Dealing with Beemergencies in an Emergency

Sunday, April 19, 2015
By Philip Hellyer

Panicked person fleeing

This is another case-study post by Philip Hellyer — full of sage advice and inspiration (and a dash of productivity porn) — explaining how Beeminder is robust to and even actively helps cope with most anything life can throw at you. (UPDATE: See addendum.)

I recently [1] had a highly disruptive event in my life. Overnight my priorities rapidly changed, and not all of my Beeminder goals made sense anymore. This is the story of how I dealt with my commitments during a period of stress.

The day after

When real life changes suddenly, you deal with it. Your beemergency days are no longer relevant. When the first derailment happened, I replied to the legitimacy check email explaining what was going on in my life and that not only was that particular derailment not due to avoidance, but that I had 3 other goals that would derail the next day for the same reason.

The Beeminder support crew cancelled the pending charge, and injected a short flat spot in the 3 other goals. This made my life much easier, because I didn’t even have to deal with any legitimacy check emails the following day.

The day after the day after

Even though the incident in my life was going to span several weeks, by now I had enough of a plan for how to deal with it that I could start to think about triaging my Beeminder goals.

Some goals were still relevant in my changing world, so I left those untouched. That includes all of the sanity-maintaining goals like getting some exercise and eating properly. (Though I relaxed the slope on some, because although I wanted to keep doing some exercise, I didn’t need to push myself.)

Other goals would be relevant again one day, but not right now. For these I used the take-a-break feature to temporarily flatten the road for the expected duration of the disruption. (If the disruption turns out to be shorter than you expect, “take-a-break” can be used to restore your slope too!)

For now-irrelevant goals, I set the end date to as soon as possible, i.e., one week out.

“In times of stress, having a routine is a stabilising factor”

For autodata goals, I mostly set a highly conservative (shallow) slope and left them running. The conservative (shallow) slope means that they’re unlikely to be difficult to keep up, and not cancelling them means that I won’t have the hassle of setting up the automation again.

Any non-current goal I put on the back-burner by pressing the minus sign that appears when you hover over the graph in the goal gallery. These were the goals that I was willing to have derail.

Reducing the fallout

Now I was in a position where some goals were scheduled to end, others made conservative, and reasonably prioritised between front-burner and back-burner.

Most of my goals are set to no-mercy recommits, because for myself I find that flat weeks make it more difficult to recover momentum. So I went through the settings of every non-urgent goal and put that back to an ordinary reset. If it happens to derail, I want that week.

Similarly, if anything derails on me right now, it’s probably because of deliberate prioritisation, not procrastination. So I also set most goals not to increase the pledge if they happen to derail.

I also looked at the goals that I’d pushed to the back-burner and noted down the high-pledge ones. These ones I really didn’t want to derail because of life prioritisaiton. So I sent a followup email to support asking for an immediate flat spot so that my more conservative road could kick in, rather than a derailment. In my case, there was only one goal that fit the criteria, out of the 29 on the back-burner. [2] So I knew that I wasn’t creating a support burden.

Goals in the real world

Not everything is in Beeminder. Not everything should be in Beeminder. Like me, you’ve almost certaintly got task lists [3] and projects on the go. All of those go on the back-burner too — start a new list. The new list will consist of the projects and tasks that are newly top-of-mind. Don’t forget to include the task of reviewing that backlog for actions that are still important in your new world.


At the end of this triage, all of my goals were in an almost ideal state, where the dollar value pledged was acceptable given the risk of derailment and the importance of the goal. Derailment on the back-burner goals became a rational and neutral decision because I’d effectively already sacrificed those goals in my head; any that stayed on the road were a bonus.

In the end, I had a few minor derailments, but mostly this worked as planned. As much as anything can work as planned when the world has thrown a wrench in your plans. But you know what I mean.

This was made easier because although I have a large number of goals, I manage the slopes fairly conservatively. I rely on my Plan Bee subscription to automatically ratchet the road so that even the goals with shallow minimum-desired-progress roads don’t build up too much safety buffer. I carefully choose which goals to be aggressive with, which is another way of saying that some of my goals are just intentions and others are proper things to achieve or do. There’s a difference, and Beeminder works well for both, if you set the parameters right.

One thing that I worried about was whether I’d remember to undo the ultra-conservative settings. It turns out that it’s easier to manage goals that are on the front-burner. Every time I get the urge to move a goal off of the back-burner, that’s my cue to review its slope and settings. I had thought that I might need to make a note in my calendar to make doing that a mustdo task for sometime next week/month/whenever. Happily it has turned out to be a more natural process than I’d feared.

Maslovian beeminding

“Deciding priorities myself sometimes demanded more self-awareness than I was able to muster”

One thing that surprised me is how difficult it became to concentrate on anything substantial. Events that were expected still knocked me sideways, and there were emotional rollercoasters to ride. A friend reminded me about Maslow’s hierarchy and the theory of human motivation. No wonder I was having trouble focusing on more abstract goals; my foundational levels had been destabilised.

One thing that Beeminder is great at is reminding me to do routine items, things that aren’t difficult, but which would otherwise get neglected. In times of stress, having a routine is a stabilising factor. In retrospect, I could have done more of this, not putting quite so much on the back burner, and letting Beeminder dictate when each thing needed some attention. Because deciding priorities myself sometimes demanded more self-awareness than I was able to muster. The additional structure of having more active goals might have been welcome.

I’m really pleased how Beeminder continued to support me and my goals during this time, and how the support team responded. I know that I’m biased, but it made me feel as though we can help our users cope with pretty much anything.

Addendum by Danny

I originally included this in the intro but it was distracting and awkward there so I’ll say it here! The conclusion of Philip’s harrowing, if cagily described, tale was brought home poignantly recently when we came across “How To Live Without a Stomach”, detailing how the author coped with a total gastrectomy. I admit to shedding actual tears at the author’s fourth point, that in the aftermath of cancer he needed structure in his life and Beeminder was the answer. Melt!



[1] Actually we sat on this for an embarrassingly long time. But the recency isn’t the point so just pretend, ok? —dreeves

[2] Yes, I’ve got a lot of goals. I’ve been using Beeminder for over 2 years [UPDATE: over 3 years by the time we published this], and my ability to keep up with more goals has increased over time. A lot of that has come from figuring out what goals suit me, and how aggressive a slope to set. The actual number waxes and wanes based on real life deadlines, and several of the current set are related to upcoming conferences.

[3] Beeminder makes a lousy task list, but it makes a great meta-system minder. Lots of people have a Beeminder goal to ensure that they do their GTD Weekly Review on something approximating a weekly basis.

Tags: , , , , , ,