13. Working on a project (i.e., an on-going activity that is directed toward a specific, meaningful goal).

  3. seth Says:

    that’s an interesting idea, Alex. Would working on an assembly line count? what about teaching kindergarten? What about garbage collecting? What about being a reference librarian?

  4. Vic Says:

    Seth, how many more interventions can make your sleeping better? I thought you were already at around a 99.99 in terms of restedness after adding more animal fat to your diet…

  5. seth Says:

    Vic, if I stand for 9 or 10 hours, there’s no discernible room for improvement. But it’s really hard to stand that much so I don’t. And I probably do less than the optimal amount of one-legged standing. The Anki produced an increase in how long I slept, without a big increase in how rested I felt when I awoke — which, as you say, was already really high.

  6. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Seth, I wasn’t thinking of a job. I was thinking more of writing a book, restoring an old car, losing weight, creating a family scrapbook, or planting (and maintaining) a vegetable garden.

  7. seth Says:

    Thanks, Alex.

  8. Alexandra Carmichael Says:

    Fascinating as always, Seth!! Having come to rely perhaps too much on tracking devices to homogenize my life, I’m cautiously warming up to a life of extremes…

    I’m especially curious about the daily travel though – what’s the reasoning behind that?

    For my own list I would add a good laugh and a long hug each day (tied in to social connection), and a monthly meta-layer of re-evaluating my life goals and my optimal daily experience list. :)

  9. bjk Says:

    Stories are important, telling or hearing stories. An enormous amount of caveman entertainment must have been in the form of stories, maybe at dinner or right after, perhaps in the form of “we chased this animal and then hit him over the head like this and then” stories. This might go under social or creative, but they’re not the same.

  10. seth Says:

    Alexandra, long ago (the 1970s?) someone found that commuters tend to travel about an hour per day — regardless of the length of their trip! so people who had short distance trips made them longer duration than necessary. And I’ve come across lots of personal stories that back this up. For example, a friend who worked at home would travel about an hour outside her house every day. Purely by choice.

  11. mark larson | Connecting some threads: a well-balanced life Says:

    [...] And I went on to remind myself: “Gotta be constantly tweaking the recipe, right? I kinda know the ingredients but the ratios get out of whack”. I say all this because it reminded me of something that I bookmarked a couple months ago and forgot to share, which is Seth Roberts on Optimal Daily Experience (via Justin Wehr): Everyone knows about RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances) of various nutrients. In a speech to new University of Washington students, David Salesin, a computer scientist, advised them to “maintain balance” by getting certain experiences daily: [...]

  12. Tamaranth Says:

    Hi! I’ve been doing something similar for a year or so now, with the acronym SPINACH (Social, Physical, Intellectual, New, Artistic, Cultural, Helpful). My categories mostly seem to overlap with yours — and with each other: learning something can count as both Intellectual and New!
    However, I’ve found it useful to include Artistic (which is really ‘Creative’, but the acronym got confusing: encompasses writing, craft activities, baking) and Cultural, which might be anything from reading a novel to listening to (new) music to watching a movie. Or maybe that’s the way I make myself part of something greater …

  13. How to Have an Optimal Daily Experience « Tape Noise Diary Says:

    [...] How to Have an Optimal Daily Experience by jaycruz on June 1, 2010 Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » Optimal Daily Experience [...]

  14. The unreasonable effectiveness of self-experimentation « 720 hours Says:

    [...] Seth Robert’s blog [...]

  15. Ram Robuck Says:

    Insofar as I can see it, the optimum daily experience is one which leads to high productivity and can only be determined in retrospect. Some people’s most productive days are borne in solitude.

  16. Self-experimentation, unusually effective « Artificial Intelligence Church Says:

    [...] A paper by Seth Roberts on how/why self experiments are so effective (PDF) via Quantified Self. Over 12 years, my self-experimentation found new and useful ways to improve sleep, mood, health, and weight. Why did it work so well? First, my position was unusual. I had the subject-matter knowledge of an insider, the freedom of an outsider, and the motivation of a person with the problem. I didn’t need to publish regularly. I didn’t want to display status via my research. Second, I used a powerful tool. Self-experimentation about the brain can test ideas much more easily (by a factor of about 500,000) than conventional research about other parts of the body. When you gather data, you sample from a power-law-like distribution of progress. Most data helps a little; a tiny fraction of data helps a lot. My subject-matter knowledge and methodological skills (e.g., in data analysis) improved the distribution from which I sampled (i.e., increased the average amount of progress per sample). Self-experimentation allowed me to sample from it much more often than conventional research. Another reason my self-experimentation was unusually effective is that, unlike professional science, it resembled the exploration of our ancestors, including foragers, hobbyists, and artisans. Some of the most prolific makers I know seem to enjoy improving themselves as well as the things around them – they’re like little laboratories of optimization. Pictured above, a photo from my recent visit to Instructables. Christy and Eric who run the show there found they work better if they walk all day slowly at the computer – a challenge, so they built treadmill computer desks. Read more | Permalink | Comments | Read more articles in hacks | Digg this! [...]

  17. Daniel Says:

    @Ram Robuck.

    I don’t think its necessarily about productivity, just about living a fulfilling life. Although I’ve got to say, if I do physical activity every day I am more productive.

  18. Self-experimentation, unusually effective | Daring Minds.Com Says:

    [...] A paper by Seth Roberts on how/why self experiments are so effective (PDF) via Quantified Self. Over 12 years, my self-experimentation found new and useful ways to improve sleep, mood, health, and weight. Why did it work so well? First, my position was unusual. I had the subject-matter knowledge of an insider, the freedom of an outsider, and the motivation of a person with the problem. I didn’t need to publish regularly. I didn’t want to display status via my research. Second, I used a powerful tool. Self-experimentation about the brain can test ideas much more easily (by a factor of about 500,000) than conventional research about other parts of the body. When you gather data, you sample from a power-law-like distribution of progress. Most data helps a little; a tiny fraction of data helps a lot. My subject-matter knowledge and methodological skills (e.g., in data analysis) improved the distribution from which I sampled (i.e., increased the average amount of progress per sample). Self-experimentation allowed me to sample from it much more often than conventional research. Another reason my self-experimentation was unusually effective is that, unlike professional science, it resembled the exploration of our ancestors, including foragers, hobbyists, and artisans. [...]

  19. Self-experimentation, unusually effective - machine quotidienne Says:

    [...] A paper by Seth Roberts on how/why self experiments are so effective (PDF) via Quantified Self. Over 12 years, my self-experimentation found new and useful ways to improve sleep, mood, health, and weight. Why did it work so well? First, my position was unusual. I had the subject-matter knowledge of an insider, the freedom of an outsider, and the motivation of a person with the problem. I didn’t need to publish regularly. I didn’t want to display status via my research. Second, I used a powerful tool. Self-experimentation about the brain can test ideas much more easily (by a factor of about 500,000) than conventional research about other parts of the body. When you gather data, you sample from a power-law-like distribution of progress. Most data helps a little; a tiny fraction of data helps a lot. My subject-matter knowledge and methodological skills (e.g., in data analysis) improved the distribution from which I sampled (i.e., increased the average amount of progress per sample). Self-experimentation allowed me to sample from it much more often than conventional research. Another reason my self-experimentation was unusually effective is that, unlike professional science, it resembled the exploration of our ancestors, including foragers, hobbyists, and artisans. [...]

  20. Elba Davis Says:

    my God, i assumed you were going to chip in with some decisive insght on the finish there, not leave it with ‘we go away it to you to determine’.

  21. Apollo Lemmon » The Experiment and The Practice Says:

    [...] In the blog entry “Optimal Daily Experience“, Roberts also commented on essential experiences to have each day, giving a valuable template for building a rewarding life. In brief and slightly clarified, here is his set of optimal experiences. [...]

  22. Dan Says:

    Hey Seth,

    I like your post it really speaks some truth in the matter of physical needs. The body needs to be constantly releasing certain chemicals like endorphins and adrenaline which are commonly produced by exercise. It also needs to get into the habit of breaking down fat cells and fatty acids, and of course burning calories. I agree with the other stuff but mainly support the point of physical activity as I’m a professional fitness blogger myself. Cool blog by the way! Feel free to drop by mine anytime.

    Take care