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.)