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DALL-E: derailing it is nailing it, surrealistic painting featuring a bee hammering a nail

We’ve talked before about how paying is not punishment because derailing is not failing, but fellow workerbee Clive pointed out that we could flip that negative formulation around. Derailing isn’t just not failing. It’s actively succeeding. Or, since obviously it still needs to rhyme, “Derailing It Is Nailing It”.

At first blush, that might seem weird. If you derail, that’s absolutely an instance of not doing something you set out to. It totally makes sense that that can feel like failure.

Still, if you take a look at the average Beeminder graph, it’s not a record of the number of times you failed. For most people, in most cases, it’s a record of the number of times you succeeded. Even derailments represent getting right back to it after sorting out whatever caused you to derail. Each derailment is a time you reestablished your commitment to completing your goal by getting back on track.

“Each derailment is a time you reestablished your commitment to completing your goal by getting back on track”

Do Less graphs make this a little more complicated — which is why we often suggest reframing them to become Do More goals if you can — but even then, the line you see is mostly showing you all the times you stuck to your limits.

Very inspirational, but never derailing is still better than sometimes derailing, right?


If you’re literally never derailing, then… well, maybe your goal is just easy and the most minor of threats is enough to keep you on track. I’ve had a few goals turn out that way: the mere presence of the goal is enough to make me do the thing. My goal for brushing my teeth, for example (at least since I got that one figured out), or my inbox zero goal. I don’t need to be on the edge, and there’s no real scope for overachievement here. Don’t get us wrong: there’s definitely a place for these goals in your dashboard.

But for many goals, if you’re literally never derailing then it’s most likely that your goal isn’t pushing you at all. Occasionally getting that little sting that makes the future consequences of your present inaction real. Then you’re really getting pushed toward your goal. It’s even valuable to get that reminder in circumstances where you might feel the urge to call not-legit. Valuable enough to pay for, in fact.

Just as an example, lately I haven’t been calling not-legit on failures on my reading goals, even when the issue is mental health. My reading goals are deliberately low in rate — 5 pages/day — but they have a ratchet to ensure consistency: those 5 pages of progress are due every day. It might seem like these derailments are not quite fair: I didn’t fall prey to akrasia, I was sick! But… if I can’t manage even 5 pages a day, that’s valuable information for me, and I need that wakeup call. To just call not-legit misses the point here. These goals are important to me, they’re actually part of my own efforts to help bolster my mental health. Getting those stings is a positive part of these goals.

But that’s all very “derailing is not failing (it’s just giving me useful information)”, so let’s take it one step further to where derailing now and then is actively making everything better.

“Playing it safe and never being at risk doesn’t actually reach my end goals”

Studying the set amount is good; studying more is (usually!) better. It’s healthier to get any movement in a given day, but more movement and more often is better. And that’s where Beeminder can really shine, and where you can reap the greatest benefits by setting your rate to something aspirational. I can be pretty sure I’d never derail if my goal was only set to 2,000 steps a day — but playing it safe and never being at risk doesn’t actually reach my end goals.

If I set my rate to 5,000 steps a day, when I know I’d always be safe at 2,000 steps a day, I’m probably going to derail now and then, on busy days. But on balance, I’m doing way more toward my overall fitness than I would’ve if I played it safe. Even if I derail this week because I just couldn’t make it, I’ve probably done more than 2,000 steps each day. Even though I’m paying the occasional charge for this — $10 here, $30 there — I’m achieving way more than if I’d played it safe.

Beeminder is great for goals like the ones I mentioned before, where any consequence is enough to keep us from going off the rails. But it’s the GOAT for making us do more than that, for pushing us to overachieve. It’s easy to settle for good enough, and Beeminder makes it possible to commit to being better. For most goals, derailing it means you’re nailing it!


PS: Upon reading this, Bee wondered if we picked the wrong metaphor altogether. It’s not derailing, it’s more like hitting the rumble strip on the highway!