Monday, 20 June 2016

Day 20: On Doing too Much

I'm posting today because if I don't, Beeminder will sting me. That has been the motivation for a lot of what I've done in the past week.

I got a little sick sometime between day 6 and day 11--not very sick, but sick enough that my goals became difficult and that I had to appeal to my fine print on some of them. Even with this option, though, getting going again has been a bit of a challenge. I'm always just on the edge of something falling through the cracks; at times tipping over just enough to cause a small derailment here or there. And this is where you have to relearn the thing that people always tell you when goal setting that you never really believe applies to you: 

Don't take on too much. 

"I will be able to handle this," you think; "I usually do this much anyway." Ah, but you skim right past the "usually" in the sentence, overcommit, and set yourself up for disappointment. Never is it more obvious how unlikely success with your goals becomes when you take on too much, as when you can't back out of them because of a commitment device! Where earlier you would have collapsed into a heap of give-up-edness, you have to keep pushing and moving forward and trying. And often, piling on many, many goals at what you think is a "reasonable" level means that most of the goals aren't even things that you are excessively proud of. It's just a lot of little things that exhaust you, but that you don't really think, "Wow. I did that!" when it's over. 

Taking on a lot of goals at more than the most minimal level is planning for the best case scenario. That's where the "usually," above, comes in. But if you get a little sick, get assigned an extra project at the office, or even get invited to take advantage of an opportunity you didn't anticipate, things start to get pretty hectic, pretty fast. And so this is why I'm posting this tonight, before my midnight deadline, and why I now have a few other derailments to prevent before "kind of falling over onto the bed", more than "going to bed."

In the next post, I'll detail what I'm doing to keep this from happening again, and what things have worked in the past that I decided, for a reason I can no longer fathom, to abandon temporarily. 

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Update: Day 5

So, how’s it been going, you ask? Well, I’m already floating quite close to my spending cap for the month! I have a lot of monthly spending items (mostly subscription-based services, like Spotify, Zapier, etc.), and this means having to be careful with my money in other budget categories, because I’m going to need to reallocate some of that to spending (like from my relatively small “travel” budget, for example). This also provides a lot of incentive to really reconsider these items and trim the fat a little so that in future months, it will be a little less tight.

Meanwhile, I’ve derailed two goals already. I derailed my Work goal (measured in hours), and a goal set up to encourage me to eat meals and items from a pre-planned menu, rather than willy-nilly throughout the day. (More on that in a future post.)

What I’ve learned from the first few days:
1) I already knew that the bulk of my spending money goes in the first days of the month, when my subscriptions renew, and that I have room in other budget categories to absorb these, but I hadn’t really been considering how consistently I reallocate money from budgets meant to save up for longer-term spending items, like travel, in order to pay for some of these. I’m going to start dropping a few of these items here, since I’ve got my spending limit set relatively low for the length of this experiment.

2) Really big Beeminder goals, the kind that require all-day vigilance (like the Work goal, which spans a 6- to 9-hour chunk of the day), require a number of supporting pieces. Once they get behind, it’s very difficult, and sometimes impossible, to catch up later in the day. (And when I’m not paying attention, like today, I can wind up discovering that it’s too late to catch up before I have even realized I was starting to get behind.)

Two Solutions:
a) A Better Beeminder Reminder Setup
Beeminder has reminders and, for many, that will suffice and the second method below will be overkill. I have over 90 goals, however, and have become quite skilled at tuning out the SMS reminders. Part of the problem is that I’ve set most of the reminders to start at the same time in the morning. They’ve become less “reminders” and more “an SMS to do list.” A better way to set them up would be so that each starts a short time before you really, absolutely, must get started on it unless you want to derail. Chances are, you’re checking in in the morning to see what you have to get done today, so you probably just need another little nudge later in the day, to remind you that now is the time to start on that goal.

This isn’t quite enough for my purposes, since my goals sometimes collide, but it certainly would make the reminders a lot more useful than they are now, with them all starting in the early morning and getting progressively more cacophonous throughout the day until I silence my phone!

b) Simple Recurring events in a calendar
While my own setup is a little more complicated (it uses a blend of a number of services to automate getting my Beeminder deadlines into my calendar) a more simple solution is to create a new Google Calendar just for time blocks in which to do each of the tasks backed up by a Beeminder goal.

Make recurring events and, in the description, note the task and the deadline (so that if you shift things around, you won’t ever unknowingly shift it past your deadline) and have it recur at the same frequency as your Beeminder goal requires. That way, your calendar will provide visual reminders (to go along with Beeminder’s reminders) to make sure you get to your task on time!

Remember to take into account just how long each task will actually take. 5 hours of 25/5 pomodoro time, for example, is going to take at least 6 hours, so plan your events accordingly!

Having these in a separate calendar will allow you to hide them when you need to view your uncluttered appointments calendar. And having them visible when you plan your day will allow you to see that the dinner that’s scheduled on Thursday is going to interfere with your evening run and cause you to derail, so that you can plan do it in the morning instead.

Hopefully, making better use of Beeminder’s reminders and paying more attention to my calendar reminders can prevent me from allowing any future derailments caused purely by inattention for the rest of the month!

TL;DR Version
I’m reallocating too much from long-term spending items to the regular spending budget. I derailed a goal because I’m not paying close enough attention to large goals that will take may hours. 

My solutions: 1) Cancel a few subscriptions. 2) Set my Beeminder reminder for each goal for when it absolutely needs to be started, rather than at the beginning of the day, so that it *reminds* me, in case I’ve forgotten. Also, use recurring calendar events on a separate calendar so that I can make sure my Beeminder tasks don’t clash with each other and with other scheduled events. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Well, here I go!

(Skip to the TL;DR Version)

Today is the first day of the “letting apps run my life” challenge. I’m going to start things off slowly and pick up speed as I go. There won’t be much change for me in the first few days. In fact, it might be a little easier than I’m used to, since I scaled back a lot of my goals last week in anticipation.

I’m beginning with a combination of Mint and Beeminder. The reason for the pairing is that, for Beeminder to have a decent sting, any money that ends up coming out of derailments has to come from something else that I want to spend that money on—something that I want to spend it on *now*. Small, infrequent derailments can seem unnoticeable in a way that might reduce their effectiveness, especially after you've become used to the idea of Beeminder being in the background of your life for a while. “Oh well,” you wind up thinking, “it’s only about the price of a cup of coffee to skip out on doing such and such; I’ll let it derail and continue watching this rerun instead.” To avoid that, I want there to be an obvious and relatively immediate cost.

You could easily do something like this simply by having a prepaid credit card onto which you load all of your spending money each paycheck, and having that card connected to Beeminder, or by keeping your spending money in a separate bank account, and transferring the amount of any Beeminder derailment to your credit card out of that account as soon as each occurs.

I decided to use Mint and some strict budgeting to help keep this from happening. This is easy enough for me, since I’ve been using Mint for a couple of years, and have a fairly accurate budget now. (I began by over-budgeting for most things and then adjusting downwards several months later, once I had a better idea of the fluctuations. I learned the hard way that, whether we’re talking about a budget, a habit, or a goal, it’s better to start things off a little easier than I think they should be and to have to correct in the direction of making things harder, than to start things off unrealistically, and already have a failure before the first month is over. It’s far better to go in the direction of an epic success spiral than a demotivating, and often predictable, face-plant.[1])

There is one obvious, potential flaw here: I could end up ignoring my spending budget completely and never really feeling the sting. My solution: a Beeminder goal, of course. I’ve created a spending goal, into which I’ll enter the total spending for the current month every day. Should that amount ever go over the allocated amount, it will derail and I’ll be charged a $90! And if I don't enter a datapoint daily into this goal, the graph will derail automatically, so I can't just ignore it to make the threat go away.

I'm allowed to reallocate money from other areas, but I can't let any of my expenses remain over budget. Everything has to be reallocated so that I'm not just burying the expenses elsewhere.[2]

On top of keeping my Beeminder derailments feeling a lot more immediately consequential, since a number on a credit card bill doesn't always feel as tangible as it should, this will also function as a way to force me to pay a lot closer attention to my spending habits than is my tendency, and to stay on track with my budget, or face some expensive consequences.

Okay, maybe I'm not starting out all that slowly after all!

TL;DR Version
To stay on top of my spending and to keep Beeminder from losing its sting over time, I'm going to combine it with Mint, track my spending and other budget categories, have any derailments come out of my spending money, and enforce staying under budget using a $90 Beeminder goal. You could do something similar, but more simple, by using a prepaid credit card or a dedicated account for your derailments and spending.

[1] Read more about success spirals in Nick Winter’s book The Motivation Hacker.

[2] There are specifications in the fine print about unexpected spending for health-related expenses, and other very specific circumstances under which I’m allowed to go over my spending limit, but they make up a sparse group and have very specific instructions for how I need to deal with them when and after they come up. (And, frankly, after writing these out, I’ve come to believe that this is a generally good thing to have worked out in advance, in anticipation of those times when your budget takes a major hit, so that you already have a recovery plan.)

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Challenge: A year of being digitally micromanaged

On June 1st, I will begin a challenge: a year of letting apps, web apps, and devices micromanage my day-to-day.

For the next twelve months, I'll be setting up and following a number of digital systems that will govern progressively more of my time and choices. During this time, I'll use tracking apps, commitment devices, productivity apps, fitness & nutrition apps, wearable devices, scheduling apps, and anything else I come across that seems interesting and that I can manage without total tracking overload.

I'll be selecting the goals, targets, and tasks myself (with some exceptions) and the gadgets and apps will micromanage the day-to-day execution of my plans. So, while I'll remain in control of the big picture and direction, the apps and devices, with their instructions, restrictions, and prompts, will control much of the implementation.

I'll commit to each app for a specific amount of time. Some of the ones that I know well and use regularly already (like Beeminder, the Daily Routine app, the Happiness app, etc.) I'll commit to for most or for all of the time. To others, I'll commit for shorter times (especially the ones that are the least familiar to me, or those that are more experimental or extreme). But the goal will be to end the year with total compliance to as many and as wide a variety as possible!

I'm curious to see which make a large difference, which are unsustainable, and which just end up downright annoying. I'll post about my progress, any failures to comply with the apps, surprises, frustrations, successes and face-plants here, and I'll be streaming updates for those apps that have integrations on in the Slack, as well. (And I'll still be posting about apps and gadgets in separate posts, as well, for those of you who are more interested in those.)

I'll begin with my beeloved Beeminder, but I'll be powering it up with major spending restrictions that will be tied to derailment costs. (More on that in a week.) And the nice Beeminder folks are allowing me to pay you instead of them for some of my early would-be derailments on do-less goals, if you're the first to catch it. (Which will be easy for those in the Slack, since it will post a notice there when I slip up!)

So, see you in a little over a week. Until then, I'm going to go make use of a little self-determination while I still have it!

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Where's Weirdo? Setting a bounty on you not being in the right place at the right time.

I don't need to work from any specific location, but I find that working at coffee shops and in libraries makes me more productive and keeps me from trailing off into either tidying as a way of procrastinating, or getting into conversations instead of reading and writing.

Still, sometimes I need a little extra kick to get me where I need to be. I'm almost never late for appointments, although this method would work for that too, but as good as I am at being punctual when someone else is counting on me, I'm terrible (just utterly abysmal) at being somewhere on time if I'm the only one counting on me to be there. If I don't have to meet someone. I'll delay and delay until I've chipped away at a lot of work time. What to do? 

One way is to have a Beeminder graph that requires that you get to a certain place by a certain time, and that automatically logs your datapoint (through an IFTTT recipe like this one: ) once you get there. I don't need to use this regularly enough, though.

My solution: When I want to commit to being somewhere at a given time, I let a few of my accountability partners know the day before. I tell them where I have to be, and by when. Then, they can text me whenever they want, and I have to send them my location. 

To do that, I use IFTTT's "DO button" app. (Use this recipe to create your own: ) If they text me asking for my location, I have 5 minutes to tap the DO button and send them my location, or they collect the bounty. (I use a different amount each time; one that depends on how important it is that I be somewhere on time and how much incentive I want them to have to check in.) And I reciprocate for them. I've bought many a coffee thanks to my morning partner being late.

There are lots of variations on this. Sometimes I add that if they catch me leaving before a certain time, they get the bounty (first come, first served). At other times, I want to make sure I don't spend any extended time in a given place, and so they get a bounty if they catch me there at all. This is great for places that you want to be able to go for a very short time, but you know you have a tendency to linger once you get there. (Like maybe getting home and lingering too long before going out for a run.) It's unlikely they're going to catch you there if you're quick, but you don't want to take your chances and stick around too long!

You can sometimes get away with being a couple of minute late occasionally, which tends to be inconsequential, depending on what you're trying to be on time for, and other times you will have a high enough bounty that they'll be poised to grab the bounty as early as they possibly can and you know you'd better be there early!

Give it a try. But remember to make sure your friends never let you off the hook, and don't you let them off the hook either, or it'll break the spell!

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

New Slack Team

Something that really motivates me is sharing incremental goal progress with others and seeing what others are working towards. 

Thankfully, a lot of apps have integrations that will post to a Slack channel when you finish a work session (RescueTime, for example), when you are approaching a deadline (like Beeminder), or that will help you connect tons of other apps and sites to the same feed (IFTTT and Zapier). So, I've created a new Slack team for others who might like a place to be socially accountable for their goals, and to chat about apps, commitments devices, and quantified self.

The main idea is to have a place for users to make use of the available integrations to post to a stream, together with those kinds of posts and updates from others. But, instead of having them separated in different streams for different services, or mixed in with our Twitter or Facebook feeds, they can all be in one place, alongside those of interested others.

My hope is that this will be a fun way to add an extra element of social accountability for those who would like that, and to be able to share successes and see what others are working on, finishing up, getting reminders about, etc. Get a little competitive to see if you can do more pomodoros than your friends in a day, or get motivated by getting to post that you went for a run before breakfast, or get spurred on by seeing the example of other goals that people are working on.

There are also channels to talk about apps, quantified self stuff, and, of course, cat gifs.

You can join the #accountability-stream channel (or the other chat channels) on up by [signing up on this handy Google form, thanks to the friendly and fun @peppertoni, who created it for ussending an email to with the subject "Slack" from the email address that you would like an invitation sent to. (Slack is invite-only, so there's no way to share a link to it directly, I'm afraid.) Feel free to invite others once you're in!

Meanwhile, I had originally planned to tell you about one of my very favourite apps, but I discovered while I was typing up the post this weekend that it's on hiatus, and so is no longer available for purchase! So stay tuned for another post this weekend about how to use IFTTT and a few willing friends to make sure you're always where you're supposed to be on time (or else!).

Sunday, 3 April 2016


I thought I would start off by introducing the productivity tool on which I rely most: Beeminder

What It Does

Reminders with a stingThe general idea is very simple: You commit to a goal (write 250 words per day, until 20,000; exercise 3 times per week, until my birthday; drink fewer than 3 cups of coffee per week, get to sleep every weeknight by 11), and then you report your progress on the site (or by email, sms, on the Android app, or the iOS app, or through IFTTT/Zapier, or one of the other automatic data sources... They tell me they're looking to add a carrier pigeon option next year...).

A graph is drawn for you that spreads the effort required of you evenly over the length of your goal. You just have to keep doing better than the minimum required and Bob's your uncle (or do less than the maximum allowed, if it's that kind of goal).

But, and here's the bit that counts, if you don't keep up your end of the bargain, you get stung: you pay an amount of money that you've pledged as a commitment to your goal and then your pledge increases, until your pre-set maximum, so there's more motivation to keep on track as you continue. If you always keep up with your goal, you don't pay anything for it.

How I Use It

Well, frankly, I use it for just about everything, and I will have to break down the different ways into a number of different posts over the year.

Quickly, for now, I use it to make sure I drink more water and less coffee, to make sure I spend more time on work projects and a little less vegging out with reruns, to make sure I nickel-and-dime less money away and keep up with my Giving What We Can pledge. And I'll use it to make sure I post to this blog at least once per month.

Would I Recommend Trying It?


Things Discovered Along the Way

If you decide to give it a try, I wouldn't recommend starting with more than one or two goals for the first couple of weeks. Do as I say, not as I do! I've been Beeminding for years now, and have all manner of methods for getting data into Beeminder and keeping aware of my goals every day. It could get overwhelming quickly if you tried to start many at once. Pick something very important to you, and to which you are committed but that you've had some trouble maintaining on your own. Focus on that first, and get a feel for what it can do.

Also, be more lenient with yourself than you would if you were making a New Year's resolution or if you were just dreaming up your ideal. In those cases, if you've set something completely ridiculous and impossible to maintain, it's not written in stone. Although, it's not written in stone with Beeminder, either. You can adjust or quit your goal as you go, but the changes only take effect a week after you make them, and you have to keep up what you've already committed to until then. This is to keep you from deciding that, when you said you wanted to have less than 72 oz. of coffee a week, what you really should have aimed for was less than 72 oz. per day... Interestingly, those kinds of epiphanies always come when you're strolling past a coffee shop... Funny, that. When we know we can't benefit from a change of heart for 7 days, the temptation to revisit our commitment drifts away.

And it's for that removal, or at least lessening, of temptation to talk myself out of or into something that Beeminder works so well. When the alarm goes off in the morning and it's time for the daily argument I have with myself about whether to get up and go for a run in the cold spring air ("Come on... you said you were really going to do this this time.") or stay in my warm bed ("But I've been so good this week! Can't I just go on a longer run tomorrow?"), something else settles the argument. "I can either run, or pay the $30 I've pledged to the goal..." On go the shoes. It's hard to explain the value of not wrestling with myself over every opportunity to be a little weak-willed. 

I also think it's better, at least at first, to track goals over which you have direct control (hours worked, calories burned, miles run) than it is to track goals over which you have only indirect control (clients acquired, weight lost). It can be discouraging to be doing all the right things and to fluke your way into a derailment and having to pay your pledge. Save outcome-oriented goals for when you need to break a plateau of some kind and need to shake yourself up a little for a short period of time.

Finally, don't lie to the bee"I'll just say that I did it today, but I'll make it up tomorrow; it'll be fine that way, and no harm done." The thing about fudging data is that to do it completely erodes the power to keep a fire lit under you. It's really hard to recover from having done that; it needs that power to motivate. If you allow yourself that option, you just change the content of the "Should I get out of bed?" argument, rather than halting it altogether. It's very hard to recover from that.

That's more than enough for now. I'll come back to this one again and again over the coming months, since it's so central to my productivity.

If you're a fellow Beeminder user, drop me a note in the comments and tell me what kinds of things you're Beeminding, and what kinds of things you've already accomplished. Feel free to leave your username, too, if you want to share your goal gallery!