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A nebulous bee and a nebula

Beeminder works brilliantly for quantifiable, graphable goals. What about nebulous projects like remodeling your kitchen or finding a therapist? It doesn’t really work for those things. Unless! Unless you find a clever metric to mind. Like the word count in a log of your progress.

Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Create a blank document to serve as a diary or engineering log
  2. Create an URLminder goal to beemind the wordcount of that document
  3. Start by describing the problem and listing tasks
  4. Add an entry each day (or however often Beeminder makes you) describing what you tried, what’s working, what you’ll try next
  5. When you’re ready to declare the project a success, hit archive on the Beeminder goal
  6. Use the last week when Beeminder still has you on the hook to add a summary and post-mortem
  7. Optional: Add a draft of a Beeminder forum post describing what you did and what you learned!

The best part is, after that initial setup you never need to touch the Beeminder goal again. It’s fully automated — you just type words in your document and Beeminder yells at you when you haven’t typed enough.

For best results, share your log/diary/document with a friend or friends or even publicly. (Adding supporters in Beeminder can help too.) That way you’ll be too ashamed to exploit the loophole of blathering on about what you might do without actually ever doing it. Bee says that that was precisely how this failed for her when she tried it.

Beeminder superuser lanthala, on the other hand, has had great success with this ever since I sketched the idea in the Beeminder forum a couple years ago. I interviewed her in the Beeminder Community Discord and she had this to say:

This is still one of my favorite techniques from the forum. When there’s a thing that requires lots of unstructured work, but it’s not something amenable to being timed, Giant Google Doc of Doom is my strategy of choice. To meet the word count initially, I find myself immediately compelled to write an outline and a rough timeline, and boom, now I have a plan!

It also encourages best-practices like putting dates on everything (that’s an extra word!) and putting contact info directly in the doc, which means less hunting things down as the project continues. I keep a very low daily word requirement but cap the safety buffer so I always have to do something every couple days. I find once I open the document and add info, it’s really easy to add a bunch of notes, so the important part is just making sure I’m opening the doc pretty frequently.

Lanthala also pointed out how nicely flexible this is. When she was beeminding buying a house, she could often choose: add 10 new house links, or write a full breakdown (square footage, yard size, neighborhood, etc) for one house. Beeminder just ensured that she add 10 new words.

Last time here on the blog we talked about a trick for overcoming the activation energy of starting a new Beeminder goal. This nebuminding system, as we sometimes call it, also achieves that. There’s no up front planning, you just open a blank document and create the Beeminder goal.

Here’s one final trick, incorporating something like the Must-Do system. If the next thing you need to do on your nebulous project is something you’re dreading, like calling a contractor, type the following in your nebu-doc:

Next step: Call the dang contractor — NO TYPING MORE UNTIL THAT’S DONE

Et voila, Beeminder is making you do the next necessary task the next day, or whenever your next beemergency is for adding more words to your project log.

Lanthala spent a year using a Giant Google Doc of Doom, as she calls it, for all her tasks on everything, using that trick. These days we recommend TaskRatchet or Complice for your to-do list. But opening a blank document and (automatically) beeminding the wordcount remains a good way to take the plunge on a new, nebulous project and ensure that you’ll eventually see it through. Or at least end up with an informative post-mortem on why you failed.


Image credit: Faire Soule-Reeves