Personal null results
If you do a Google search for ‘meditation’, you might find results like this:
Do a bit more digging, and you might find this article (or something similar): ‘I believed the hype and did mindfulness meditation for dumb reasons: now I'm trying to reverse the damage’. You should read this one, it’s pretty interesting. Then there are these reports by Nick Cammarata on ‘Jhana’, a state of bliss you can apparently reach if you do a ton of meditation. It’s claimed that Jhana is better than sex or any drug, and you reach it if you do lots and lots and lots of meditation.
Like in science, where null results (where an intervention appears to have no effect, either positive or negative) are less likely to be reported, people probably don’t want to read an article titled ‘I did meditation on and off for a few years and nothing really happened of any significance’. That’s what happened to me though. I got into meditation for a few years and I don’t think anything really happened, or at least nothing noticeable. I haven’t looked at the literature on meditation, but John Halstead looked at the literature and writes that this is pretty much par for the course (although he’s look specifically at the effect on depression):
I estimate that the true effect size on depression of daily mindfulness meditation for 20 minutes with an app is around 0.05. This is very small: if an intervention increased a man's height with an effect size of 0.05, this would increase their height by around half a centimetre. Mindfulness is not the game-changer it is often painted to be.
That’s not to say that I’m certain that nothing happened. It’s certainly possible that in the counterfactual world where I never tried meditation, my life would either be much worse or much better in some way. But as far as I’m aware, I didn’t feel any less anxious during the periods I was regularly meditating, I wasn’t able to concentrate more, I basically just didn’t notice any effect at all. Here are some more personal null results:
Sam Bowman recommended taking Activated Charcoal for hangovers, on the basis of this post on LessWrong and his own experiences. It felt like it worked for a while, but I think it was probably just placebo - the effect wasn’t so powerful that I’m convinced something else was going on. But like Sam says, who cares? Placebo is placebo, right? (Well, no, but that isn’t relevant here). After a while it stopped working for me at all, sadly.
I’ve tried all sorts of productivity routines and haven’t really benefited from any of them. I kinda think people who are immensely productive get really into random productivity apps and routines, and think they’re causing productivity - it isn’t causal though. People like Ali Abdaal (who makes this sort of productivity video) are just very conscientious and would be productive whatever app/routine they used. Notion probably isn’t the thing making you work harder, you’re just a conscientious person! For real results, try stimulants or Anki.
I bought a weighted blanket after a load of people told me it helps you go to sleep more quickly. No effect noticed, and it’s sort of just annoying to have an insanely heavy blanket on you when you’re trying to fall asleep. This meta-analysis (which I haven’t read in its entirety) seems to suggest that the evidence is decent for the effect on anxiety, but lacking for insomnia, which I guess could be the case? But it also doesn’t look particularly thorough, and there’s a caveat that ‘the outcomes of these studies suggest that weighted blankets have the potential to be beneficial in limited settings and populations’, so make of that what you will.
Another sleep-related thing I bought was a wake-up light. Again, seemingly useless for me. I’ve also tried melatonin, which made my sleep much worse. Alcohol is useful for getting to sleep and didn’t have any effect on my sleep quality as far as I could tell (I was using a spreadsheet to keep track of perceived sleep quality so this wasn’t just vague guess), but most of the evidence seems to strongly suggest it negatively affects sleep quality for most people.
This is more of a hunch, but I don’t think reading classic novels has made me any more of a well-rounded person (or whatever else it is that people claim). There have been periods of my life where I’ve read mostly novels and periods where I’ve been a non-fiction purist, and I don’t think that reading classic novels gives me anything other than enjoyment (when I enjoy them). It feels unfair that they shouldn’t make you into a better person in some way, but I doubt that they do. Read ‘em if you like ‘em, but don’t bother if you think they’ll transform you somehow!
Okay, I know this isn’t a perfect definition of a null result, but it’s close enough in this context!
Nice. I’m 100% on board with the productivity stuff. I’ve tried all sorts of systems, and what works best for me is just making sure I write stuff down when I think of it. That’s it.
I read classic novels, but not because I think it’s going to “round me out,” or really improve my life much at all or make me a better person. I see it really more of a learning experience. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes I push through it because I think it makes me a better writer, or it gives me valuable perspective for other books.
I do feel like meditation is a little different, though. I don’t meditate because I think it reduces stress or produces pleasurable experiences. The fundamental reason I meditate is I am curious about my mind. But there are other effects that you don’t mention, like being a better listener, being able to direct your attention more fully to beauty, or recognizing mundane things as beautiful, or being able to handle unpleasant experiences with more peace. Did you experience any of these? Did you get any discussion/theory alongside your meditation?
I think you're right about the productivity stuff. I've tried all sorts of different routines, apps, etc., and I always fall back into old habits. The things I've found to work aren't simple quick fixes, they require dedicated work to achieve lasting lifestyle or mindset changes, or otherwise are more external (e.g., getting a full time job or moving into a place more conducive to productivity).
Perhaps apps should be saved for when you really need them, like if you have an upcoming exam or deadline. That way you're not already habituated to them.