What Not To Beemind

Tuesday, March 2, 2021
By Chelsea Miller

The Beeminder logo crossed out

What appalling apostasy is this? It’s not like that! Beeminder just isn’t quite perfect for absolutely everything. It’s *practically* perfect for absolutely everything. Practically perfect for a surprising breadth of things? This post just happens to be about the exceptions. It’s a sequel to both the previous post, about how “never do this thing ever” goals are not a good fit for Beeminder, as well as “What To Mind: Picking a Metric”. It’s based on a draft by previous Support Czar Chelsea Miller in 2015 but Bee substantially rewrote it and Danny edited it pretty hard so consider it coauthored.

So what should you not beemind? This is of course just an opinion — an opinion gleaned from thousands of undone derailments and goals observed over the nearly ten years of Beeminder. Maybe all of these goal types have changed your life. That’s cool, and I’m happy that Beeminder worked so well for you! But for many people — especially newbees who are just getting their feet wet with Beeminder in general — these goals are prime for inducing burnout and weaseling. These opinions are presented to give you a heads-up about potential unwanted repercussions, and to remind you to ALWAYS BEE THOUGHTFUL with your goal creation! (Email us at support or head into the forum if you want to chat about the best way to set up goals!)

1. Never-Will-I-Ever Goals

This is what we blogged about last time — committing to enter only zeros forever.

What to do instead

It makes for a better graph and less weirdness overall, if you really want to never do a thing ever, to make a Do More goal where you enter a 1 every day for not doing the thing. But that brings us to…

2. Never-Will-I-Not Goals

This is generally a Do More goal with a rate of 7 per week, for something where it doesn’t make sense to do it more than once per day. Common examples are brushing your teeth [1], flossing, writing in a journal. Your dentist won’t mind if you floss twice a day, but in general building up safety buffer on this type of goal is sort of counter-productive. You can floss your teeth 6 times today, but it won’t make your teeth six times cleaner.

This is part of a general admonition, especially for newbees, to be realistic.

Another way to look at this goal type is that it’s the opposite of cold turkey. Instead of never doing something, you’re committing to always do it. But since you’re clearly not always doing it right now, you might find it a harder task than you thought. And when you find it hard, you can’t take a day off without losing a buffer day that you’ll never regain. With the 7/week goal, there’s no forgiveness for ever having a lazy night where you do nothing but watch TV all night long. That safe day — assuming you at least started the goal with some initial buffer — is gone, you can’t get it back, and you’re one bad day closer to derailment. [2]

This is related to why we think Beeminder is so much better than streak minding.

What to do instead

  • Set a realistic goal rate. Start with a rate that’s a bit more than what you’re currently doing and then dial the rate up as it gets easier to accomplish.

  • Before you start any goal, but especially for a really unforgiving goal like this, think about what you want to achieve. Is it necessary to read three articles per day every day? Is that significantly better than doing it five days a week?

  • Another highly recommended tactic: pick a better metric than “days I did X”. We call this the QS First principle. In the article-reading example above, it’ll be much more flexible (and more interesting!) in the long run to beemind “articles read”. You can still have that 3/day goal rate, but if you happen to read 5 articles on Monday, those 2 bonus articles count to build up safety buffer! You don’t get the extra credit when you’re tracking it as a binary goal, where you either succeed or fail each day. And since you can restore used buffer by reading extra articles, missing a day doesn’t mean an unrecoverable slip towards inevitable derailment.

3. Outcome Goals

The canonical example of this type of goal is weight loss, though there’s some ambiguity here. Other outcome goals include number of pushups you can do in a row, or your typing speed. Or maybe your goal is “write a book” which maybe you’re conceiving of as a one-off goal (see #7).

The reason that an outcome goal will bite you is because when it comes down to a beemergency day, there is not single clear action for you to take in order to immediately affect the outcome.

While there are plenty of people who successfully beemind weight, when you create a Beeminder goal to track your weight, you are beeminding the cumulative outcome of a bunch of other behaviors that you are implementing. You are changing the types and quantities of food you eat, increasing exercise, improving sleep, amputation, etc etc to actually make the scale number change. (We still think beeminding weight is great though.) When it comes to a beemergency day, the cumulative total of those actions is enough, or it isn’t.

Likewise for your max reps of pushups or typing speed. You’ve been training for this, doing everything your coach said, your recovery is perfect, your mental game is dialed in. But if you fall short one rep, one second, what to do? You can keep trying, but in some sense it’s out of your control. You’ve done the prep-work, and now it’s game day, and you might beat the clock, or you might not.

What to do instead

This one is simple. Beemind something else.

Think about what inputs lead to the outcome you want, and then beemind those instead. For weight loss it might be eating more vegetables, or walking 10% more, or getting more sleep, or drinking less alcohol, or why not all four? For pushups, beemind total number of pushups done, or max rep attempts. For typing speed, total words typed, or levels completed in a typing game. For writing a book, beemind the time spent writing, or the word count of the draft.

4. OMG-I-love-Beeminder-let’s-do-EVERYTHING Goals

This looks like someone creating 93 goals in the first day of signing up with Beeminder. You can certainly turn Beeminder into a nannybot that tells you what to do with every hour of every day. But there’s plenty of ways this could go wrong.

Firstly, if you’ve got a lot of goals, you have to remember to enter a lot of data. Entering a lot of data can be tedious and frustrating, and when you forget you fail big. Even if the data entry is automatic, it may still be a pain to actually do all the things you thought you wanted to. You can create 27 different goals so you finally learn to knit, floss in the morning, floss at night, call your grandparents every Sunday, read a chapter of a classic novel every day, read one non-fiction book per month, limit your time on Facebook to 15 minutes a day, check in on your bank balance once a week, take out the garbage on Tuesdays and Fridays, reach out to a potential client every weekday, sweep the kitchen three times a week… BUT IT’S TOO MUCH!!! [3] At least once, your day is going to get completely away from you and you won’t get to dispatch your 14 beemergencies. Then you’ll either send me emails to undo 14 derailments, or enter fake data on 14 goals to avoid derailing. The first option is a hassle for us both, and the second pretty instantly destroys Beeminder for you forever (at least for manual data entry goals). Both are bad outcomes!

What to do instead

  • Cut your goals down to the Most Important Things. Think about what you actually want to do, and what goals matter most to you right now. Beemind those, cut the rest — archive them away, or drop the rate to something more manageable. Maybe it’s okay if you don’t make it all the way through the list of “100 Books Everybody Should Read Before You Die” and regift your knitting needles to a friend. And it might be okay to call Grandma every other Sunday.

  • Add new goals thoughtfully. Pick a sensible rate, and then cut it in half to start with. You’re starting a new thing, and you can dial the rate up later.

Of course, there’s a beautiful counterpoint to this one, in the Fifty Goals of Bartholomew Cubbins, I mean, Brent Yorgey. If Beeminder is already the dashboard that keeps track of all the deadlines in your life, like it is for some of us, then putting every last thing into a Beeminder goal might work great for you. Bee has goals that are really just in place of calendar reminders, like “take out the trash”. Again, these warnings are targeted more toward newbees, or the less-than-fanatical user.

5. Beeminding Someone Else

Beeminder works as a behavior change tool for yourself. Maybe you get excited about how awesomely successful you’re being with it, and you find yourself thinking, “you know who really needs to change their behavior? NOT ME!”

Goals that rely on someone else’s behavior can come in a few different flavors. One example is directly beeminding something someone else has to do for you. Like the time that 11-year-old Faire insisted on making a goal to hug her little brother daily. She eventually fell off the wagon because she was at the whim of her younger sibling, and sibling dynamics happened, and he refused to give her a hug, and there was not much to do about it.

Another way you could have a goal that relies on someone else is a joint goal. These could suffer a diffusion of responsibility. If you and your partner created a joint decluttering goal, you’re at risk of failing each other because, despite good intentions, it is not obvious whose responsibility it ultimately is. Maybe you see it’s a beemergency day as you’re heading out the door for work (remember that? heading out the door for work? hi from early 2021!), and you see a cloth grocery bag left out by your partner, and you think “oh good, they’ll take care of that and we’ll be all good on the decluttering goal.” Elsewhere in the same house, your partner notices the beemergency and glancing around sees two pairs of shoes that you left in the hall and they think that obviously you’ll dispatch the beemergency, since you’re the one who left shoes lying around.

(None of us — of the three who helped get this blog post out the door — have actually tried a proper joint goal and Beeminder doesn’t make it easy. That may change in the future! We’d love to hear your experiences with joint goals.)

What to do instead

  • Reframe the goal as something that you have direct control over. Instead of counting the times you hug your brother, count times you’ve offered him a hug. That reminds you to offer the kindness, but you aren’t going to wind up in a heated debate over whether an involuntary sofa tackle counts as a hug.

  • Pick a buckstopper for any sort of goal that has joint responsibility. Beeminder UVIs is a good example of this. Lots of us contribute User-Visible Improvements to Beeminder, but Danny is the ultimate buckstopper on the goal. He’s the one who decides what counts, and is in charge of making sure they actually happen.

6. Should Goals

Are there things you feel guilty about not doing? Do you want to do them? Maybe there are tradeoffs, so you both do and don’t want to. Vegetables are healthy but you enjoy candy more. Maybe being sweaty or out of breath is particularly unpleasant for you despite how good it is for you. Maybe YouTube is more engaging than textbooks.

We sometimes hear complaints about Beeminder, along the lines that it’s self-blackmail or unhealthily suppressing parts of yourself. You should take those warnings seriously! If you aren’t certain that more exercise or more writing or less TV, or whatever it is, is optimal for you, maybe don’t beemind it.

What to do instead

Only beemind things that pass the Want-Can-Will Test. One way to make sure your goal passes is to make the rate extremely easy. You unambiguously want to eat some amount of vegetables that’s a fair bit more than your current 3 servings per month. You definitely want to study more than 5 minutes a day. Start with such a lower bound and dial the rate up as long it still feels easy and valuable. As long as Beeminder is making you do a bit more (or less, in the case of a Do Less goal) than you’d do if left to your own devices, that’s a win. Think rationally about how much more than that to push yourself.

7. One-off Goals

Who wants a Beeminder graph with a single datapoint? It’s almost pointless!

What to do instead

If you have a single binary thing you want to commit to — and you can’t break it down into a stream of daily inputs (see #3) — you probably want one of our competitors — in particular StickK or especially TaskRatchet.


 

Footnotes

[1] Yes, you probably do brush your teeth more than once a day. We’ll get to that!

Tangent: The amount of people who beemind teeth brushing has always surprised me. Beeminder may be the most effective impetus for oral health on the whole internet. Was it difficult to remember without Beeminder poking you? How often do you brush your teeth with Beeminder vs. without? Has your dentist noticed the improved beehavior? Do you even go to the dentist regularly? If you beemind this, please email me at support and let me know why you do so. I won’t judge you! I just want to understand.

Meta-tangent: Flossing was Paul Fenwick’s go-to example for years. He said Beeminder finally cured him and he now flosses regularly on his own. But he confirmed that his dentist noticed and he would rave about Beeminder to them.

[2] This is not really true — you can use the road dial to schedule a break (or a rate change) any time. So if you really have a crappy day, you can schedule a one-day break to make up some ground. But you can only do that starting one week from now, and if you don’t do the goal on your break day, you won’t get the buffer back!

[3] Restatement for emphasis — this is totally my opinion. I know one very lovely user who currently has 72 goals active and she makes it work for her. You might be a superuser too, and I admire you for it. But for us normies out there, it makes Beeminder more overwhelming and scary than helpful!

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