How I Use Beeminder

Thursday, July 17, 2014
By Philip Hellyer

person at a desk in the middle of a field with a big blue sky

This is a case-study post by our own Philip Hellyer which also expands on our previous post, Beating Beeminder Burnout. Despite not being a Quantified Self person, Philip is arguably a harder core Beeminder user than the founders (who are quite intense!). Some people view Beeminder as a Quantified Self tool with commitment contracts as icing on the cake. Others view the Beeminder graphs and data as purely a means for implementing flexible commitment contracts. Philip is in the latter camp but we think everyone will draw inspiration from this post. Not to mention from his gallery of goals.

When I first introduce people to Beeminder, they either recoil in horror or they want to dive right in. But the easiest way to defeat a new system is to overload it [1], so if you read this blog post and then immediately create a bunch of goals, I’ve probably failed.

“The easiest way to defeat a new system is to overload it”

There are two obvious ways to overload a system: volume and intensity. In Beeminder terms, volume is creating more goals than you’re able to keep current, and intensity is setting too aggressive a slope.

You might want to lose 20 pounds by next month, but the behaviour change would almost certainly be too extreme to sustain over time. You’ll be better off creating easier goals, things that help get you moving in the right direction. There will be plenty of time and techniques for making your goals more aggressive.

Spirit of the Bee

I want to adhere to the spirit of my Beeminder goals, because there’s a real-world goal behind them, something that I actually want to achieve or become. That’s important to remember — there is something real behind the measurements and the graphs.

Bethany spoke at a Quantified Self [2] conference this year, so maybe I should confess that I’m pretty much a non-quantified person. I have a deep suspicion that the things that are easily measured are not the most important things to focus on.

I also don’t want to become an obsessive measurer. Sure, I have weight and fitness goals, but if meeting those means that I have to become an obsessive calorie-counting machine, I’m not sure it’s worth it. That degree of quantification is not part of my vision. I’d much rather become the kind of person who naturally wants to eat better and exercise more, in a sustainable lifelong way.

Beeminder is just a tool that I can use to help. It’s one of the most powerful tools in my productivity arsenal, and it’ll stay that way if I can keep myself from sabotaging it.

Outcomes vs Activities

“Weight is an outcome — it’s the result of eating better and exercising more”

Beeminder goals naturally tend to be activities: things you can actively do, or not do. [3] They’re easy to count, and sometimes we can automate the data collection. If you’ve used our Fitbit or RunKeeper integrations, you know what I mean — just go for a walk or a run and the graphs take care of themselves.

A couple of months ago there was a weight loss discussion on Akratics Anonymous that completely changed my thinking. The essence is this: your weight is an outcome, it’s the result of eating better and exercising more — activities!

For weight loss, I’ve always had Beeminder goals for both of these things. A nice gentle downward slope to keep my weight moving in the right direction, and more aggressively tracked activities. [4]

What I hadn’t done was notice that some of my other goals were actually outcomes, not activities. No wonder I had trouble staying on those roads!

One reason that outcomes are hard to beemind aggressively is that they’re often less predictable. You only discover that you’re on a weight beemergency day when you stand on the scale in the morning. But you can see your go-to-the-gym activity goal beemergency approaching and plan for it.

All My Goals

How do I beemind me? Let me count the ways.

  1. I have outcomes, quantifiable high-level goals, that are loosely and leniently beeminded to ensure that they move in the right direction. Ideally these outcomes are supported by more specific activity-based goals. [5]

  2. I have productivity goals, in the general sense. Goals that force me to focus for periods of time on a specific task. Goals that force me to think a day or so ahead about what I should focus on. Goals that encourage me to actually use whatever to-do system I’ve got going at the moment. [6]

  3. I have relationship goals, for want of a better term. My mother is really happy that I phone her more often than I’ve ever done before. My girlfriend is really happy that I do more things around the house. There are mechanical solutions to the mechanical problems of life, and you can use them to help ensure that the mechanical stuff doesn’t interfere (too much) with the togetherness.

  4. I have learning goals. Remembering to practice a language, or use anki, or regularly use any learning resource. I’m thinking of adding a book-reading goal, because I’m pretty good (right now) at keeping up with my online reading, but less good with physical books.

  5. I have temporary goals. These are usually tied to real-world events like writing an exam or speaking at a conference. Without Beeminder, I wouldn’t put in nearly enough preparation time, or start studying early enough. It’s also useful to set an end date for testing out a goal, or a more aggressive slope, “just for the next month”.

  6. I have review goals. How did this week go? What’s better? How about this month — have I progressed any of my ambitions for the year? These are reviews that I would not do regularly without Beeminder, and it’s amazing what I remember when looking back over the past few days.

  7. I even have goals about goals. If you’re anything like me, you avoid doing stuff even when it’s a beemergency day. That can make for some very late nights, and for anti-social evenings. So I have a goal that encourages me to deal with my beemergencies earlier in the day.

I haven’t mentioned weight or health or fitness. That’s because for me, my weight goal is an outcome, and the FitBit and RunKeeper and gym-going goals are all activities that support it. So too is the eating better goal.

Right now I have 27 active goals, and I’m thinking of adding a couple more. This is not as insane as it sounds, though I don’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t been beeminding for at least half a year.

Dealing with Volume

Updating that many goals could be a nightmare, and sometimes they conspire to come to a beemergency day all at once. [7] For you, I did a count:

I have 8 goals that get updated most days, 4 that get updated every few days, 9 weekly, and 4 monthly. That sounds like a lot of updating, but we have a secret weapon: autodata.

3/4 of my daily goals and 1/2 of my weekly goals are automatically updated. I stand on my Withings scale and my weight outcome goal gets updated. I go for a run and my Runkeeper goal gets updated. Easy.

In contrast, my monthly goals all rely on manual data entry. But that’s ok, because by definition once-a-month goals don’t need updating very often. The more often something needs to be updated, the more you should try to find a way to tie doing-the-activity directly to updating-the-graph. [8]

I did the math [9], and it seems that on average I manually update 4 goals each day. Those 4 updates per day are enough to keep 27 goals ticking over.

The other way that I cope with volume is by reducing the slope of my roads. Because I can’t handle non-stop beemergency days, and because priorities change.

Do More Doing More

“Whenever I have a safety buffer, I fall off the road when the safe days run out”

The biggest problem with beeminding something leniently is that it’s easy to build up a huge safety buffer. Any time that I have too much of a buffer, I inevitably fall off the road when the safe days run out. [10]

So I need a way of making sure that I make some progress every now and again, even on roads with fairly flat slopes. Everyone has access to the Retroratchet feature: hit the button and your safety buffer gets reduced.

My favourite Beeminder feature right now is auto-ratchet. This is an automated version of the manual retroratchet, and is currently part of the premium subscription plans. [11]

Auto-ratchet means that no matter how much I do in a given week, my yellow brick road won’t let me have more than so-many-days of safety buffer. For me this is an ideal situation, because it sets a minimum frequency on the goal.

When I go on holiday and need to pause a goal, I use the “take a break” feature to schedule a flat spot for the goals that need it.

Tread Carefully

Beeminder is a powerful tool and, like all productivity hacks, works best if you surrender the right amount of agency to the system. Overload it or ignore it, and the tool stops working. This is a marathon, not a sprint. [12]

Here are the keys to sustainably beeminding my life:

  • Keep the real world goal in mind when writing your fine print
  • Beemind outcomes leniently, and activities more strictly
  • Automate as many goals as you can, so that doing equals updating

For those of you who have been beeminding for a while, what advice do you have for anyone just starting out?

Footnotes

[1] As Alan Baljeu points out,

The best way to sink any time management system is to overload it right at the beginning. Final Version is pretty resilient, but at this stage you aren’t. So build up the list gradually. My advice is to start off with the tasks and projects that are of immediate concern to you right now, and then add more as they come up in the natural course of things.

[2] Beeminder was a sponsor of the conference, so we’ve got a deep bias towards accurate data. Watch Bethany’s QS talk to see what we mean.

[3] I believe Nick Winter was the first to make the distinction between input-based and output-based goals in his brilliant guest post, Spiraling Into Control.

[4] If you’ve joined Beeminder with a goal of losing weight, I’d encourage you to add two more: a goal of exercising more, and a goal of eating better. You don’t need to be specific: I have a “daily sweat” goal that gets a point every time I do something, anything from doing pilates, going to the gym, taking a long walk, dancing, or teaching a flying trapeze class. It’s all good.

[5] There’s an awesome post at LessWrong about the value of setting goals. Beeminder helps remind me of what I wanted to do, helps me to overcome the inertia of not-starting. At its best, Beeminder helps me achieve the Buddhist non-striving that the post author struggles with.

[6] Someone asked me whether Beeminder was a good GTD tool. That’s a whole other blog post, but the answer should be obvious. Beeminder makes a great meta tool, to make sure that you’re doing your weekly reviews, processing your inboxes, and even checking off tasks. But it’s a lousy place to remember specific non-recurring tasks. Our own Andy Brett built a GTD tool that handles that part. And it charges you money if you don’t complete your tasks on time. It’s a nice complement to Beeminder, but unfortunately only an iOS app so far.

[7] On Saturday I had 7 beemergency days, but I won! — all of them were orange-or-better before dinner. My normal average is about 4, including the almost-daily habit activities.

[8] If you’re handy with code, there’s a Beeminder API. Some of my autodata is of my own hackery, some of it is thanks to the efforts of others, and some of it is from the standard integrations that you see on our home page.

[9] In the UK people often say “maths”, but according to Lynne Murphy, the standard reasoning behind that affectation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

[10] I’m so against building up a safety buffer that nearly all of my goals are set to “no mercy” so that I don’t get a week of flatness when I derail. But sometimes life conspires to make that too hard, and I’d really like to have had a flat week before the slope resumes. My fine print for all of those goals says that I can claim a flat spot after any derailment. I’ve never yet invoked the clause, but I’m not sure that I would be brave enough to tick the “no mercy” box without putting the caveat in place.

[11] Yes, we pay full price for our own plans. How else could we judge whether they provide us value for money?

[12] Though for most purposes, top marathoners are running at a sprint. In 2011, the London Marathon record was established at a pace of 17.75 seconds per hundred metres. It’s a 2-hours-long sprint that most people would struggle to keep pace with on a bicycle. Their times for a full marathon would be a decent amateur time for a half marathon. Can you tell that I’m in awe?

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