The Tao of Bees: How I use Beeminder

Monday, September 11, 2017
By Brennan K. Brown

Winnie the Pooh with his head stuck in a jar of honey

Brennan K. Brown has been using Beeminder for two years this week and is our new favorite user. (Don’t worry, we have a lot of favorite users. Mathematical fun fact: superlativity doesn’t imply uniqueness!) He achieved this coveted status (haha, but it does involve us mailing you stickers) by writing two pretty amazing Medium posts: How to Create & Plan Better (Using the Internet and Bees) and Tracking for Good (What I’ve learned using Beeminder religiously for a month). We liked them so much we asked him to come guest blog about how Beeminder is the secret of his success. And this is just Part One! Tune in next time for Brennan’s beeminding tips and hard-won lessons.

To-Doing Things Is Hard

As a writer, I find that I sometimes get into slumps where I don’t write anything. There will be eighty different half-finished pieces in my drafts. I’ll have a late-night epiphany while trying to go to sleep  or in the middle of a shower   about what would make a good post. But then I never write the posts. Eventually, those supposedly great ideas just disappear, and I grow old and whither away and die, and never publish anything. The end.

Why does this happen? Why don’t we work on the things we 1) find important or 2) enjoy doing? The answer is usually not a simple one. Life is busy, a high-strung juggling-act of responsibilities. One of the most difficult pills to swallow is that when we put our dreams on the backburner, they usually end up staying there forever. Pretty heavy, right? But it’s true.

But if we don’t want to put dreams on the backburner, there’s a need to integrate what we really want to do into daily life. It sounds cheesy, I know, and also difficult. But while it’s not an easy task, it’s also not an impossible one.

Ever since I picked up a self-help paperback at a garage sale when I was eight years old, I’ve been a self-improvement junkie. I’ve realized the dire need to plan out our lives, to find the wiggle room, no matter how small. Most plans start with a to-do list.

There’s nothing more satisfying than creating an organized, hierarchical to-do list. I’ve tried many different productivity programs  — Todoist, Trello, Omnifocus, etc. Even analogue methods, such as bullet journaling and dash/plus. However, once I finally finish writing up everything that I need to do, the motivation to actually start going through everything dissolves. Project management should never be a project itself.

Four Reasons Why To-do Lists are Fundamentally Flawed:

  1. Lack of sense of accomplishment. What’s the pay-off for completing things that were difficult to do? Nothing, other than the reward being the journey getting there, which is lame.
  2. Lack of urgency. Nothing is pushing you towards your goals. The worst thing that happens is the background color of your overdue tasks turns a shade of dark red, which just makes you feel guilty.
  3. Lack of visual progression. Each day or week, you start up a new list, a bunch of new things that need to be done. Your old and completed list usually ends up deleted or in the garbage.
  4. Lack of automation. Each day you have to go over what needs to be done. Sure, you can repeat tasks, but that just depressingly fills your calendar up with the same exact schedule over and over.

And Now For Something Completely To-Different (Hint: It’s Beeminder)

What can replace a to-do list? That’s the million-dollar question. Never in my life did I think I’d be advocating for a specific productivity tool. Personal willpower and discipline always seemed more vital and important to have, rather than any particular software. I’ve always been skeptical and cynical that there was any shortcut to producing good work without working hard. I’ve thought that each new trend was just the same wine in a different bottle.

But Beeminder isn’t a shortcut, and doesn’t try to pretend that it is. You still have to work hard. But Beeminder does help in a unique and powerful way.

What Makes Beeminder Better?

  1. Sense of Accomplishment. Every step you take is tracked in a visually attractive and auto-generating graph. You can see when you’ve been working hard and when you’ve been slacking.
  2. Serious Repercussions. Didn’t get done what you committed to getting done? You pay money as a consequence, simple as that.
  3. Systems Not Goals. Beeminder takes in what work you do daily (or weekly). It doesn’t let you just dream about big, lofty goals. You have to constantly be making progress towards them.
  4. Automation. You don’t have to go about manually writing out what you need done each day, or have your calendar filled with arbitrary tasks. Just have a look at your Beeminder dashboard instead.

“With Beeminder, each success is added on top of the previous”

There’s something about looking at this kind of progress that’s so much more motivating than a series of crossed-out and completed tasks. With Beeminder, each success is added on top of the previous. You can see the accumulation of your progress and stockpile your victories. These graphs include helpful statistics and science as well, such as variance between data points, delta values, and the Akrasia horizon.

It also bombards you with reminders via email, SMS, and even Slack when you’re coming close to failing to maintain progress. I’ve found it a lot easier to just do the work I’ve assigned myself as opposed to have it constantly nag at me, or try to find a way to weasel out.

The most important part, though, is that Beeminder forces you to work gradually  and  linearly.  This is in contrast to impulsively doing a bunch of work at once, which is what I usually did instead. You take the middle path and find balance, while also having the ability to slowly push yourself as time goes on. This allows you to create good work consistently without burning out.

Beeminder in Four Steps

Now, as great and enticing as this might sound, it still might be a bit confusing. I’ve tried using Beeminder for the past two years and realized there’s a bit of a learning curve. Before you actually start using it for multiple goals regularly, you have to think about your big-picture Goals and how to turn them into Beeminder goals. And it’s best to ramp up slowly, rather than trying to change everything at once.

FIRST, figure out what you want to change in your life. All goals (and subsequently, tracking) should begin like this. A solid purpose is everything.

Example 1. I want to write more.

Example 2. I want to be more physically active.

SECOND, figure out meaningful quantification of that qualitative goal. Don’t let ambiguity allow you to slip  —  put an exact number on what you want to accomplish.

Example 1. I want to write 100,000 words in a year.

Example 2. I want to run/walk 500 kilometres in a year.

THIRD, figure how to convert your qualitative goal into a daily system. Those goals above may seem daunting but they’re actually a lot more achievable when you break them down.

Example 1. 100,000 words / 365 days ≈ 275 words per day

Example 2. 500 km / 365 days ≈ 1,800 steps per day

FOURTH, figure out how to track this new daily system. There are plenty of apps and tools out there for specific metrics, usually with well-established APIs that allow for data to be transferred and charted easily.

Example 1. Use Draft to sync daily word count on Beeminder.

Example 2. Use a multitude of fitness apps and wearables to sync daily step count on Beeminder.

Ten Things I’m Tracking

If you want an idea of how all this abstract philosophy looks when it’s actually applied, here are some personal systems and daily routines I use. You can view this in real-time on my Beeminder gallery.

  • Gratitude: I simply write out one thing a day that I’m grateful for, and go through every previous data point to see what I’ve been grateful for in the past. A great benefit from having this be manual input is that it doubles as a daily check-in for me to other Beeminder goals.

  • Writing: Another manual input, this being the amount of words I write per day, with each data point specifying what exactly I was mostly writing about. Usually either just daily journal writing or blog posts.

  • Blog Posts: Tracks the number of posts I upload to Medium. Unlike other activities, I retroactively added all older posts from Medium. Having that data in front of me really showed me how I needed to start publishing more.

  • Productive/Unproductive Time: Both of these are tracked via the time-logger RescueTime. I try to get a certain amount of productive work done each day, whether it’s writing, or programming, or reference/learning. I also try to limit the amount of time I waste on mindless and fruitless activities.

  • Fitness: Tracks the number of miles I travel, whether it’s walking, running, or biking. I’m using Runkeeper to track this, no fancy wearable. It doesn’t count all of my travelling, only when I specifically log an activity, which also gives me a GPS map of the route so I can see where I’ve gone that day.

  • Programming: Automatically tracks the number of commits I push to GitHub (and other contributions, like issues reported and pull requests) using Gitminder. I admit this isn’t the best thing to track, as code shouldn’t be committed until it’s reached a point where it’s suitable to be deployed, but I’m currently working on a lot of small projects, which is pretty cool.

  • Social Media (Twitter/Instagram): This might be counterintuitive to some people, but I seldom use any social media. But by tracking the photos I upload and the tweets I write, I’m encouraged to look for interesting things that happen daily and share them with my friends and family. Both of these are tracked automatically by Twitter and Instagram’s API, respectively.

  • Language Learning: Tracks the amount of XP I earn on Duolingo. I’ve been trying to learn French for the past few years on my own, and it’s hard, but practicing a little bit each day has helped my retention far more than just occasional cram sessions.

A Daily System of Seven

For roughly the past forty days, I have been experimenting with my own habits and routines and gathering the associated data with Beeminder. I’ve attempted to diligently track aspects of my life. This has been me eating my own dog food, so to speak  —  living the sort of quasi-motivational life that is feel-good on an abstract level.

Here’s what my current day looks like, following the things I track on Beeminder. This is essentially putting the theory into practice, and pen to paper. The truth is that, other than programming, these habits don’t take up much of my day at all. I actually end up having more time to relax or try something new, because I’m spending less time worrying about what I think I need to be doing.

  1. Start the day off by writing what I’m grateful for and check on my progress on my current goals.

  2. Take fifteen or twenty minutes to practice my French on Duolingo and TinyCards.

  3. Go on a walk or bike ride through my neighbourhood. Photograph anything interesting while out.

  4. Spend an hour or two programming. Learn something new, document it well, and then push it onto GitHub.

  5. Don’t waste time mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Reddit. Use screen time sparingly, and do something I actually enjoy when I want to take a break. (Watch a documentary, play a video game, etc.)

  6. Take a half hour to write in my journal or draft a blog post.

  7. At the end of the day, tweet about anything interesting that happened during the day.

The End…?

While I’m really happy with my current system, and it seems pretty stable so far, there are definitely problems that I ran into along the way. But I don’t want to derail the topic of conversation! Stay tuned for my next article where I follow up with some Beeminder pitfalls I learned the hard way. It’ll also include the most important lessons I’ve discovered from all of this.


Brennan K. Brown is a student software developer, musician, and enjoys writing sometimes. He is currently working on his first book, which focuses on self-mastery. You can view more of his writing on Medium. He resides in Calgary, Canada.

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