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The “n of 1”: You are your own sample size

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Illustrative diagram with a grid of repeating icons, with one icon highlighted in a different colour, and the text n of 1

What time of day are you the most productive? When do you feel at your best? When do you get tired, lethargic, or become easily distracted? What are the conditions that enable you to do your best work? High performers know the answers to these questions and they organize their time with this knowledge in mind to optimize what they achieve in any and every given day. The key, though, is less in the answers themselves, and more in the knowing what your own answers are. This is the idea of the “n of 1“.

Learner-centered education

One of the core principles of learner-centered theory in education is the concept that we learn by making meaning of what we experience, and we make meaning by connecting new information to what we already know.

Because people are all unique, we each bring our own experiences into any situation — our own prior experience, prior knowledge, and existing skills and capabilities. We are all also on our own paths — we have our own interests, our own pursuits, and our own goals — and we pay attention to the information that is most relevant to these interests.

The most impactful learning occurs when the experience is designed around the unique capabilities of the learner.

Client-centered practices

When it comes to your own personal development, the same principle applies to creating the conditions for growth. There is no single formula for growth and optimal performance that will work for everyone — there is no one-size-fits-all approach, except to say that there is one that will work for you — you are your own sample size in the population. This is the principle of the “n of 1”.

The more awareness you have of the conditions that help you succeed, the more you steps you can take to create the conditions for success. The key first step, then, is to increase your self-awareness of the conditions that help you succeed.

As you might imagine, the answers will only be as good as the questions, and everyone’s situation is unique. With that in mind, here are a few questions to help you get started:

  • What time of day are you the sharpest? In the morning? At night?
  • When do you usually come up with new ideas?
  • How do you learn best? Through reading? Watching? Experimenting through hands-on experience? Talking with others?
  • What was a meaningful goal you accomplished in the past five years? What was the first step you took and what was the strongest source of motivation to take that first step?
  • How much time do you need to be with other people compared to being on your own?
  • Over the course of a week, what gives you energy? What takes your energy?

And a bonus question:

  • What are the other questions you need to ask yourself, to better understand your “n of 1“?