In my previous article, I talked about Beeminder’s unique way of thinking about goal-setting and self-accountability. I also shared my personal systems and how I keep all of my plates spinning at once. Now I want to go deeper into the weeds and share more insights on how to use Beeminder. Specifically, how to ensure you set up the right goals from the start, as well as avoid fizzling out.
Common Mistakes When Starting Out
I’ll start with the major slip-ups I found myself making when I first started beeminding. These caused me to derail more times than I’d like to admit. I realized that it’s as important to track your mistakes as it is to track your goals. So I looked for the common elements of my failures, and documented them. While these insights are about Beeminder, the principles can be helpful when dealing with any sort of goal accountability.
Setting goals that require a fundamental change. It can be tempting set goals you want to achieve in theory, but which are ultimately unrealistic. New habits take a slew of things to get working, most notably time and consistent effort. Creating obligation in the form of a Beeminder goal can help with this, but it doesn’t automatically change the way you behave. Ultimately you still have to do that. And if the goal is unrealistic you might be setting yourself up for failure.
An unrealistic goal might be too ambitious (if you haven’t run since 1996, don’t start your new running goal at 25 miles per week!).
Or it might be something that you feel like you “should” do but lack intrinsic motivation for (maybe you haven’t run since 1996 because you really hate it). In that case creating a goal that forces you to run regularly is going to set you up for an antagonistic relationship with Beeminder. There’s a very good chance you will continue to hate doing the thing, and now you also hate tracking it, and Beeminder by proxy, for making you do the thing.
Lacking a reason. Don’t dive head-first into a goal without first asking yourself why. What are the benefits to achieving your goal? Does the outcome make all the work worth it? What do you value strongly that would give a goal meaning? Asking yourself these kinds of questions will help move you from busybee work to doing things that are more important.
Having well-defined principles can give you the discipline to carry out difficult tasks, even if there’s a lack of motivation.
Think deeply about what would help your community, your company, or your future self. Making your commitments serious will allow you to take them seriously.
Minding things that are a chore to collect data for. Not to get too meta on you, but the routine of tracking our habits is a habit itself. Because of this, it’s easy to fail every goal if this new routine itself is difficult. If data collection becomes a chore, then you’ll start viewing doing something new as a chore as well. Thankfully, Beeminder is well aware of this and has many ways to automate data collection, like with integrations with other apps and devices. The goals I’m tracking that do have manual input take less than a few minutes to fill out each day.
Being inconsistent. Routines and habits are founded in consistency. So, especially when you are getting started and still working on building the habit of tracking itself, it’s best if you’re tracking something that happens on a consistent basis. If there’s a long gap between occurrences it can be all too easy to neglect the task of tracking. This doesn’t mean that what you track has to be something you do daily. Beeminder is great at tracking things that happen less frequently too. But until the routine of tracking is well established, pick things that are more frequent and consistent.
What Works: 10 Concepts for Better Goal-Setting
Starting new habits is hard, and breaking bad habits can require a sting operation, so to speak, on multiple fronts. While examining common mistakes can be helpful, there are still a lot of other pain points that often come up. Not just with Beeminder, but goal-setting in general.
“It enables you to know where you’re currently standing, and when you’re moving in the right direction.”
So here are some insights I figured out (the hard way) that have helped me. These ideas are more about the broader, more abstract nature of discipline. The biggest take away is the Ancient Greek aphorism, know thyself, the basis of any self-quantification. Tracking won’t automatically make a positive impact, but it will give you the spatial awareness of your past and possible future. It enables you to know where you’re currently standing, and when you’re moving in the right direction.
Commit to what excites you. It’s psychologically important to have a feeling of free will with your goals. Make a clear distinction between the work you have to do, and the work you want to do. If you don’t feel like you’re doing something for just yourself, it’ll feel like another chore.
Again, it’s about asking yourself the right
kinds of questions. Don’t commit to anything because other people think you should. It’s only you.
There’s plenty of time to use. As Seneca wrote, it is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. Think about all the time you unknowingly waste simply by having distractions around you. If you tracked your usual day, how much of your time is spent doing things you actively enjoy? When you realize the time you spend doing mindless tasks that don’t truly bring you happiness, you’ll be surprised to see how much wiggle room life actually has.
Know what you’re capable of. The internet makes it easy to get lost in other people’s lifestyle goals. From writing 750 words a day, or meditating for 30 minutes each morning, to only eating fresh greens (yuck!), and so on. But your mileage may vary greatly, and certain goals may or may not be realistic for you — that’s for you to discover. Start very small and gradually ramp up, and you’ll find out exactly what works for you!
Hold yourself accountable. This of course is Beeminder’s whole point, but you can take it further. I’ve put a public link to my Beeminder account in my Facebook and Twitter bios, so anybody can see my progress towards my goals, or lack thereof. I also wrote this article! Tell your friends about the work you’re going to put in, not the outcome you expect. Use public pressure as motivation and a tool for good.
Nothing will fall into place by itself. There are a lot of pieces to your puzzle, and it might not all click at once. The thing to understand is that if you commit to working hard, the law of serendipity will eventually favor you.
The first try always sucks. Mastery takes a lot of time; nothing you try doing will be that good at first. The first attempt is never meant to be good, it’s meant to be an attempt. Grit your teeth and push through it, and accept the time it’ll take to achieve what you have envisioned. I’ve been using Beeminder for almost two years and only now are things falling into place.
Surf on seven. Give yourself a seven day buffer for every system/goal you start, it’ll make getting into the flow easier. Having this buffer will help with any goal-related anxiety if there’s a missed day or a hiccup in progress.
Not only that, it also gives you time to figure out wich goals are too difficult or easy.
You might not be able to make your self-perscribed quota for difficult goals, which can cause deadlines to sneak up on you. Don’t let this deter you though, instead just lower the expectation of the goal. Also ask yourself about what’s causing this goal to be more difficult than you initially expected.
Go Slow. When I first experiemented with Beeminder, I added way too many things, and all my goals derailed. It was discouraging, but when I restarted, I started only with three things. They were easy things I was already doing; then I began adding something new once a week. If I found something wasn’t working within the first week of tracking it, I’d just delete it. No big deal.
Look for patterns. One of the biggest benefits of self-tracking is being able to look at the data of your performance in the past, both good and bad. Look for correlations: What usually occurs during bad days or good days? There’s always randomness, but there also might be a new connection between your productivity and particular circumstances.
Momentum is everything. Neglecting commitments for even just a single day has consequences. Tomorrow’s task list is just as busy as today’s, which means you’ll have twice the work to do when you put things off. Postponed tasks build up quickly, and create momentum in the wrong direction. Tend to your bee garden every day to avoid getting overwhelmed, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
Bonus Tip: No Magic Bullet
My final tip is that there’s no cure-all. Spending time looking for an easy solution, or following whatever trendy advice offers shortcuts, will always be a band-aid approach. It all boils down to doing a lot of hard work, and figuring out how to be happy about doing that hard work.
When it comes to the self, there is no finished product, just many, many revisions. So just jump into it, and learn to observe what works and what doesn’t work. Build on the good, disregard the bad, and don’t hesitate to recalibrate when necessary.
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.