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A calendar with gold stars on it, seinfeld-hack style

This is a guest post by Alice Harris. It is crossposted on Mark Forster’s Get Everything Done blog which we’re long time fans of.
UPDATE 2020: This post has aged amazingly but if you’re here for a quick refresher, maybe you’ll like this handy quick start reference:
  1. Add an initial datapoint of 0 with your first mustdo for tomorrow (suggestion: “show off this goal to 2 friends to help keep me accountable”)
  2. The next day, add a datapoint of 1 if you did the mustdo from yesterday and with a comment of the new mustdo for the next day
  3. If you didn’t do it then enter a 0 and still also enter tomorrow’s mustdo as the comment
  4. Repeat forever and ever!
  5. (But feel free give yourself a break and pick something like “read a chapter of Harry Potter” as your mustdo once in a while)*

Beeminder’s brilliant for encouraging yourself to Do Important Stuff. It’s turned me from the person who every week would remorsefully discard a fridge full of perished vegetables, into the person who has consistently eaten an average of 7 servings of fruit and vegetables a day for a straight run of 210 days! [UPDATE 2015: See 1000 Days of Fruits and Vegetables.] I’m also the person who exercises (okay, a little bit…), doesn’t eat too much chocolate, and hardly ever bites her nails.

But Beeminder doesn’t have to be for specific goals and projects. It can also help you action all those unrelated, one-off, annoying little tasks that you’ve been putting off for weeks. If you’re as much of a procrastinator as I am, then I’m sure you have some. I have many, but with Beeminder I’m slowly getting through them all. My Do One Must-Do Task Each Day goal is an idea that I shamelessly stole from Beeminder co-founder Danny Reeves [1], and if you look at my datapoints you can see the variety of actions I’ve been using it for.

To set up your own Must-Do goal, select Beeminder’s standard “Do More” goal. I unticked the “Start on a flat road” option because I wanted to be forced to get moving on my tasks straight away. If you’re new to Beeminder or don’t want the immediate pressure, then beginning with a flat road is probably a good idea. [UPDATE 2020: Starting right away is the default now; we make it obvious how to start with initial safety buffer if you don’t want the immediate pressure but mostly people do and it’s a bit more natural that way.] That gives you a gentle, forgiving start on the road towards awesome anti-procrastination-ness. Whenever you’re ready for pressure, dial in a weekly rate of 7. This will encourage you to do a Must-Do task every day.

For each day, you’ll be choosing a task to accomplish — something you otherwise would probably not have done on that day but something you’d really like to get done. At the end of the day, if you did that task, you enter “1” as your datapoint. If you didn’t do the task, you enter “0” — and perhaps fall off the yellow brick road!

When you enter your datapoint, use the comment to specify what your task will be for the next day. This keeps the momentum going, encourages you to think each night about what you’d really like to achieve on the next day, and records your commitment in writing. All of these things help in the fight against procrastination.

When I’m entering my comment, I like to use wording such as “On Monday I will clean the bath” (where Monday is the next day). Specifying the precise day and using a positive phrase like “I will” helps to focus my mind on the fact that this task IS something that WILL be done and the day on which it WILL be done is MONDAY. It leaves me with no wriggle room!

“Sometimes I use my Must-Do goal to force myself to do easy, five-minute tasks that for some bizarre reason I have been avoiding.”

The kinds of tasks you choose for your Must-Do goal are really up to you. Select anything that you’ve been putting off no matter how minor or silly. Sometimes I use my Must-Do goal to force myself to do easy, five-minute tasks that for some bizarre reason I have been avoiding. Just don’t pick something too difficult or too time-consuming to be easily finished in one day (along with all the other stuff you have to fit into that day!). If there is something big that you really need prodding for, just enter one small step. Instead of “On Monday I will write the TPS report” try “On Monday I will start the TPS report” or “On Monday I will write one page of the TPS report”. Scary monster tasks become much more manageable when you chop bits off them.

But of course if you want to tackle monsters head-on, you can always chain a few tasks together: “On Monday I will wash the sheets AND disinfect the floors AND toilet-train the dog.” If you’re feeling up to it, be ambitious and indomitable!

A Must-Do goal can be a useful adjunct to a normal task management system. I usually use Mark Forster’s Autofocus at home and Final Version at work and they’re very good at helping to overcome procrastination, but even they can’t always get me moving on actions that I’m stubbornly avoiding. The commitment of a Beeminder pledge gives me the extra impetus I need. And on days when I have so little discretionary time that I don’t get around to opening my todo list, my Must-Do goal ensures that I do achieve at least one thing of importance to me!

You can also use a Must-Do goal to achieve a helpful state of mind during stressful times. If you know that tomorrow will be especially difficult, perhaps from extra duties in your job or a big family gathering, then spend a bit of time the night before thinking about what you’ll need to do or how you’ll need to feel to get through the day, and base your comment around that. “On Monday I will remain calm and will ask for help when I need it. With patience and careful work I can stay in control and fulfill my duties.” Throughout the day, leave a browser window open showing your pretty Beeminder graph with your string of successes so far and let it be a reminder of how much you can achieve with just a little a bit of dedication. When evening comes and you need to enter your datapoint, don’t judge yourself too harshly — if you did better than you feared, then that’s a success!

If you’re finding yourself interested in a Beeminder Must-Do goal, give it a go. You don’t have to pledge money straight away (or ever if the graph itself is sufficiently motivating) so it’s a risk-free experiment. [UPDATE 2020: Beeminder is doubling down on the commitment and risk part and you now have to add a credit card from the start. Whether you can start with $0 pledged is in flux but the point of Beeminder is to hard-commit so never mind this “risk-free experiment” bit!] For your first task, choose the first thing that pops into your head. For your next day’s task, choose whatever you happen to think of when you’re recording your first day’s success. You don’t need to plan out a sequence of tasks or keep a list for future days. If you discover one evening that you can’t think of a Must-Do task for the next day, that means you’ve done all of the important things you’ve been putting off! When I get to that point, I intend to enter “On Tuesday I will revel in my awesomeness!”



[1] Danny adds: I suggested the idea on Akratics Anonymous which, if you’re reading footnotes of Beeminder blog posts, you probably want to join! I proposed it as a minimalistic version of a more elaborate Remember The Milk integration that Paul Fenwick (also a previous Beeminder guest blogger!) proposed.

Please head to the version of this post on Mark Forster’s blog to comment.