It’s Chunky Time!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011
By dreeves

A very pixelated clock

Here’s a question that keeps coming up. To paraphrase,

Beeminder is great for stuff that needs to happen every day, but for stuff that happens sporadically in large chunks of time, won’t I quickly run off Beeminder’s smooth daily ramp?

Au contraire! Beeminder allows brilliantly for chunkiness of time. The key is to make sure you have enough safety buffer days to make it to your next work day. So if you are doing your chunk of work for the week and want to make sure that you can last 7 days before doing more, just make sure you have 7 days of safety buffer. [EDIT: Beeminder now puts the safety buffer front and center with its live countdown-to-derailment timer.] Let your road be flat for a week initially if you want to make sure you can establish such a safety buffer. [1]

“We’ve taken away the danger of the slippery slope”

The beauty of the yellow brick road is that it guarantees that you will maintain the overall average that you want to maintain — say, 15 hours a week — while allowing as much flexibility as theoretically possible about when you do it. In other words, if you go off the yellow brick road, it is necessarily because you have failed to maintain the overall average you said you wanted to maintain. Sure you may be able to bring the average back up in your next chunk of work, but we’re just imposing the constraint that you do it the other way around. Get above your road when you do the chunk of work, then coast for a while till you’re in danger and then do your next chunk. It’s fundamentally the same except we’ve taken away the danger of the slippery slope of getting further and further behind thinking you’ll make it up with a bigger and bigger marathon chunk of work later.

Convinced? It’s a basic tenet of Beeminder that you’ll never lose on a technicality so let us know if you think you have a counterexample!

(It certainly works for us. Check out the sidebar on this page, “Eating Our Own Dog Food.” You can see that we typically don’t post until it’s an “emergency blog post day,” as we call it, when we’re about to drive off the yellow brick road. As is the case as we type this! When you’re reading this, if we hit publish in time, you’ll see our dot jump above the road again. That means we have a week or so of safety buffer — we keep readjusting the steepness of the road depending on the size of our backlog of post ideas — till the next post is due.)

Footnotes

[1] There’s an item in our feedback forum about when and whether that initial week of flat yellow brick road is imposed, but you can always choose to have it.

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  • jmccoh

    As originally a skeptic as to whether or not I could track “non-daily” goals this does work vey well. I wanted to track behaviors that needed to be completed during the 5-day work week and was concerned that I would “lose” over the weekend but by creating the safety buffer I can always stay on the right side of the road, And by adjusting the steepness I can accommodate weeks shortend for holidays or any other cause. This works. Oh, and good job getting the dog food off of red.

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    @jmccoh, great point, it actually works especially well for goals where you want to take weekends off, due to the way the width of the road is constructed. Nitty-gritty at http://blog.beeminder.com/roadwidth but the short version for these kind of time-based goals is that the road is just wide enough that reaching the top edge means you have 2 days of safety buffer. 

    So hit the top edge (green dot) by Friday night and you can do nothing on Saturday and Sunday. On Monday you’ll start below the road and have till the end of the day to get your time in and get back on the road.

  • Arthur Breitman

    There are two ways to think about the yellow brick one.

    On beeminder, the yellow brick road represents the one and zero day safety buffer. It’s meant to alert you when you’re about to veer off track. 

    With that definition, chunky tasks are no problem. It suffices to maintain a large safety buffer (or add a bogus one at the beginning) and voila.
    There’s another way to think about it…. I think of myself as having three  regimes, a working regime, a procrastinating regime and an overdoing it regime. Each regime has a different rate of work ( hours / day ) and a different rate of work sessions (chunks) ( #N / week ). Furthermore, there are transition probabilities between regimes. The overdoing it regime is bad because it’s very likely to transition to the procrastinating regime.
    Assume such a probabilistic model of behavior.On a given day, for every value that I can input tomorrow, there’s a subset of these values that imply a probability greater than 90% that I am in work mode. Typically it’s going to be an interval. Above the interval lies the overdoing it mode, below lies the procrastinating mode. The trace of that interval will form a band on the graph.
    Another way to look at it that doesn’t involve the 3 regime model is to say that my latent rate of work follows a random walk and I want to pin it to a specific value.Of course, it’s quite hard to calibrate such a complex model, but there’s no need. We can make a simplification and say that the band is a straight line with a given width, and use a guesstimate of the width. Chunky tasks would have fat bands because of the high variance in the input data. 

    Leaving that band does not mean failure, and having to reset the graph. It’s only strong evidence that something’s wrong and that I need to refocus. 

    I *know* the yellow brick road is not that band. Still, I can’t help but think of it this way. I’ve beeminded in the past using excel spreadsheets, and this was what worked best for me.

    So feature request: add an option to choose between a yellow brick road or an fat emerald highway.
    For power users, you can even ask three numbers:
    a) rate you want to maintain ( hours / week )
    b) how often will you update beeminder ( times / week )    # assume poisson for simplicity
    c) by how many % do you expect your inner rate of work to vary on a typical day # assume geometric brownian motion

    Run a filtering algorithm, boom you have an automatically calibrated emerald band.

    Things get interesting when you start getting a lot of users and a lot of data. Then you can actually start finding realistic models for procrastination (conditional on beeminding).

  • Anonymous

    That’s clever, an emerald highway!  We definitely need to keep the yellow brick road as is to keep the universality and simplicity of “right lane today implies (at worst) wrong lane tomorrow”.   It’d be great if you could add this suggestion to our feedback forum at http://uservoice.beeminder.com.  Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Anonymous

    Hey Arthur, intriguing thoughts!
    Would you share your beeminder spreadsheet template(s) with me? E.g. by mail: arthur.o6ol@gishpuppy.com
    Because I’m also considering beeminding in a personal spreadsheet, so I can tailor it to my needs and rapidly implement and try new ideas. Of course I’m going to share those with you and the beehive.

    @everyone else reading this: Of course let’s share beeminding spreadsheets, too!

    Happy New Year and my best wishes for you to stay on all your brick roads of any color!

  • Blue Sky

    Typo: I think you meant “tenet,” not “tennet.”

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    Fixed! Technically we can count this for http://beeminder.com/meta/uvi but I think we’ll hold ourselves to higher standards than that. :)

    Also, I was thinking maybe we should add typo bounties, like we have at http://messymatters.com, but now I’m thinking maybe we shouldn’t!

    PS: That’s nice of you to call it a typo, as opposed to us not knowing how to spell. Really appreciate the careful reading!

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