The Fifty Goals of Brent Yorgey

Tuesday, May 29, 2018
By Brent Yorgey

Bartholomew Cubbins holding hats

We called Brent Yorgey’s previous guest post an absolute inspiration, but we misspoke. That post was highly pragmatic advice that everyone should read. It’s this post that’s the pure inspiration. We hope it gives you new ideas for things to beemind!

In my previous post, “Beeminding All The Things”, I explained my approach and some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past five years of using Beeminder. I also promised a tour of my 50 goals, so let’s dive in.

I’ve sorted my goals into six main categories: health, personal, household, spiritual, productivity, and work. There is definitely some overlap, but overall I was surprised how neatly my goals fell out into these categories, and how evenly spread they are. Perhaps even thinking through these categories might help inspire you with new ideas. You may also come up with other categories of your own. Note, for example, that I have no category for family; personally, spending time with family is something I don’t seem to need Beeminder goals for at the moment, but perhaps you do.

Many of my goals use various automated data sources (like TagTime and IFTTT), but it would be tedious to list all the details about every goal. If you want to know more about any particular goal, ask in the comments or the Beeminder forum!

Health

I like being healthy (who doesn’t?) but without Beeminder, well, health is one of those things that is never urgent. Fortunately, I eat healthy food since my wife is an amazing chef and we love eating lots of high-quality, fresh ingredients (because it tastes good, not necessarily because it’s healthy). However, I tend to eat too much. I used to have a weight loss goal which was helpful for a while: I went from 190 pounds down to 170. But it was more the novelty of a shiny graph and a Withings (now Nokia) scale that helped. Weight loss goals violate the principle of tracking inputs, not outputs. So I stopped tracking it and, surprise, my weight went back up. Now I have a goal to track bites, which has worked really well for me. I am back down to a healthy 170 and maintaining it.

Left to my own devices I also tend not to drink enough water, which leads to dehydration and lots of trouble with my sinuses. So I have a goal to drink 80oz of water per day. I have measured the containers I usually drink water out of (my water bottle, mugs and glasses at home, etc.) and just estimate otherwise. I record a data point every time I finish drinking the water in a given container.

I have goals for miscellaneous personal care: flossing, trimming my beard/toenails, and I also have a goal to get a flu shot once a year — especially important since I have small children — and this goal works great. Normally getting a flu shot is one of those things that I vaguely know I ought to do, but it’s too easy to put off. It’s really helpful to have a bright deadline for doing it each fall. This probably wouldn’t work with something that required more advance planning (setting up an appointment with a doctor, etc.), but getting a flu shot is easy. A lot of pharmacies offer them on a walk-in basis, and typically my employer has a day when they bring in some nurses to administer flu shots to employees as well. If for some reason getting a flu shot required more advance planning, I would just make a Beeminder goal to make a flu shot appointment. If I was worried I might make an appointment but then blow it off, I’d keep both goals.

Personal

In general, things in this category are practices that increase my personal and/or relational well-being, but which I wouldn’t do without forcing myself to.

I realized a while ago that my well-being increases when I write regularly in a journal, but it’s one of those things I pretty much never do spontaneously. My goal is to write two pages per week. Usually I write two separate one-page entries but sometimes I write longer ones.

I love reading but I need a Beeminder goal to give myself an excuse to do it. It simply tracks the amount of time spent reading, and only reading for pleasure counts. Reading academic papers or blog posts doesn’t count (I have a separate goal for that). Currently I’m reading a biography of Claude Shannon; prior to that I read The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (both highly recommended).

Throughout the year there are various celebratory occasions (birthdays, Mothers’ Day, anniversaries, Christmas…) with associated social expectations (gifts, cards, special breakfasts…). These used to stress me out to no end, because my natural tendency is to chafe at the social expectations and procrastinate on preparations, until doing something in a panic at the last possible minute (often with not so great results). I now have a celebration goal which requires 1 point per week. To get a point for the goal, I must look at a calendar for the next two weeks, note any upcoming celebrations, and then either take concrete actions to prepare for ones coming up within the week (order gifts, look up recipes, etc.) or spend time brainstorming ideas for any coming up within two weeks. This goal is super annoying, but that’s the point: it’s going to be annoying either way but at least now I’m not stressed about it.

I love playing the piano and have played since I was four, so you’d think I wouldn’t need a goal for it; but sometimes it’s hard to make time for it in the midst of everything else going on. By default I also tend to just play what I already know instead of working to improve. This goal ensures I spend a certain amount of time on deliberate piano practice; I increase and decrease it depending on what else is going on.

Finally, I have a goal to upload media — the purpose is to make sure I am regularly uploading pictures and videos (mostly of our kids) in order to stay in touch with extended family.

Spiritual

I am a Christian, and Beeminder has been very helpful in developing and maintaining disciplined spiritual habits (as it has for others). I have goals to practice Lectio Divina; spend time reading Christian literature (other than the Bible); pray; study biblical Hebrew; and go through a certain liturgy at the start of each work day. Typically I take care of these goals in the early morning, before the rest of my family is up.

Household

There are lots of tasks that come along with maintaining a household, quite a few of which I wouldn’t do without being forced. I often end up doing these at the last minute before going to bed, but better late than never!

I put my towels in the wash every so often so they don’t grow mildew; I clean the shower once a week; I spend time cleaning around the house (just five minutes a day makes a huge difference); I do the dishes (almost) every day.

Some things are more personal: I take care of my bike (check the tire pressure and grease the chain) regularly. I also install security updates on my computers. (Does this fit under “household maintenance”? I am not sure.)

After we purchased our house a couple years ago, we found and modified a list of house maintenance tasks organized by monthly, quarterly, biannual, and annual tasks. They range from, e.g., checking the fire extinguisher pressure level (monthly) to inspecting the exterior of the house for cracks or any problems (annually). This goal ensures that I do one thing from the list every few days. Every single thing on the list is something I would never do unless forced. I like how this goal subsumes lots of things that would be difficult or annoying to make individual goals for, and that it gives me some flexibility in choosing which tasks I want to do when.

Productivity

I have a number of “meta” productivity goals which are not about any work in particular but are designed to help keep me productive. There is a lot of overlap between these goals and my work goals. Any given activity might result in data points on two or three goals. For example, I might do a pomodoro to work deeply on preparing for a lecture. At the end of the pomodoro I get a point for my pomodoro goal; plus if I got a TagTime ping during the pomodoro I get 45 minutes for my deep-work goal and my prep goal.

“I have a meta-goal to ensure that I create something every day”

After several very annoying episodes of forgetting to dial down my goals before a vacation or some other exceptional circumstance (and then having to decide whether to claim not legit on a bunch of derailments, or work super hard to build up enough buffer, or whatever) I decided the solution was to make yet another goal, to dial my Beeminder roads weekly. To get a point, I have to look at a calendar and put in breaks or rate changes for any events coming up within two weeks. It’s important for it to be two weeks since it has to account for the akrasia horizon plus the fact that I only do this goal once a week; anything more than two weeks out will still be beyond the akrasia horizon the next time I dial my roads. Since instituting this goal I have had zero episodes of awkward non-goal-dialing. Except for instances where, in my hubris, I deliberately chose not to dial down some goals even though in retrospect I probably should have.

I have a meta-goal to ensure that I create something every day, as opposed to only doing non-creative/administrative tasks like responding to emails, filling out forms, submitting reports, etc. This is important both metaphysically — being creative is one of my core values — and also practically, since creating increases my sense of well-being. I created this goal because I was finding it was becoming too easy to go through a day finding ways to satisfy all my Beeminder goals by doing menial or trivial work that wasn’t really productive in a larger sense.

I have a now page, inspired by Derek Sivers, and a goal to make sure it gets updated once a week (which is auto-updated by a script that watches the URL for changes); the act of updating it also helps me reflect on what big projects I want to be focusing on, and whether I have been working on the things I said I want to be working on. I also have a goal to write out weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly reviews, which help me plan and prioritize; and a goal to write in a daily work journal, which helps me reflect on what I’ve accomplished each day (and is also nice to look back on). I have a goal to file things once a week, which means organizing what’s in my backpack, clearing off my desk, emptying out my “in” folder and putting things where they should go, and clearing out my web browser tabs (turning open tabs into to-do items or saving bookmarks).

“The act of updating it also helps me reflect on what big projects I want to be focusing on”

I have a number of goals to help ensure I am making progress on various to-dos and lists etc.: I spend time processing my bug tracker inbox, working on older tickets in my bug tracker, working on a current to-do list using a variant Mark Forster’s Final Version system, and working on things I have committed to using the nascent commits.to, also from the Beeminder folks.

To ensure I am getting deep and concentrated work done, I have two goals: one to track pomodoros completed (counted automatically using the Clockwork Tomato app and Tasker), and one to ensure I spend a certain amount of time doing deep work.

Finally, I have two goals specifically to limit the amount of time I spend doing things that have at one point or another taken over too much of my time: playing minecraft, and solving competitive programming problems on Open Kattis.

Work

Last but not least, I have a number of goals related to specific work tasks or projects. My work typically falls under one of the umbrellas of research, teaching, or open source.

On the research side, I have a goal simply to work on research (defined as anything leading towards publishable results). The rate on this goal fluctuates a lot depending on the season. I also spend time reading academic papers and blog posts, to learn things and keep current in my field.

During the semester, I spend time grading each week, and preparing for class. Although they are inactive at the moment, this past semester I also had some specific goals to complete daily checklists for each of my courses (checklist365 and checklist150). I am still figuring out the best way to use Beeminder to stay on top of my courses during the semester, but this checklist thing worked pretty well. The checklists require me to do things like make sure I’ve prepared a homework assignment for the week, remember to upload any code or lecture notes from in class to the course website, think ahead about planning for exams, and so on.

Also falling generally under the umbrella of teaching, I write 1.5 blog posts per week (on either one of my two blogs), and also occasionally work on my translation and commentary on a classic paper in combinatorics by André Joyal.

The only specifically open-source related goal I have at the moment is my goal to work on the diagrams vector graphics framework (which I’ve been working on for over ten years now!). At the moment we’re working on a big rewrite of some internals and gearing up for a major new release of the library over the summer.


 

Deep breath. This concludes the tour of my Beeminder fanaticism! Again, ask away if you want to know more details about how particular goals work.