Beeminding All The Things

Saturday, March 3, 2018
By Brent Yorgey

All The Things

First, this guest post is an absolute inspiration and we implore you to read it. We’ve talked about Brent Yorgey before in press roundup but we’ll assume you don’t read those and repeat our gushing in this introduction. If you don’t know him, Professor Yorgey is well-known in the Haskell community and especially famous for inventing factorization diagrams. He’s also written some amazing posts about Beeminder on his own blog, starting with one in 2013 in which he said that Beeminder had changed his life. That was 6 months after discovering Beeminder and we didn’t know if he was just in the honeymoon phase. Well, he followed up in 2016 with “In Praise of Beeminder”, proving that “life-changing” was no exaggeration. He credited Beeminder with completing his PhD, becoming a fancypants professor, maintaining two blogs, learning ancient Hebrew, and losing 15 pounds (and, for good measure, coming within a factor of 2 of the world record for the 500m swim). It makes us glow with pride to have created a tool that people like Brent can put to such powerful use and have that kind of positive impact on the world. Ok, gushing done. Now listen to the professor.

Hi, I’m Brent Yorgey, and I have fifty active Beeminder goals.

Despite what you might think after that introduction, this blog post is not the confession of a Beemindaholic about to burn out. Nor is it the boast of an ultradisciplined, unsleeping superachiever who does nothing but work. I’m a recovering akratic, a husband, a dad, a teacher, and an academic. Having so many goals is not for everyone, but I’ve found ways to make it work very well for me. I want to tell you a bit about how I got here, how I manage it, and why you might consider doing something similar (or not!).

My story

I’ve been beeminding since September 2012 (five and a half years). A lot of goals have come and gone in that time, and my approach to beeminding has changed quite a bit, as has my life. In September 2012 I was a graduate student living in Philadelphia with my wife and one-year-old son. Since then I finished my PhD, completed two job searches, moved three times and lived in three different states, published three papers, bought a house, taught almost 20 classes, and had another child. Looking through the history of my Beeminder goals would probably tell you a lot about my life over those years and the things that have been important to me at various times.

Every time I realize there is something that I want to do, and could do, but don’t currently do — no matter how big or small! — I make a Beeminder goal for it. Is there a paper I need to review by a certain date? I make a Beeminder goal for number of pages carefully read and commented on. I want to spend more time doing deep work? I made a Beeminder goal for that. I want to floss more? Beeminder goal. (Incidentally, visits to the dentist are now a breeze.) My Beeminder goals aren’t just a miscellaneous add-on; they pretty much delineate the whole shape of my life.

This style of Beeminding — let’s call it Whole-Life Beeminding, aka Making Goals for All The Things — can be a really effective way to shape the life you want to live. But as all too many people have learned the hard way, it can also be a recipe for hubris-fueled disaster. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned on how to do this safely and effectively.

Start small

“Let’s call it Whole-Life Beeminding”

This is pretty standard advice, but worth repeating: new goals should start with a very shallow slope that is stupidly easy to achieve, or with a slope that is so egregiously lenient that the goal basically exists only to gather data. After some experience and success you can of course start ratcheting up the difficulty. But without that initial experience, it is notoriously hard to estimate what is actually reasonable and achievable for you (even when taking this fact into account; this is a corollary of Hofstadter’s Law). For example, inspired by Braden Shepherdson’s recent blog post, I added a goal to count how many bites I take. But I first created it with a generous slope of 200 bites per day, just in order to gather data on how many bites I actually take, and to get used to the habit of entering data. It turns out that 200 bites wasn’t even quite as generous as I thought — my average was something like 130 bites, which is higher than I would have guessed. (On one day including a very large lunch followed by a church potluck in the evening with a giant buffet and 10 different desserts (for which I went back for seconds) I took a total of 170 bites!) After a few weeks I had a much better sense of how many bites I take for a given meal, what a good day looks like, what a bad day looks like, and what a reasonable, achievable goal would be. (My current goal is 110 bites per day, if you are curious. Why was my average so much higher than Braden’s? I don’t know. But that’s the point of starting by just collecting data!)

Give goals time to “wear in”

You really shouldn’t create more than one or two goals at once, even if they are really easy goals and even if you are absolutely, positively, 100% sure you can handle it.

One reason for this advice is obvious: it’s easy to underestimate how much time or effort new goals will require, and consequently burn out trying to keep up with them. This is related to the advice to start small.

But there is another, less obvious reason for this advice. Imagine what would happen if you instantly went from having zero goals to having 50 super easy goals. Even if the total amount of time and effort necessary to achieve all the goals were well within your grasp, you would probably still go crazy and burn out, because you would spend so much mental energy trying to keep up with all of them and figure out what you should be doing next. I find that each new goal takes a few weeks to wear in to the patterns of my life. I start to figure out where the goal fits, where and when I will pay attention to it, which other goals I might “bundle” it with, whether it makes more sense to do a little every day or only occasionally in big chunks, and so on. By the time I get around to adding a new goal, the old goals have become more habitual, so I can focus more of my energy on figuring out how to achieve the new.

Don’t get rid of easy goals

My flossing goal is a good example. You can see that I started this goal in late 2013, with the aim to floss 6.5 times per week on average. At first I was often in the blue, but by the second half of 2014 I was almost always in the green. By the middle of 2015, I had built up such a large safety buffer (6 or 7 days, if I recall correctly) that I decided I just didn’t need the Beeminder goal any more, so I archived it.

“My Beeminder goals pretty much delineate the whole shape of my life”

It turns out that this was a mistake. The graph doesn’t show it, of course, but over the course of 2016 I started flossing less and less; by the middle of 2017, when I restarted the goal, I was probably only flossing once every two weeks! It turns out that even though there is absolutely zero chance I will ever derail on this goal, it is still valuable to me: the simple fact of having the goal and entering data provides the nudge needed to get me over the teeny tiny hump of deciding to floss. Without the goal, it was simply too easy to decide in the moment that I didn’t need to floss today.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with having a bunch of easy goals! When I wake up in the morning I might have nine or ten beemergencies, but I just start knocking them off one by one and it feels GREAT. By the time I get to more difficult goals I am already in an accomplished and productive mood.

So I simply don’t get rid of goals anymore, even easy ones that I think I don’t need, unless they are truly done.

Other miscellaneous advice

  • Use autodata integrations whenever possible. Quite a few of my goals collect data automatically, primarily via TagTime and IFTTT. I personally find autodata to be especially important for do-less goals.

  • For the remaining manual-entry goals, use a good interface. I make heavy use of the Android app and its timer and tally entry features; since I am a nerd I also use mbork’s Beeminder client for emacs org-mode, especially at work. The Beeminder website is nice but it’s not really optimized for dealing with lots of goals.

  • Track inputs, not outputs! This is especially important when you have a lot of goals, since when you are staring down multiple beemergencies you really need to have concrete, manageable things you can Actually Do ™ to dispatch them. Goals that track indirect outputs tend to require more foresight: for example, by the time you are in the red on your weight goal it is probably already too late; to stay on track you have to be thinking several days ahead and figuring out what actions are likely to lead to your desired weight. With 50 goals I don’t have time for that kind of advance introspection. I just want to have concrete actions I can do now, today to make progress on the goals that need attention.

In a forthcoming post I will actually take you on a tour of my 50 goals, to see how I put all of this into practice!


Image credit: Hyperbole and a Half

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