Psychoanalyzing Beeminder

Wednesday, November 22, 2017
By Michele Gregoire Gill

A pigeon

We’re excited to have Prof Michele Gregoire Gill guest blogging for us! She’s a bonafide expert in what Beeminder is trying to do. Also she personally is a dedicated Beeminder user for the last 3 years. She’s here to tell us about how she came to love Beeminder and why!

I’m a research psychologist who specializes in educational psychology, the study of learning, and instruction. So I live and breathe motivation and self-regulation strategies. And not just professionally. I’ve used so many personal productivity apps! I started with habit trackers like Ritual and Way of Life and Habit Bull. None of them worked for me. What was the consequence of not checking the button next to the habit? Nothing. I’d forget about or be too busy to even open the app until the weekend when I’d try to enter my progress retrospectively. But I very much needed help developing and maintaining habits. So I diligently read books on habit formation, from Better than Before to Habits. Even Lean Habits, about eating behaviors. Intellectually, I knew that habits were the way to go. And I was already pretty good at maintaining habits that were intrinsically motivating to me — doing the dishes, walking my dog — and I was great at starting new things (learn French! HIIT practice! Whole30!). But I was still terrible at sustaining challenging habits.

Then I heard about Beeminder. I loved their blog posts. The Beeminder founders are candid and funny and humble. They freely admit when they’re wrong, and they, as tech people say, eat their own dog food. I quickly became a fan, but when I looked more closely at Beeminder, I recoiled. For all the fancy psych talk about self-regulation and akrasia and motivation, underneath the system are clear behaviorist principles of reinforcement, shaping, and punishment. In my day job, I rail against teachers’ overreliance on such principles, and I surely wasn’t going to start treating myself that way. Besides, I’m a rebellious type, prone to thwart rules when they become too restrictive. I didn’t see how Beeminder could work for someone like me. But I couldn’t find anything else that worked for me. Plus I was so captivated by the amount of thought and research put into Beeminder’s design that I decided to try it. (I’m a girl easily swayed by good research findings.) That was back in December 2014. My initial goals were small, measurable, and very reasonable, as I didn’t want to start by failing. I wanted to pray for two minutes in the evening — a difficult time for me given that I often work nights and when I don’t, I have two kids and a husband needing my attention. I also wanted to eat more veggies and work with more focus using the pomodoro system.

Beeminder graph of Dr Gill's pomodoros

As a university professor, I work on a semester schedule and often set short-term goals for myself. Given that I often work alone, at a computer, it’s easy for me to lose focus. So I began experimenting with pomodoros to shape my work day and increase my productivity. You can see from the graph above that this was not an easy habit for me. My dots hug the yellow brick road, though usually on the right side of it, thank goodness. My end date was the end of the semester in May, and I only had two slip-ups in that time. In February I derailed with $0 and then kept on track almost all the way to the end where a minor slip cost me $5. This increased my next fine to $10, but that was sufficient deterrent to keep me on track until I met my goal.

For me, even a small amount of money is a sufficient deterrent to failing. What I hated most was “derailing” on the goal and disappointing myself. I was happy to see that Beeminder — even though not as fancy as some habit apps — was very good at keeping my goal close at hand. First, I was able to set up reminders on a schedule that suited me. Second, I was automatically reminded when I got within a certain danger zone of failing. Third, there was a nice mix of reinforcements (both positive and negative), and punishments to help shape my behavior.

The punishment of losing my $5, and even just of the dreaded “you derailed!” notice, were things that I wanted to avoid, but surprisingly, just adding a data point was sufficient negative reinforcement for me. Working on my habits and checking in regularly on Beeminder allowed me to avoid the negative stimulus of warning emails. I could easily stop the negative stimulus by doing my pomodoros. And the enjoyment of seeing my dots above the yellow brick road served as a positive reinforcement once I entered my data points.

When I chose a habit that was too difficult, Beeminder let me reduce the difficulty — though I still had to sweat through the next week (what Beeminder calls the akrasia horizon) until the goal became more reasonable. One of my proudest achievements on Beeminder was going from 0% ability to play the electric bass to playing a full set of 90s rock songs at a local bar with a band six months later, just by practicing my bass daily at night, no matter what other siren songs were calling me.

So, here’s my overall impression of Beeminder and its usefulness as a tool for creating and sustaining habits and behavior change looking back over these past few years of Beeminding:

What beeminding taught me

  • To try new and even hard things: you can delete goals within a week of creating them if they aren’t working out for you
  • To commit to very specific goals for specific periods of time, allowing for re-evaluation
  • To look honestly at what goals were worth the cost (e.g., bass playing, French)
  • To take another honest look at what goals were particularly difficult for me to maintain (evening prayer, daily writing practice)
  • That consistent practice can yield automatic habits that I no longer have to beemind (like eating vegetables — it now just feels wrong to not have vegetables on my plate!)
  • That I can stretch myself, and it’s enjoyable, but only for a limited number of tasks in a certain period of time

What I wish Beeminder did better

  • Better graphs with different ways of viewing data (Beeminder is great about data export, there’s just more reporting I’d like out of the box, seeing my data in different ways, easy zooming, etc)
  • It is still a bit too tech-y; it might scare away those with less patience to experiment, as it is not very intuitive

What Beeminder is great at

  • I love that Beeminder allows so much data input to be automated
  • As an Apple fan, I especially love the iOS integration that allows my exercise, steps, and active calories burned each day to be automatically recorded (this definitely has increased the amount of daily movement I get!)
  • I love how goals can’t be changed for a week — it forces me to think clearly about what is reasonable for me
  • I love how Beeminder is founded in good psychology and focused on habits that lead to long-term changes, and there is so much freedom to pick goals and costs that work for me
  • I love that I can change my habits and set end dates — I don’t plan to keep all goals indefinitely

I’m super busy: I work full-time, am raising two school age boys who are very, very demanding, and I volunteer as the board chairperson for a charter school I founded. Beeminder may have an initial learning curve, but because of all the ways I have to automatically send Beeminder data it means that, once my goals are set up, I spend almost no time interacting with Beeminder itself day to day.

“Beeminding taught me to look honestly at what goals were worth the cost”

What I love most of all, though, is the integrity of being a part of the Beeminder creators’ world. They accept all criticism without defensiveness. This helped me overcome a lot of my initial resistance to Beeminder. And even later resistance, like when they introduced premium subscription plans. I was opposed to paying for Beeminder monthly, but they kept an open dialog, polling users, providing options, and eventually a good compromise resulted. They have won my loyalty, more than any other app or product I’ve purchased. Daniel and Bethany continue to blog, keep Beeminder updated regularly, and provide a quick response rate to questions/issues. This alone has taught me a lot about how to be responsive and receptive to criticism in my own spheres of influence.

And as to my initial distaste of behaviorism? Even my self-determination/intrinsic motivation heroes (e.g., Ed Deci and Richard Ryan) recognize that there are stages to obtaining intrinsic motivation, and some distasteful or unpleasant tasks might just have to be motivated more extrinsically, with the goal of finding intrinsic motivation as much as possible for as many tasks as we have to perform each day. I don’t need to beemind reading cool research on conceptual change, for example, or working on my classes. But for those tasks we have little motivation for doing, there’s Beeminder. And for that, I am so very grateful.


Michele Gregoire Gill is a writer of academic works and nonfiction essays and prose, a mother of two young-ish boys, a teacher, and an educational researcher. She works as a professor of educational psychology and program coordinator for the education doctorate in curriculum and instruction at the University of Central Florida. She also serves as chairman of the board for the K-8 charter school she founded in Sanford, Florida. In her spare time, she knits simple things, learns bass riffs for her favorite rock songs, and listens to birds chirping in her backyard. You can find her online at

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