Failing your Goals with Beeminder

Thursday, September 13, 2012
By pjf

A nun in a habit

This is a guest post by Paul Fenwick (@pjf), founder of Perl Training Australia and internationally acclaimed public speaker and expert on mindhacks. We’re exceedingly proud to have his endorsement, which, belying the title, really is an endorsement! In point of disclosure, Paul is a personal friend of ours, but he didn’t try Beeminder because he liked us. It was, in fact, entirely vice versa.

Habits are one of the best, and worst, features of being a human. Habits cause us to do things on autopilot, without thinking or effort. Because they’re so powerful, we spend a lot of time working on developing good habits. Flossing our teeth, arriving at work on time, going to the gym.

When I first discovered Beeminder, I was delighted, because it meant I could get into the habit of using Anki, a fabulous program for loading information into your brain. Anki gives you a way of using spaced repetition, getting you to recall knowledge just before you’re about to forget it, and at increasing intervals to make sure it works its way into your long term memory.

I use Anki to remember everything from cognitive biases, my friends’ food allergies, Elvish poetry, new and difficult to spell words, psychology concepts, people, and even pop culture and Internet memes. Anki is free, open source, and there are many pre-existing decks that can be downloaded and used. I had also written a basic wrapper to submit data to Beeminder whenever I started Anki on my laptop.

Using Beeminder, I set a goal to use Anki six times per week, and for the next hundred days, I did great. Since I had a tight schedule, and never built up a large safety buffer, I was always close to falling off the road. This was great, because it had me integrate Anki into part of my routine; studying Anki cards is what I would do with my second coffee each day. On days when I’m travelling or otherwise off my regular routine, there was always the Beeminder email bot to remind me, and I’d already got into the habit of making sure my Beeminder goals were complete before going to bed. Since Anki only takes a few minutes each day, things would go great, even when I had a hectic lifestyle with lots of travel.

However, I then made a dreadful mistake. Using Anki every day meant that I was learning very effectively; but as a result, the number of cards I had to practice each day had become very small, and it hardly seemed like firing up anki was worth it. So I decided, logically enough, that I could retain the knowledge I had learnt with less time expense by only using Anki every second day.

“Humans don’t get into the habit of doing things every second day.”

While previously the Beeminder emails and my slowly developing habits had me using Anki almost every day, I was now in a position where I could skip days. But that’s not how habitualisation works. Humans don’t get into the habit of doing things every second day. Sure enough, by making my goals easier, I upset the habits I was trying to form, and promptly fell off the yellow brick road.

In hindsight, what I should have done — insteading of dialing down my yellow brick road to match the amount of reviewing I needed to do — was to commit to using Anki for a minimum amount of time each session. In the cases where I finished my reviews early, I could use the extra time to review or collate new knowledge. I could include time spent researching for new cards (for pre-made decks I liked to read about a topic in depth before enabling cards for it). I could include time spent creating new cards (my deck of interesting people could always do with more work). If new knowledge felt too hard, then just reviewing cards early could be done to reach my minimum time commitment. Anything that would have required that I use Anki every day—and felt that daily use was truly beneficial—would have avoided my derailment and inability to form a beneficial habit.

The moral of the story? If you actually need Beeminder to get into the habit of doing something, then making goals “easier” for you to achieve can actually make them harder once the mechanics of habitualisation come into play.


Using an early version of our new API, Paul has been automatically sending his Anki numbers to Beeminder. If you want to do the same, you should try Stefan Dorn’s Beeminder + Anki add-on. It’s a little rough around the edges and only works with the new Anki 2.0, but it does work! Stefan has the code up on Github and we intend to blog about this again when it’s more polished.


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