Jan 25, 2013
I am going a bit out on a limb here and I am going to share some rather *personal* information—it’s my weight! Why share that? To demonstrate my experience so far with using Beeminder to reach a goal, in this case a weight goal.
I have had success with this so far, so I’d like to share it with you. Maybe you’ll find it similarly helpful.
I’m not really that much overweight; no, really, I am actually in pretty good shape. But given my larger frame, it is easy to carry a bit extra without really showing it, and I am doing that. But that’s not healthy, so I set a goal to lose about 20 pounds by late August (7 months away), to get to a more ideal weight. Given a start weight of 210 pounds, you can see that’s not an unreasonable goal. And I chose a relatively easy rate of 0.7 pounds per week, so it should be attainable without undue hardship. Once I get there, I may even set another goal to lose more, but that’s good enough for now (BTW, I think a lot of us fail because we set unrealistic goals).
Seems to be Working
I’ve tried this before, without data tools, and I quit early on each time. But this time it seems to be working. Granted, I am only about 3 weeks into it, but I can clearly see how this can continue to work. The difference is I am using Beeminder to monitor it, and that seems to be the key.
How is Beeminder helping? In this case, it seems to be due to the power of data to help clarify progress toward a goal. The Beeminder data allows me to see the trend through a lot of scatter. If I’d looked at the measurements one at a time, I’d have given up.
Explaining the Graph
Let me copy here the chart I showed above, but a bit larger; it’s the graph of my weight goal from Beeminder for three weeks.
Here’s how this works:
- The orange line is my goal line, based on my commitment to lose 0.7 pounds a week. It only shows a month out right now, but you can see how I intend my weight readings to go down steadily.
- The yellow band is a range Beeminder calculates as a reasonable variation around the goal line, based on the scatter of my measurements.
- The blue and green dots are my daily weight measurements (in this case, auto-populated from a Withings wifi scale, but I could put these in by hand). Notice how scattered they are.
- And the turquoise/blue swath lower down is the trend of my actual weight readings. Notice the center of that swath is tracking well below the orange line, so I am steadily succeeding on my goal!
- The vertical line off to the right labeled Akrasia Horizon—read the Beeminder site to understand that—it’s part of their secret sauce to keep you from changing the goal at the last minute (longer story).
- By the way, I’ve turned off a few other graph lines Beeminder normally shows, just to make this simpler (you do that in the Settings, Advanced tab).
Why this approach is important
Look at how variable the weight readings are (the dots). Day-to-day they are sometimes way up, sometimes way down! I am told this is due to variability of time of day of weighing, and variability of water content that we all have from day to day. But look how steady the overall downward trend of those readings is (the turquoise swath). It’s tracking down perfectly in tune with the goal. Without the graph, I would not have seen it.
Of course you could graph this by hand, but the automatic calculation and plotting of that swath is key. And there are lots of other features Beeminder offers like e-mail warnings if you are tilting off track, optional monetary “stings” (fines) to force you on track, and so on. And it’s free for just graphing. (And I really like the wireless connection to the Withings wifi scale).
Why I failed before
In previous (failed) attempts to lose weight, before having the data analysis, I’d just take a reading on my scale every 2-4 days and hope they were consistently lower each time. If I’d see the reading jump up one or two days, I’d assume I’d fallen off the wagon. If I saw lots of jumps up in a row, I’d get frustrated and give up. But the graph approach allows me to see my steady progress. It allows me to see the positive trend through the noisy variable readings.
Just weigh in less often?
You might think one way to avoid the whole graph thing is don’t weigh in so often, and so catch the longer trend. But there are two problems with that.
First, with the amount of daily variability in weight as great as it is, and the slow loss-rate I am targeting, it could take months before random points on the line indicated an accurate trend.
But mainly, I find it’s really good to have daily data because my supporting goal is to exercise every day, so seeing a measurement every day (particularly an up one) reminds me to contribute to that related goal—to exercise each day. It keeps my awareness on the goal and on the supporting activity.
In fact, a few up days (weight-wise) really pushed me on that daily exercise. I actually started exceeding my daily goal on aerobics just to make sure I was on track.
Have a separate supporting goal
By the way, doing that exercise daily represents a separate supporting goal I also created in Beeminder that I also enter daily. I found that plotting the exercise units every day on its own graph really helped motivate my continual exercise activity. And this is something I have direct control over—weight I do not.
Well, there you have it. I know this is just a start, but the trend is there, and the data is motivating me to keep up with it. The key is that it gives me a way to see a small but steady positive change over time; something I could not see otherwise through the haze of variability. You might find this approach helpful too for some of your goals. Note I am not yet using the “sting” side of Beeminder (the auto-fines) as a motivator. I’ll write about that separately if and when I do.
[May 14 2013 Update]
So how is this going? Full-disclosure… I gave up on my weight goal. I still think Beeminder is great, I am just not so sure losing weight using a reward system is the way to go. Here’s why: as I mention above, your weight is not in your direct control. In my case my weight was dropping nicely as shown above, and continued for weeks after (and Beeminder did a great job of showing that through all the noise). But then suddenly it leveled off. No change in eating or exercise, it just stopped going down. So I did some research on this, and I think the book The Gabriel Method describes it best: your body gets a set-point for a certain weight range, and it is virtually impossible to go below that range without changing the set point. The book describes ways to change the set point, and I am researching them. But in the mean time, if it is out of your control their is no point fining yourself. I think you should only set measure/fine-goals on things you have direct control over (like the supporting goal I mention above).