Beeminder and Self-Tracking: Five Months In

So back in January, I started using a little service called Beeminder to track my goals and encourage me to do more things I’ve been putting off. I also experimented with several other Quantified Self tools, and learned a lot about  how simply tracking what we do day to day can open our eyes to things we need to improve at and things we perhaps do too much of (for me, its instant messaging with my friends). It’s been five months since I started this journey of learning about myself, and I thought I’d give an update about how its been going.

My findings: I couldn’t be happier with the results.

I know its easy to get started on a new diet or workout program and feel all motivated and enthusiastic at first. That’s how New Year’s resolutions start, after all. We get all excited about changing our lives and then a few days or weeks later, its back to the same old same old. When I started tracking myself and using Beeminder for my goals, I was afraid a similar thing would happen. It’s just a fad, I thought. My newest obsession. It will subside in a few weeks. I’m happy to say that five months later, I am still going strong and I have made  a lot of progress.

Wait, what is all this Beeminder/Quantified Self stuff? What are you talking about?

Glad you asked. I did a post on all this stuff a few months ago called Quantifying the Self and discussed the nuts and bolts of all this, but here’s a quick review:

Beeminder is a web service that allows you to track your goals by plotting progress points on a graph each day. You try to stay on “the yellow brick road” (that is, the goal you set for yourself — say, doing 20 pushups a day) and if you fall off the road, in order to recommit and get back on the road you pledge money (you’re basically “betting” that you will be able to keep up with your goal). If you fall off the road again, you pay up. Here’s a picture:

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As you can see, the data points are staying above the yellow line, meaning I am on track for my goal. This screenshot was taken back in February, after I had been tracking my reading habits for only a month. Let’s take a look at my graph now:

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There are a lot more data points, and I’ve racked up over 2000 minutes read (that’s 9 books) since January! There are a few flat parts (in March I did a lot of traveling and didn’t find a lot of time to read), and because of this I actually derailed once. But I pledged my $5 and so far I’ve been doing well once again. I really enjoy seeing the graph and the data points grow, and the Android App has been absolutely essential to my success. It doesn’t get much easier than entering in a few numbers into the app every day.

Of course, this is just my most successful graph. I have others that I have utterly failed at, like flossing my teeth:

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This one…has a lot more flatlining. A product of good old akrasia. As you can see, I’ve derailed on this one and have been for quite some time…I think I’m about ready to pony up the cash and try again though (for real this time!) Some people have told me that paying the service money when you fail your goals seems cruel or manipulative on their part, but I don’t see it that way at all. This is something want to do, and if I don’t follow through with it, then there has to be some sort of pain associated with that to deter me from failing again. And besides, this company has done so much for me and I use the service so much I am happy to give them a few bucks here and there. The staff is great and responsive and the website is always getting updates. They deserve it.

In addition, I’ve found from my pedometer app on my phone that I’ve walked over 600,000 steps this year! That’s over 300 miles. The day to day walking may not seem like much, but adding it all up like that certainly has a big impact on me and motivates me to keep going and do more.

My most recent project involves taming the beast that is my email inbox. I’ll admit it: I’m an email hoarder. While other people keep their inboxes neat, tidy, and organized, I have a giant deluge of thousands of emails just sitting there, taking up space and making it impossible to find anything. Usually, if I don’t find an email interesting (such as an advertisement or a newsletter) I won’t even click on it. Thus, there are hundreds of unread emails as well. This is a product of my laziness over time, and it just keeps getting worse. I’ve decided its finally time to do something about it. I set up a Beeminder goal to track my inbox size, and I’m going to either file away or delete 500 emails per week until my inbox reaches the fabled Inbox Zero. Once I reach that milestone, the challenge will be to keep it there, and keep my email inbox manageable and not overflowing like it was before. This leads to less stress, easier location of important emails, and if something is in the inbox, it means I need to deal with it right away. I feel like this will give great gains in productivity and overall happiness.

And just in the interest of transparency, my goals are all publicly viewable on my beeminder page, and that makes me not accountable to just one person, but the internet at large when you display your successes and failures in this way. There’s something strangely motivational about that.

What have I learned?

As for some of the other services, they didn’t stick quite as well. But the trial period of testing out these new things definitely taught me a lot about how my mind works and how we can battle this beast of distraction and bad judgement that rears its ugly head daily. Humans aren’t necessarily rational creatures by nature, but we can learn what mistakes we make and how our minds try to trick us. Then we can trick it right back. I just bought the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and it discusses at length these “cognitive biases” and ways to get around them. The result? A happier, healthier, more productive life.

Final Thoughts

If you’re curious about what self-tracking can do for you, I urge you to try tracking a simple thing in your life, something you already do, for just a week. It becomes like a game to try to “beat your best score” and its really fulfilling to see your progress over time. I really recommend trying this to anyone that is interested in achieving their goals and improving their life. It’s surely changed mine.

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Quantifying the Self

So I’ve been doing a bit of an experiment this year. Sure, everyone says they want to do this or do that, lose weight, eat better, exercise more, etc, but how do we keep ourselves to these goals? As you may be aware, the you of the future is always a bit more conscientious than the you of today: “I’ll eat  ice cream today and go on the diet tomorrow”, “Just one more day of sleeping in and I’ll get up early tomorrow.” The list goes on. Now being the geek that I am, I began to wonder if there were a more scientific way to go about all this.

Something that I’ve found that is pretty easy to do and had a big impact is simply tracking the things you want to do with your time and see how it stacks up over time. I started when I found a website called Beeminder. You can start as many “goals” as you like, such as “go to the gym twice a week” or “floss every day”. You know, those things we want to do but have a hard time actually doing. You go in and plot a data point each day and you can see your progress towards the goal. It has a “yellow brick road” for you to follow and if you do more than average one day you get “safe days” where you don’t have to work as hard. It’s really engaging to me to see my graphs grow.

Another main point of Beeminder is the concept of commitment contracts. As far as I know, this is optional, but I can see how it would definitely improve motivation. Have you ever given $20 to a friend and said “I’m going to try to do <insert thing here>. If I succeed give me my money back, but if I don’t you can keep it.” Basically what you can do with Beeminder is “bet” that you will achieve your goal. You go along and plot your points and if at any point you fall below the “yellow brick road” of success, then you have to pay up. Stay on the road? No payment. Another feature to help you stick to it is that for each time you get “off the road”, the penalty increases. The idea is that at some point you think, “wow, I really don’t want to lose x amount of money, I better go to the gym/eat healthier/read more.” Now that may seem like a pretty negative motivational technique, but think about it this way. No one is forcing you to do anything. These are things that you claim you want to do. The phenomenon that causes us to put off things we want to do is called akrasia. It happens when you go to the store intending to buy vegetables and then you see your favorite ice cream on sale. It happens to all of us, and one of the best ways to stop it is to consciously track what you do and hold yourself accountable for it.

As an example, here’s one of my Beeminder graphs for reading more often. I’ve been saying for years I’d like to read more, but I always seem to find other things to do instead. By tracking my reading time each day, I can see my progress over time and its really helped me to stick with it. I started out with a goal of reading 15  minutes each day, but soon bumped it up to 20, and now I’m at 25. I’ve been reading nearly every day and it feels great. I have finished The Alchemist and I’m almost done with The Hobbitwhich is more than I can usually say I’ve read 2 months into the year!

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But I started to think, after using Beeminder for a while, what other things can I track? I started using a pedometer to see how many steps I walk at my university daily, and boy was I surprised! I usually walk 3 miles or more in a day just walking around to classes, to eat, to meetings, and to work. The steps add up quick, and its really neat to see what my trends are for walking as well. I haven’t been tracking this one for as long, but here’s a graph I created using google spreadsheets: (guess which data points are the weekends…heh. Of course, the pedometer is on my phone so it only tracks wherever I carry it around, which is not usually within my apartment).

Walking Graph

If you’re more interested in tracking your mental fluctuations rather than your physical activities, I uncovered the site Quantified MindIt has a series of experiments where you can track your reaction time, memory, focus, and other basic mental skills. You simply log in and play a few simple games and it gives you scores. There is a wide variety of different activities you can do and I find it pretty fun. I have just started playing around with this site but I imagine if you kept with it and gathered enough data you could determine trends of when your brain is at its best and use that to your advantage. They also have experiments that ask questions like “Does coffee improve cognitive performance?” (tested by doing the games after drinking coffee one day, no coffee the next). Another experiment tests the age old motto of “Never skip breakfast” and asks users to test themselves on days when they have eaten breakfast and days they have not eaten breakfast. They even have one to test the effect that sex has on mental functioning! Finally, if you’re so inclined you can make your own experiments to test out whatever you want.

But why stop there? Some ideas that I have for tracking myself in the future include plotting my going to sleep/wake up times and the time I spend working on my thesis (if you’re curious about that, see here.) I know for me, implementing self tracking into my life has really opened my eyes to a lot of things I do (and don’t do!) and if you’re tired of not meeting your goals or just a huge data nerd like I am, I highly recommend you give this a try. If you have any questions or ideas please leave them in the comments!

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