One suggestion for using Beeminder well

TLDR: Use Beeminder, or don’t use it, in a way that best improves your overall energy level.

After the jump, this post reviews some lessons from my experience with the “Beeminder” app. If you already are familiar with Beeminder, jump away.

To get you up to speed, dear reader who isn’t familiar with Beeminder, but wants to be… Beeminder is an app for your browser/phone/etc. The main use of Beeminder is to tell Beeminder what counts as messing up, and have Beeminder take your money if you mess up, so you mess up less.

In more flowery language, the point of Beeminder is to experience the joy of the power trip you can experience toward your future self, who becomes like clay in your hands when you unlock the power of pre-commitment. Or, if you have a past-self who used Beeminder that way, then Beeminder is the app that steadily nurtures you on a golden road toward prosperity and happiness. All you have to do is make a totally realistic promise to–for an example–spend an average of 30 minutes practicing a foreign language every day, enter that promise into Beeminder, along with your credit card. Now laugh, and sit back and wait for your future self to hail your boldness/curse your name because every time future-you falls short on that promise, Beeminder charges that credit card $10 or so (it’s customizable, and if it stings too much, just cancel anytime), until the sting of it all forces your future self to admit that he or she is a weaseling weasel who weasels too easily.

I think that’s the main reason people sign up for Beeminder: forcing yourself to really notice that you’re a weaseling weasle who weasels too easily is the first, hardest step toward weaseling less. A little bit of sting makes it real that you are your own worst enemy. Plus, because Beeminder makes several other good steps toward less weaseling either automatic, or very easy. (For example, Beeminder allows you to set your goals publicly, which probably helps somewhat with not weaseling, because y’know, peer pressure. Likewise, Beeminder defaults to daily accountability, which is probably a much better approach for procrastinators than big intermittent deadlines. Plus there’s features and customizations and suchlike.)

There are many generally better places to read about Beeminder than here, such as Beeminder’s own “Start here” introduction for new users. For third-party reviews, out of the many online user reviews out there, I particularly recommend these three: 12, and 3. I think these three span the gamut of user experiences, and especially if you read them together, will nicely demonstrate that your mileage may vary because the main thing that will determine whether / what benefit you might get from Beeminder are factors specific to you.

Okay, you’re up to speed on what Beeminder is… now for some comments from my own experience.

First, I notice something similar to review 3 (and quite different from reviewer 2): At a basic level, I do not think Beeminder would work to dramatically change my habits in areas that are especially close to my basic well-being, particularly exercise. Frankly, whatever “well cared for and feeling good => exercise” and “exercised and feeling good => puts time in to care for self” feedback there is in my life, I sometimes crater *hard*, and the key to un-cratering is being able to not beat myself up about the mistake and wait patiently for enough energy to reboot. Also, I already know how closely connected self-care and exercise are to feeling good, so usually when a week goes by where I didn’t work out, it’s about exogenous factors I didn’t plan for, and an extra sting won’t make the difference.

On a reflective level, I can see that part of why I might not think Beeminder will work for core well-being challenges is because I do not expect to solve these challenges, full stop. That is, I mostly expect using Beeminder in these areas would mainly work to drain my time with extra effort spent recording everything when things are going well, and then kick me when I’m down when things aren’t going well. That’s discouraging, to say the least! But it also points at a possible explanation for the challenge, which is that I’m discouraged, which in turn saps my energy for committing to anything with respect to this challenge.

That brings me back to a take-away from another post: “If you have only one metric for evaluating a choice, make it the metric of asking how will this affect my energy level?”

So, this is my only suggestion: Use Beeminder, or don’t use it, in a way that best improves your overall energy level. As you get better at using the site, your judgment will improve, so try to forgive yourself if you make some rookie mistakes whether in the direction of setting yourself impossible goals and ending up out $10 or so, here and there. Likewise, it’s not a world-ending problem if you realize you’ve used Beeminder to spend more of your time/energy tracking your time/energy than doing the thing you wanted to accomplish more of by tracking your time/energy in the first place. (That’s the problem review # 1 ran into. After noticing his mistake, he consolidated many goals into a single composite goal, to simplify his set of goals.)

This post is starting to get pretty deep into my personal experience, well past the point of being likely to be all that useful, but read on if you’re curious/intrepid/procrastinating-something-by-reading-about-productivity-tools.

In my own case, I had good confidence that using Beeminder for language practice on Duolingo would work, and it worked out pretty well. I set myself the requirement of earning 30 points a day (intended to be 3 lessons a day) and mapped out that, at that speed, I’d finish the learning-English-in-Spanish language skill tree in about 3 months. Overall, I’m out $15, for a $5 derail and a $10 derail, but I can look back on several months of daily practice, and a significantly improved ability, so that’s a pretty good value. However, it wasn’t a total success: the specific goal I set was designed to make me finish the skill tree, and on that point, I failed.

I noticed at some point that it was much quicker and easier to get my daily point total in if I just re-practice lessons I’d already done, where I could often get 20 points in a single timed practice lasting two or three minutes. The further up the skill tree I got, the more tempting this became as the skills build cumulatively. That is, while at the beginning, all you need is basic vocabulary and maybe the present tense, as you near completing the skill tree, a particular lesson may require you to correctly use the subjunctive or the past perfect or distinguish ser (translates: to be) from estar (translates: to be), while learning the new lesson’s vocabulary. Being a weasel, I sometimes used re-practice sessions to get my daily points faster and with less mental effort than I’d have needed to get them with new lessons.

In my head, it never seemed like I weaseled in this way all that much, so if you’d asked me a week before the end of February, I’d have said I was probably only a few days behind. Instead, at the end of February I was still almost 50 lessons–25 days of 2 lessons a day–from finished with the skill tree! I also can see that my habit of approaching the activity as true learning–where I say the words aloud as I type them, and focus on registering the meaning of each in my head–that habit slipped somewhat, to the point where I’m sometimes sloppily guessing-and-checking my way through tricky subjunctive cases, rather than honestly trying to get it right the first time. So there’s documented proof of my inner weasel for you.

I was much less confident it would work, but I also tried to use Beeminder to require me to keep my inbox effectively empty (meaning < 100 emails), due every evening at midnight. That turned out to be unrealistic, mainly because I sometimes get > 100 emails a day, and there was no way for me to build up a buffer. The result was that if I didn’t check email for a day, I might derail just on that. With the Spanish skill tree, when I could see a no-internet period coming up (such as around the Christmas holiday) I simply did a week’s worth of Spanish in advance, so I was covered, and that worked great. Ultimately, I canceled this goal early, and call it a win for learning about how to not use Beeminder in areas where I don’t really expect it to work.

Edited for clarity 3/4/2018.

1 thought on “One suggestion for using Beeminder well

  1. Pingback: Beeminder in the Wall Street Journal Every Five Years | Beeminder Blog

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