Jan 13, 2013
For years I’ve written and lectured about (and recently wrote a blog about) the problems of setting arbitrary deadlines—deadlines that have no real consequence. The main problem is we tend to ignore them since they have no teeth; we often ignore action on them.
In recent years, however, a number of web-based tools have popped up that can help solve that problem. They do this by helping you create and manage commitment contracts that force you to pay a fine if you miss a milestone. This adds teeth to a deadline date, and may just solve the arbitrary deadline problem for many of your tasks and goals.
The best-known web-tool for this is probably stickK.com, co-founded by the author of the book Carrots and Sticks. Another one, one that I have started using, is called BeeMinder.com.
BeeMinder is best for ongoing goals that need steady motivational reinforcement; goals like making 10 sales calls per week, exercising 30 minutes each day, or losing 5 pounds a month. It’s not as good for one-off tasks, though if you string a number of such tasks together, BeeMinder can work.
The reason I like BeeMinder.com is that in addition to the “stings” (credit card hits) that you can get if you fall off the plan and miss a milestone, it also include tracking software where you can report and see your progress visually on a timeline graph.
For example, the graph below is a BeeMinder graph for someone trying to lose weight, and it clearly shows that the person is actually well ahead of their goal (their measured weights are below the center of the yellow band, which is the ongoing goal). So even if no fines kick in, the data is useful, and even gratifying, to see.
You can even link BeeMInder to a Wi-Fi connected weight scale and accurately collect, analyze, and motivate an on-going weight-loss goal—I’ve started this recently and the data connection is seamless; I simply step on the scale periodically and the rest is automatic. Other exercise-related devices, like ones from FitBit, can also be linked.
And BeeMinder will warn you by e-mail or smartphone alarms if you are slipping in the wrong direction, or getting close to being stung, so you can catch up. Overall, it’s a well-designed solution to a common problem.
Why do this?
Why track a goal numerically online? And why even subject yourself to monetary fines? Because it makes a longer-term outcome more immediately connected to short-term visibility, successes, and discomfort. And that solves the classic commitment problem called akrasia, where long-term goals are abandoned in the short term, due to various factors (weak will power, changes in priority, short-term reasoning, and so on). It provides short-term pain for slipping on a long-term goal; it solves the problem of not keeping up with incremental advancement.
For example, let’s say on January 1 you commit to lose 20 pounds by July 1. If you wait until June 1 to check in on that, and you still have 15 pounds to go, there is no sane way you can catch up in the remaining 30 days. And informal check-ins may not adequately show you where you should be, or get you back on track. You want an approach that warns you incrementally—perhaps even ahead of time.
The Yellow Band
That’s why the BeeMinder yellow band is so useful. Beeminder figures out your goal trajectory, creates an an acceptable variation range (the width of the yellow band in figure above), and compares your data to that. If readings slip outside that acceptable band (on the wrong side—the top side in the graph above), you get fined—your credit card is hit. If you are in range or better, you clearly see that, and can pat yourself on the back. Here’s more on how the charges work.
The cool thing about the software is, if you are putting in regular readings, BeeMinder can predict, based on trends, how many days in the future you are likely to fail—and it will warn you ahead of time, as that approaches. That gives you time to get back on track without getting the fine. The visibility of the upcoming fine is amazingly motivating.
Pros and Cons of BeeMinder.com
- It’s based on solid research on why we tend to miss our goals and how to solve that.
- The smartphone apps are well integrated with the site; for example you can input goal progress using your smartphone, and receive negative alerts.
- The software can send you progress e-mails for each major goal; you can input progress by replying to the e-mails with new data. Or input it on the website (or use a connected device to auto-input it).
- The “sting” portion of the tool (the fine) is completely optional, you don’t have to set that up—just using the free website data tools to monitor your goal may be enough for you. But after you fail once on a goal, you have to start pledging to continue that goal.
- The graphs are well-designed and, once you figure them out, really tell you what is going on with your goal.
- The issue I have is that I found the software to be a bit hard to figure out on first blush, and there is no user guide (just an FAQ and series of blogs). It’s useful to have a few geek chromosomes to wade through and figure out the inputs and graphs. That said, there is a very good getting-started video on the main page (watch it first), and there are popup descriptions on most controls that say what they are for; in an hour or so I had it completely figured out.
- Another small issue I have: 100% of the fine money goes into the pocket of the company. I’d like to see a way for you to opt to have some shared with charity. That said, the value of the service provided is worth it.
So consider giving this or some other web tool a try—it just may be what you need to meet your hard-to-commit-to goals.
I’ve just started using BeeMinder, and I’ll report in periodically on how it is going.
What a great write up Michael, thanks so much! Less and less geek chromosomes are needed every day, literally! The co-founders beemind user visible improvements at a rate of 1 per day. (http://beeminder.com/meta/uvi)
Thanks for the heads up on this. I’m trying it out and it seems like a great motivator for tracking and motivating me to work on high importance / low urgency goals, such as annual training hours. Seems like it will become somewhat of a game to stay above the “yellow brick road”
Geek chromosomes needed? What Geek Chromosomes?
Although some people think I’m geeky because I’m a Linux-enthousiast, I’m far from technically (working in mental health care), and I had no problem setting up my goals…
I only discovered BeeMinder a few days ago, but I guess it’ll be come valuable…