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A bee in a forge

This is a guest post by Melissa Smith of Datasmithing! If you like Beeminder and other Beeminder-adjacent things like BaaS or Complice, but want more troubleshooting and guidance, you might like Datasmithing. (You might also like her blog which includes such gems as the graph paper method for tidying. Or check out her brilliant Beeminder pitch.) Here’s Melissa (pjpants on Beeminder) to tell you all about it!

Huge thanks to Beeminder for sharing this guest blogging opportunity. My name is Melissa Smith, and Beeminder has been critical scaffolding for me since 2015. I’ve used it to:

  • transition careers (twice)
  • relearn languages
  • build a business
  • establish a daily journaling habit that’s 4.5 years old and 265,000 words strong.

(I’m especially proud of that last one!) I’m a Beeminder user for the same reasons we all are: change is hard, entropy is real, and it takes a lot of focus and reinforcement to stick with new behavior.

But what if habits weren’t so hard? What if you had an expert problem solver to support and troubleshoot your habits, systems, and processes?

Maybe you’ve outgrown your habits and systems and need help making upgrades. Maybe you recently realized you’re neurodivergent, which explains why your systems never quite worked — they were built using guidance from people with a different operating system. Or maybe you are so burnt out that your brain sizzles every time you try to focus on the work that used to be your passion but is now impossible.

“Change is hard, entropy is real, and it takes a lot of focus and reinforcement to stick with new behavior”

I can help! As a habit coach, I help people learn tools and strategies to live and work with less friction and stress. I learn my clients’ strengths, and together we experiment to tweak processes to suit those strengths while removing the pitfalls that keep bogging them down. My coaching incorporates what I’ve learned about habit change, neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics, gamification, and a lifetime of inventing creative solutions to get out of my own way.

Here’s what I believe about supporting my clients:

1. Sometimes we outgrow our productivity systems — or they’ve never comfortably fit.

Our systems must consider and support our authentic selves, not shoehorn us into who we think we should be. Many of my clients are neurodivergent and, like me, are autistic or have ADHD. We grew up learning time management and productivity tools that don’t support our unique needs, leading us to struggle to be effective and productive, often with significant shame.

For example, a classic To Do List works just fine for many people. But what if looking at your list overwhelms you and sends you down an epic, procrastination-driven web crawl? I’ve got a quiver of different To Do List structures that can prevent this.

2. What’s easy for one person might be hard for others.

Many of my clients start off feeling embarrassed or even ashamed about their struggles. Astrophysics or fire science are easy, but tackling a stack of paperwork is nigh impossible. Giving an hour-long presentation is a piece of cake, but going to the grocery store is torture. I helped these clients restructure what was hard for them or strategize to eliminate it.

3. YOU don’t need to change, but your habits and tools might.

Even your “bad” habits exist because they fulfill a need. And that need is usually perfectly natural — part of our evolutionary wiring. Often, the first step towards effective change is observation and data collection to figure out what environmental triggers surround the issue. For example, many people struggle with getting enough quality sleep, but for some of my clients the root causes weren’t clear until they started filling out a shared sleep diary document, with lots of cheering and rewards from me. Once we analyzed the diary together, we could start incrementally testing out small changes to find what sleep rules worked for them.

4. Our executive functioning needs scaffolding to make both brain work and drudgery more efficient, sustainable, and pleasureable.

Especially for neurodivergent people, a core issue that regularly sabotages productivity is executive functioning struggles. Executive functioning is a bundle of skills — motivation, task initiation, focus, and more — managed by the prefrontal cortex of our brain. Threats or big emotions like shame, frustration, or panic send us into our amygdala instead, home of the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. I help my clients understand that “be more disciplined” isn’t the solution. Instead we defuse and deconstruct the situation and figure out which tool might make discipline entirely irrelevant. [1]

Difficulties with executive functioning can also impact anyone who is stressed, depressed, burnt out, or under pressure. We need tools to help our maxed-out brains focus on difficult intellectual work, especially when our brains are locked into a pattern where they think every task is an immediate threat to our survival. Otherwise burnout and exhaustion can turn even our easy tasks into all-day battles.

5. Everyone deserves validation and a kind, supportive internal script. You might need to hear what that sounds like.

We hear a lot of criticism over a lifetime — parents, teachers, bosses, frenemies. Gradually, we internalize critical voices we hear, imposing on ourselves harsh expectations of unyielding perfection that we’d never accept from a boss or friend. This self-criticism not only makes life miserable, but also sabotages productivity, resulting in avoidance, procrastination, burnout, and dread. Eventually the jerk of a boss who makes you want to quit your job can be you. I offer a gentler approach and direct clients to resources that foster deep work and self-compassion.

6. Changes can be hard because old behavior is ingrained.

One of my favorite analogies about habit change comes from the book “You Are Not Your Brain”. The author likens our neural pathways and habits to hiking trails. You can carve out a new trail at any time, but it takes work and dedication (and brush clearing). The old, established path is always RIGHT THERE, beckoning us with its familiarity, convenience, and lack of plants with prickly thorns. I help clients spot the challenges in their new path, reassure them when they revert to the old path, and send rewards for reinforcement.

7. Massive life changes may demand that you level up — fast.

Sometimes life shoves you into the deep end. New parenthood, eldercare, or work duties can leave you drowning. I help clients pinpoint, prioritize, and troubleshoot solving the big problems. I provide extra brain power when it might be in short supply.

8. Normalizing failure makes success easier.

When relevant and helpful, I talk about my own failures and struggles with my clients. I’m not just theoretically familiar with habit and behavior change, but I constantly need to use the strategies on myself. This means I can easily suggest strategies for whatever trips you up. And I also deeply understand just how much reinforcement and structure we need to make things stick. In addition to providing this practical support, my experience also reassures my clients that they are not alone in their struggles.


But what does this coaching look like in practice?

Let’s look at an example from my client Phil, shared with his permission. He’s working on burnout recovery and wanted to take Wednesday afternoons off billable work to spend time on passion projects. For two weeks, he tried to take this time off on his own, but he just kept plowing on with his client work. In addition to our regular coaching hour, I suggested we meet for 5 minutes every Wednesday at 3. Having that specific hard stop, boundary, and little bit of accountability provided the structure he needed to start the habit.

Phil had a great first week, but weeks 2 and 3 weren’t as satisfying; he floundered during his passion project time, overwhelmed by the possibilities of what to do. So I modified the terms of our check-in: now Phil shows up having already selected 3 sub-tasks to start with. That has been exactly the choice architecture he needs to have fulfilling Wednesday afternoons. And he knows I’m there to help him troubleshoot if he gets tangled up in his backlog again.

Of course, this is just a single example from my work with Phil. If only burnout were this simple to fix. But he’s got me to help him mop up the aftermath of burnout and build new habits and skills to prevent it in the long term. Every week, we talk about what went well, what needs a different approach, and what help he needs to figure out the week ahead.

That’s a reasonable description of how most of my sessions work, but ultimately I adapt the structure to meet whatever my client needs. What are you struggling with? Connect at melissa@datasmithing.com or on Twitter at datasmithing1 to find out how I can help.

Lastly, if you are a struggling graduate student or you know someone who is, please reach out. I’m launching a program to provide support and tools for the unique challenges graduate students face: the Graduate Student Productivity Support Club.



[1] This is also Beeminder’s philosophy. See for example “What Is Willpower?” and “Incentive Alignment”.