Beeminding for fun and profit

I’ve been using Beeminder (which I’ve mentioned once before) for a little over six months now. The verdict?

Beeminder has changed my life.

That sounds dramatic, but I’m not kidding. I am far more productive than I’ve ever been. I’m taking better care of myself. I’m finally taking the initiative to act on various long-held intentions (e.g. learning Hebrew). And I no longer have a constant nagging sense of guilt over all the big goals and projects that I ought to be working on more. It’s not for everyone, but I’m sure there are many others for whom it could be similarly transformative.

So, what is Beeminder? The basic idea is that it helps you keep track of progress on any quantifiable goals, and gives you short-term incentive to stay on track: if you don’t, Beeminder takes your money. But it’s not just about the fear of losing money. Shiny graphs tracking your progress coupled with helpfully concrete short-term goals (“today you need to write 1.3 pages of that paper”) make for excellent positive motivation, too. Another somewhat intangible but important reason it works is that the Beeminder developers are really awesome and responsive, and are sincerely dedicated to helping their users meet goals, not just to making money. (They recently introduced some paid premium plans which I happily signed up for, not because I need the premium features, but because I want to support continued development—in fact, I’ve otherwise paid Beeminder only $5 over the past six months!) If you want to know more, I encourage you to read Beeminder’s own overview, which does a much better job of explaining how and why it works.

Six months: quite long enough for the initial “shiny new toy” enthusiasm to wear off, and long enough, I think, to get a good sense of what works for me and what doesn’t. So I’m writing this post in the hope that my experience will be useful or inspiring to others.

So here are some of the ways I’m using it, which I have found to work well. (You can see all my beeminder goals here.1) I hope some of these may inspire you with ways to make yourself more productive, whether you use Beeminder or not.

  • Big projects

    Consistently spending time on big, long-term projects is really hard—at least, it was hard before I started using Beeminder! Now I just make a goal for each project requiring me to spend a certain amount of time on it each week. This helps me stay on track and also gets rid of that nagging guilt—once I’ve done enough to stay on track, I can stop and do other things and not feel guilty about it! I’ve used this to spend a certain amount of time preparing for courses I’m going to teach; I use it for getting research done, and for working on diagrams. A year or so ago I posted on Google+ complaining that I needed a scheduling algorithm for my life, and in many ways Beeminder has filled that role. It’s also a great way to get some cold, hard data on how much time I actually spend on various projects (you can start with a “flat” goal and just record data for a while if you don’t know what a reasonable rate for the goal is).

  • Reading and writing projects

    There’s no way I ever would have gotten my thesis proposal written without Beeminder. The important thing to note is that the goal was based on page count rather than time spent. (The “Odometer” goal type is useful for this sort of thing.) This forced me to actually get real writing done, rather than frittering time away adjusting the kerning or whatever. Interestingly, it also forced me to get creative about padding the page count, by pasting in text I’d already written before (from blog posts, grant proposals, etc.). In the end, reusing text I’d written before and then editing it was a much better use of my time than writing everything from scratch, but for whatever reason I’m not sure my perfectionist self would have done it without the pressure of “you have to write two pages in the next three hours OR ELSE”.

    I’ve also made goals for reviews I’ve been asked to do, again using an “Odometer” goal to track page numbers.

    I also have a goal to write blog posts with a certain frequency on either of my two blogs. (In fact, I’m finally finishing this blog post because otherwise in about an hour I’m going to owe Beeminder $5!)

  • Learning

    I have long intended to learn to read Hebrew, but it never seemed like the “right time”. I finally admitted that there will never be a “right time”, and just started2. Starting is one thing; continuing to regularly study after the initial excitement has worn off is only possible because of my Beeminder goal, which also serves as a check on discouragement. It will be a long time before I am any good at reading Hebrew; but in the meantime I am motivated by logging time on my goal.

    I use anki for memorizing all sorts of things—ancient Greek and Hebrew vocabulary, recipes, emacs commands, and names and faces of students. To help me stay on track reviewing flash cards, I have a Beeminder goal to review 100 Anki cards a day. Recently, the number of cards coming due each day started dropping significantly below 100, so instead of lessening the Beeminder goal I decided to start learning some geography (flags, countries, capitals, etc.) which has been a lot of fun.

  • Productivity

    I have a number of goals directly intended to increase my productivity.

    • I use FogBugz to keep track of all my tasks and todos. I use three different Beeminder goals in relation to FogBugz:

      • As described in previous blog post, I have one goal to close a certain number of cases per day (currently 4 per day, which is historically about average for me). This goal is automatically updated every time I close a case in FogBugz.
      • When I get an email requiring me to act or respond in some way, I very often just forward it to FogBugz to deal with later. So I have a goal to spend a certain amount of time dealing with cases in my FogBugz inbox; otherwise it’s too easy to just let these rot.
      • It’s way too easy to ignore todo items which have no real deadline and are somehow distasteful, intimidating, or both. To help overcome this inertia, I’ve come up with something that works fairly well. I have a Beeminder goal to spend a certain amount of time doing “FogBugz review”. It works like this: I have a certain query defined in FogBugz which shows me the five least recently edited open tickets. When working on review, I must pick one of these five cases and make some sort of progress on it (it’s perfectly fine if I don’t complete it). After making some progress I add a note to the ticket explaining what I did. This both helps me pick up where I left off next time I come to work on the ticket, and makes the ticket automatically drop out of the review query, since it has now been edited. I then look at the top five tickets again (including some new ticket that has now moved into the top five), choose one, and repeat.
    • I have found that I am much more productive if at the start of each day I intentionally plan out the rest of the day, recalling the things I have scheduled and deciding how to spend the remaining unscheduled time—consulting FogBugz and Beeminder to decide what my priorities should be for the day and how much time to spend on each. To force myself to do this consistently, I of course made a Beeminder goal to do this planning a certain number of days each week. The catch is that I have to do the planning before checking email, Facebook, or IRC, or else the planning only counts for half a day.3

    • Another thing which I’ve found helps my productivity is to turn off my computer before going to bed. The choices I make when I first get up tend to have a ripple effect on the rest of the day. If my computer is on when I first get up, it’s very tempting to immediately start aimlessly checking email; if it’s off, it’s that much easier to make deliberate choices about how to begin my day. The important point here is that I’ve made a positive goal (to turn off my computer) instead of negative goal (to spend less than X amount of time checking email, etc., in the morning). I’ve found that negative goals don’t work nearly as well: they are far less motivating, and psychologically speaking it’s too easy to lie to Beeminder by neglecting to report data—by contrast, actively lying by submitting false data is much more difficult.

  • Personal goals

    Last but not least, I now take better care of myself and my stuff in some simple but important ways. I have flossed more in the last six months than the rest of my life put together. I trim my beard and my toenails more regularly, take allergy medication almost every day, take care of my bike by inflating the tires and greasing the chain, and clean around the house (which my wife loves).

So there you have it. If you end up trying Beeminder, or come up with some cool goal-based life hacks, or just have questions, I’d love to hear from you!

  1. You’ll notice that some of my goals are private/hidden. Mostly these are personal or relate to religious commitments, and for various reasons I’d rather not broadcast them to the whole Internet—but at the same time, I have no secrets and would be glad to discuss them with anyone who’s interested.

  2. Well, at the time it was a way of procrastinating from working on my thesis proposal

  3. This is completely self-enforced, of course, but it’s ten times harder to actively choose to lie to Beeminder (which I have never done) than it was to “just check a few emails first” before I had any sort of external accountability.


About Brent

Associate Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in grad school, meta and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Beeminding for fun and profit

  1. This is fantastic! I wish I were so motivated/non-akratic that a mere $5 would keep me in line :-)

    • Brent says:

      Haha, believe me, I am quite akratic! But I am highly competitive so the thought of LOSING on a goal is already motivating even if there’s no money attached to it. More importantly (Bethany and Danny’s recent blog post notwithstanding!), my wife and I have combined finances, so derailing means “spending someone else’s money” and having to explain it to my wife! I don’t know exactly what the factor is but I estimate it’s something around 10x—that is, if it were just my money, I’d have to be on the hook for $50 to have the same effect as a $5 goal currently does.

  2. dreeves says:

    This is so many shades of awesome I don’t know where to begin! I also can’t begin to tell you how grateful we are for such a heartfelt and detailed testimonial.

    But back to nitty-gritty: you make an astute point about the difference between reporting false data and lies of omission, where you neglect to report data. I’ve been trying out a feature that we haven’t made live yet for everyone yet but I think it’s about ready: on Set-A-Limit goals (where the goal is to do less of something) not reporting anything causes a default report of twice the current daily limit. (You can of course edit it to reflect what you actually did, you just can’t stick your head in the sand and ignore Beeminder.) It’s mathematically elegant in that the reported safe days becomes consistent with Do More goals. For example, if you’re in the wrong lane of your Yellow brick road then not reporting anything means you’ll derail at the end of the following day.

    So, stay tuned for that. “Pessimistic Presumptive Reports” we’re calling them. And thank you again for this amazing post, Brent!

    Danny of Beeminder

    • Brent says:

      Thanks Danny! Yes, I remember seeing something about pessimistic presumptive reports on the akratics list. It makes a lot of sense to me, and I look forward to trying it!

    • Danny, please go ahead with the “Pessimistic Presumptive Reports” as soon as possible, I could totally use them for one of my goals!

      Brent, thank you for that detailed blog post, oh, the possibilities. I’ve only used beeminder since January this year (and payed some $ already), but I’ve never thought of these many use cases. Also, I’ve been meaning to write a post about my usage, alas, never gotten around to yet.

  3. ocharles says:

    This really is fantastic, I feel like pledging $5 directly to you with some of my tasks for introducing me to this! I’ve set up a few goals now, mostly about limiting the amount of work I do because I seem to have the opposite problems :) We’ll see how it goes. Thanks Brent!

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  5. Gábor says:

    Since you posted this I’ve been wondering whether it would be right for me. Doesn’t it turn your life into constant deadline stress and suffering? I mean, if the constant deadline stress is a given, and the only question is whether to procrastinate endlessly on it or to actually get things done, then I guess stress and suffering plus getting things done is preferable to just the stress and suffering. But if that’s the case then I think I’d prefer to continue trying to solve the problem at its root, instead. Being happy is more important than getting things done. But if it also somehow, counterintuitively, brings you peace of mind, then I suppose it’s worth a shot.

    • Brent says:

      Ah, excellent question. In some ways I’m still figuring out the answer to that one. Yes, there are times when I end up with a lot of deadline stress. But there are also many ways in which it decreases my anxiety level as well. Instead of deadline stress I used to have this constant nagging sense of guilt—sometimes just background, and sometimes almost debilitating—that I wasn’t spending enough time working on things that were important or that I “ought” to be working on. It was a vicious cycle: when I felt guilty like that, instead of working on important things (because that would entail owning up to the sense of guilt) I would try to escape the feeling by doing mindless, unimportant things, ultimately increasing my anxiety and sense of guilt. I no longer feel that—or at least, I feel it to a much lesser degree—because I know that I *am* spending time on important things, and furthermore I know when I’ve spent *enough* time on something so that I can move on to something else without guilt.

      So in some ways I have replaced one type of anxiety and stress with another; but personally, I find this new kind vastly preferable to the old. And in fact there are times when everything is clicking and I don’t feel deadline stress — as I said in my post, Beeminder is motivating in positive ways as well, it’s not just about the fear of deadlines. The worst times are when I have some big trip or unusual event and forget to adjust my goals downwards exactly one week in advance (like this past weekend when I was out of town at a conference and had to still squeeze in a bunch of stuff to avoid failing on my goals). I think Beeminder is working on a feature to allow you to set vacations, etc. in advance, which will be a huge improvement.

      Anyway, it’s definitely not for everyone, and it’s good to try to think through these issues carefully. However, I should point out that there’s zero cost to trying Beeminder out — you can create some goals without pledging any money, and if you find it’s not that useful for you, you can just walk away without ever having to pay anything. One of Beeminder’s stated goals is that by the time you pay them any money you should already have gotten at least that much value out of it (which I obviously found to be entirely true for me).

      • Gábor says:

        The more I think about it the more not-so-simple it all looks. The nagging sense of guilt is familiar, but if I just ‘drift’ and don’t pay attention to the things I “should be doing”, I feel basically fine (unlike your case, where apparently that exacerbates it). If I really try to push myself, in some cases that can push the stress and anxiety level way up. While in other cases I just need a push to get started, and after that I’m actually enjoying myself and not just drifting.

        So I guess it’s futile to try to predict how well Beeminder would work for me, and I’ll have to get around to determining the answer by experiment.

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • I love Brent’s answer to this. There’s also a different kind of answer I often give, since we do basically treat Beeminder as all stick and no carrot, harsh mistress, etc. I’m delighted that’s not exactly true, but let’s say Brent is an anomaly and Beeminder really is mainly about adding stress and suffering. Even *then* I’d like to argue that you’re wrong to reject Beeminder in favor of trying to solve the problem at its root. Because the key word there is “trying”. If you fail then you’d really have preferred Beeminder (as you say, stress and suffering plus getting things done beats just stress and suffering) and if you succeed then Beeminder was just a small bit of unnecessary mental overhead. Big upside, little downside. Beeminder is like an insurance policy against sucking.

      So by all means, if you can solve the problem at its root, more power to you. It’s wonderful to not need Beeminder. Just that there’s one thing even worse than needing Beeminder: needing it but not using it! :)

      • Gábor says:

        Right, if the primary goal were to be productive, the logic would be unimpeachable. But the primary goal is to not be miserable, while “not sucking” is a secondary goal. If Beeminder makes me more productive at the cost of being more miserable, then that’s not a good trade.

        But as I replied to Brent – theorizing can only get you so far. I’ll have to try it out and see for myself. Once I stop procrastinating on it.

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