The Success Formula: Experiment & Plan

When wanting to move your life forward, you have two actionable options: you can plan or you can experiment. This article isn’t to say that one is superior to the other in general, it’s to clarify when to use each one. Together, they comprise the success formula.

Plan When You Want Specific Outcomes

I like to go on cruises. Before the ship sets sail, every single event on the cruise is planned ahead of time by the cruise line. By planning out every single event, they minimize the chance of unexpected events.

The primary purpose of planning is to achieve a singular, narrow goal, such as delivering a pleasant cruise based on prior pleasant cruise formulas. But there are some situations in which a single outcome is not desired or even known.

Experiment for Experience and Knowledge

I’ve had a very good early career as an author. My books have sold over half a million copies in 18 languages. But the funny thing is that I didn’t plan for this!

In about 2005, I casually experimented with blogging on Facebook (using the now-defunct “notes” app) and Xanga.

In 2011, I became curious about blogging for a wider audience and having my own website. So, without a plan, I created I didn’t know how websites worked. I didn’t know what WordPress was! I didn’t know how to get readers. I didn’t have any idea if or how I could make money doing it. But I started. I jumped in without looking, because it’s inexpensive to create and run a website (it’s roughly $100 a year to start out with a domain name and hosting).

This is a great example of experimenting vs planning, because I didn’t have enough information and experience to plan my path even if I wanted to. I didn’t even know what I ultimately wanted out of the blog. It was simply an experiment, followed by more experiments, to see what I might learn.

For example, I tried writing a lot of blog posts on my website and sharing them on social media. But that only brought my friends to read my articles, and not all of them were interested. It wasn’t much different than posting on Facebook! I could see that doing this would not give me much additional exposure.

I changed the blog’s design about 82 times. It was fun, but I knew it wasn’t ultimately going to lead anywhere worthwhile. It doesn’t matter what your website looks like if nobody sees it.

Then I tried guest posting. It seemed strange to me to write posts for other websites instead of my own (giving away content), but I gave it a shot. This is one of my earliest guest posts. Once I started guest posting on bigger, established sites, my subscribers went from 7 to 20 to 200 and more. I had finally found a way to reach more people. Blogging was a lot more fun when I got readers!

This clarified my objective and success formula.

  • Objective: Gain more readers and subscribers
  • Method: Guest post on other blogs

Simple. Effective. I simply repeated this process, and it worked; not perfectly, as I’ve seen many others do a better job growing their readership. But it worked well enough!

We all know that planning leads to doing, but doing can also lead to planning. Because I had experimented with writing, and then with a website, and then with guest posting, I now saw a possible future with a greater readership, and gained the information I needed to plan.

My plan? Guest post somewhere at least once week. For a time, I posted every week at the Dumb Little Man blog (this is my favorite one). And before I knew it, I had thousands of subscribers!

Back to Experimenting

Once I had thousands of subscribers, I knew it was time to experiment again. I had readers now, so what was the next step? Once you reach a new level, it opens up new options.

Now that I had readers, could I find a way to make money doing this, and if I’m lucky, do it full time? There was no guarantee that anything would work, so I had to experiment. You can’t plan for what you don’t know!

My first experiment was a brutal failure. I thought it would be cutting edge to write awe-inspiring longer blog posts and charge a small fee—about 70 cents—to read them. It was to be the start of a major microtransaction trend in blogging. That never happened. Two people bought the articles I spent days each writing, so I made about $1.50.

I tried a couple of other things with similar (poor) results.

I tried selling a book on my website. But the book wasn’t substantial, and almost nobody bought it. So I now offer it for free to subscribers.

I tried Google adwords, but you only make decent money with that if you have lots of traffic. I didn’t. And I didn’t like the ads on my website, either. I tried affiliate marketing, too, but it felt too salesy for me. 

Another idea I had throughout this journey was to write a full-length book. I didn’t have a topic, but I kept writing and experimenting, and playing with ideas. This combination of things brought me to the idea of “The One Push-up Challenge.” The post I wrote about it became very popular. I expanded on this with the idea of mini habits, which could apply to any area of life. I wrote a guest post about mini habits that was shared over 10,000 times! It became clear that I had a winner. It seemed that the strategy that was changing my life was also highly marketable.

It was time to write a book!

Back to Planning

I wrote the outline and spent several months to write the book. I used a mini habit of 50 words a day to write it. In other words, I planned to write something every day. And as expected, I ended up with a finished book!

I have been a full-time author ever since I released Mini Habits

I wanted to share this story to show you how alternating planning and experimenting ratcheted me higher and higher. 

The Success Formula

I think this turns into a fairly straightforward formula for success in any area.

  1. Experiment to find your objective
  2. Experiment to find what works to bring you closer to the objective
  3. Plan your attack with what you’ve learned in steps 1 and 2
  4. Execute the plan to reach a new place
  5. From the new place, experiment (start over from step 1) to find new objectives

Nearly any success formula can be explained by this process. It’s a matter of finding what works and repeating it. Simple. But it’s easy to miss, too.

We may plan when we should experiment, and experiment when we should plan.

Ask yourself if you know what you want and exactly how to get it. If you do, you’re ready to formulate your plan of attack. If not, it’s time to put down the planner and try some new things until something sticks. 

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