If you’ve read my work for any amount of time, you probably know that I regularly and enthusiastically engage in lifestyle experiments. Which in practice means that I adjust the way I do something for a set period, and then stop to assess what I learned from the experience.
Some of these experiments are short-term and relatively simple. You can learn a lot from changing up your caffeine consumption habits or diet for a few weeks, for instance, and deciding to avoid caffeine completely or relegate its use to a specific time frame each day is a straightforward enough system to implement.
But even the simplest of undertakings can be revelatory, and taking the time to address something in your life that you’d like to know more about, or which you think could be improved upon, or which you simply haven’t thought about in a while, can itself be of value.
I recently undertook a larger-scale experiment, which involved setting aside dating, and all related activities, for one year.
I was newly single, and I realized it had been a while since I had been solo in that way. Further, it had been a while since I took a step back and looked at the bigger picture when it came to that facet of my life.
I also knew I would soon be undertaking another experiment that involved returning to the US to try to understand some of what’s happening here, and to dive into some fields in inquiry (learning to cook, for instance) that I’d been putting off pursuing for years. A relationship-focused experiment seemed like a good accompaniment to those other adjustments.
When you travel full-time, you can become so malleable that, after a while, you don’t even know what your default preferences are anymore.
This was the case for me, anyway. I’d spent so much time renting other peoples’ homes, living amidst other peoples’ stuff, temporarily adopting the habits and rhythms of these far-flung places, that I didn’t have a firm grasp on what I would do without those external influences on my behaviors and inclinations.
Combine that propensity with the bending that tends to happen within relationships—where both people give a little to ensure that everyone is getting what they need out of the partnership—and you can understand my mindset at the time. I knew who I was and what I enjoyed and what I wanted out of life, but I didn’t know what that looked like all by itself, uninformed by another person in my life or foreign culture mores I could adopt.
Moving back to the US for a while, and having my own blank canvas—my own flat without anyone else’s stuff and history already in place—would help me address one side of that. And eschewing dating for a time, I believed, would help me reset my relationship compass and get a clearer view of myself as an individual than I’d had the opportunity to see for a long time.
If I’m being honest, I questioned the veracity of this experiment from the beginning. A lot of people go without dating for long periods of time; it’s not an unusual thing. What did I expect to learn here, anyway?
But after the first month or so, the difference between not dating because you haven’t met the right person or because you’re too busy, and not dating as an intentional choice, became a lot clearer.
This wasn’t a matter of longing and waiting for something good to arrive, and leaving a space in my world for that potentiality, just in case. It was about filling that space, using all of it. It was, in some ways, about spending the time I would have spent dating on becoming the person I wanted to be when I started dating again in the future.
I’ll be writing more about this in the coming months, but a few quick notes about the experience that I think are useful in isolation:
First, it’s easy to get caught up in “the way things are” and “the way things should be.” Not all experiments will be revelatory, but even those involving shockingly mundane things that we take for granted can result in an immense and valuable perspective shift.
Second, everything is connected to every other thing. Some of the most practical insights I gleaned from this experiment had nothing to do with dating, and everything to do with how I manage my time, how I see myself as an individual, and what I value.
Third, you really can’t be half-committed to this type of experiment and have it work correctly. The first month or so, my head wasn’t fully in it, and I didn’t see the benefits or notice many changes. After that period, however, I deleted my dating apps, reallocated my time, adjusted my habits, and the realizations and changes started appearing with relative frequency.
Fourth, friends are vitally important and become increasingly difficult to make as you get older. This is especially true when you don’t have a school or workplace through which you can make initial connections in a new city. One of the big issues we’re going to have to tackle as a society, I think, is how we develop and evolve non-romantic relationships throughout our lives even as our communities become (for many reasons) more distributed and impersonal.
And fifth, there’s something incredibly satisfying about focusing on personal growth for no other reason than you want to. In other words, to be doing it for you, not for someone else. Other people will no doubt benefit from the improved you at some point in the future, but it’s a different experience pursuing that growth because it makes you happy, rather than because of some implied responsibility to do it for someone else.
This essay was originally published in my newsletter, which goes out twice a month, and which you can subscribe to here.