All or nothing is not an option (or why I love Beeminder)

This post is about a better way of creating good habits in your life. I’m going to start with my desire to have the habit of working out. The lessons here can be applied to everything and I’m going to show you some more examples at the end.

I could track my physical exercise to make sure I keep up. I could use an app like Google Fit. The first day I meet my goal, but eventually, my days will look something like this:

Google FitI already have two missed goals. It’s very easy to get discouraged by missing a goal one day, or a few days in a row, and then drop out of the plan to improve fitness. This is a very bad way of creating new habits.

The problem with this, as with recurring to-do items is that the granularity is too low: a day. Google fit is telling me I failed two days out of four and not counting than on those two other days I made up for it. If Google fit was measuring activity in four days intervals that would have been a success, instead of a half success.

But four days might be too short too. A long weekend and boom! You are out! Maybe we should go for a week or even a month. A month is a nice chunk of time, but it has another problem: it’s so big, you might not know you are actually failing until you are too close to the end to fix it. And even if you fix it, working out like mad on the lat 4 days of every month is not healthy or habit forming.

What we need is something that won’t punish us for a day of rest, but will still keep pushing us up every day. That is Beeminder. Look at my working out chart:

Beeminder chart for working out

Beeminder legend

The pink line with green dots are my data points, the information about when and how much I worked out. It is measured in Fitocracy points, but it could be time working out, kilometers run, kilocalories burnt or anything else you want.

The yellow brick road is my goal. I want to always be above it. The yellow brick road keeps going up every day, so I need to keep on working out to reach my goal. Crossing it is called derailment and you can see it actually happened around mid October. When you cross it, the system resets, gives you a week of advantage and then re-starts. What happened around mid October is that I had a trip, but that’s not excuse. You see… if you allow things like a trip to be an excuse, it’s easy to lose a good habit.

How do you deal with eventualities then? You build up a buffer. Towards the end of November, for example, I did that. Unfortunately then I got a cold and that ate most of my buffer right away, but I’m going up again, building a buffer and staying on the good side of the yellow brick road.

The beauty of this system is that it doesn’t judge a single day, it judges your progress, but it keeps reminding you that you should be making progress.

Another advantage of Beeminder is keeping up with good habits without a routine. If you ask most gym-goes when they go to gym, they have a routine: Monday and Wednesdays! or something like that. I have preferred days, but I don’t have a strict routine, my life just doesn’t allow it, it’s too chaotic. When you don’t have a strict routine it’s very easy to forget to go to the gym because our brains are very bad at correctly keeping track of how much we worked out this week.

You may have noticed the big two numbers on the background of the chart. 10d means 10 days, and that’s how big the buffer is. I could sit on my ass for 10 days and not derail. But then I would be in a very precarious situation in which any eventuality will cause me to derail. I don’t want that to happen, so, I’ll attempt to keep my buffer at 10 days or more. Which leads me to the second number.

$5 is how much derailing will cost me. Those are real dollars, the ones you have to work for. Talk about an incentive! That’s Beeminder’s business model, that’s how they sustain themselves. And it’s a beautiful system because it only hurts when you do something bad, and that penalty is what makes the system work, so you are paying Beeminder only for doing its job. If you never fail, it’s free.

And each time it fails, the amount will go up, so, further failures will be more expensive. I been tinkering with my workouts recently, trying to find the right amount to do every week, so I keep reseting the amount to $5, but once things are stable, I’ll let it go up.

Another thing that I’m doing for my fitness and health is meal tracking. Meal tracking also has this insidious property of an all or nothing system. I started tracking them and one day I forgot. The next day I didn’t forget, but since the data was corrupt already, more corruption wouldn’t be that bad (broken window syndrome?) and the day after that I completely forgot I was doing meal tracking.

I’m still not sure if incomplete meal tracking data is useful or not, but I know the all-or-nothing situation is not conducive to forming habits. Enter Beeminder! First I tried entering how many meals a week I was tracking, but that allowed every day to be corrupt. It’s easy to track meals, it’s harder to track snacks. Allowing every day to be corrupt means you can just track meals, ignore snacks and be successful in the eyes of Beeminder.

Right now I’m experimenting with forcing myself to track 2 days a week, and I’m doing well:

 

Beeminder for meal tracking

That’s where the angle of the yellow brick line comes from. In that chart is 2 per week. If I continue to do well, I’ll keep increasing it, possibly up to 5 or 6.

These are just a couple of examples of what I’m tracking right now. Beeminder comes ready packages with many settings for different tasks and they keep adding them. Take a look at the screen for creating a new goal to have an idea:

Beeminder create goal

Beeminder is not that easy to use. It’s a power-tool, but I really recommend it. Whenever you want to have a new habit in your life, that’s the way to go.

Advertisements