Toolmaker Talk: Bethany Soule & Daniel Reeves (Beeminder)

This is the fifth post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features intrepid self-quantifiers and their stories: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned? In Toolmaker Talks we hear from QS enablers, those observing this QS activity and developing self-quantifying tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences?

Bethany Soule and Daniel Reeves have presented at New York City QS meet ups (here and here) on a couple ideas that came together and turned into Beeminder, which they co-founded in 2010. Through much personal experimentation they’ve developed unique ideas on how best to visualize your progress towards a goal and how to set just the right amount of monetary incentives.

Q: How do you describe Beeminder? What is it?

Soule: Beeminder is a goal-tracking tool with teeth. Report your progress every day and make sure to keep all your data points on a “yellow brick road” to your goal. If you fail to do so your graph will be frozen and you can pledge (by which we mean pledge actual money) to stay on track on your next attempt.

Reeves: The idea is to give yourself a kick in the pants. Here’s how to tell if Beeminder could be useful for you: Is there something you know you should do, you really do want to do, you know for certain you can do, yet that historically you don’t do? (Also, are you a highly nerdy data freak?)

Soule: What we mean by the “yellow brick road” is a line on your graph that gradually gets you from here to there and tolerates some daily deviation without allowing a slippery slope of sloth.

 

Q: What’s the back story? What led to it?

Reeves: I had a friend who wanted to lose weight. This was in February 2008. I had her email me her weight every day and I’d send her back graphs of her progress and tell her if she was on track to hit her target in time. I was mostly following the principles of The Hacker’s Diet, in particular the part about getting as much data as possible but smoothing it so as not to be discouraged by random fluctuations.

Soule: I quickly wanted in on it, because I was tracking my own weight in Excel — Lame! So we started automating it and getting more friends and family on board. We called it Kibotzer (the kibitzing robot), though no one got the pun. Even before we started with the data collection and visualization side of things we’d been making bets with each other as part of various productivity schemes for quite some time, so it was only natural to bet about staying on track with our graphs.

Reeves: We’ve since dropped the betting terminology but it’s equivalent. Now you’re pledging (money) to stay on track on your yellow brick road. (HT: PJ Eby)

Soule: In 2010 we decided to quit our day jobs and turn it into a real startup, which we renamed Beeminder.

Reeves: But if you really want to trace the roots, the backstory starts in 2005 when Bethany and I were dating and I was writing my dissertation. I’d been dragging it out forever so Bethany concocted a Voluntary Harassment Program, as she called it, and we tried out all kinds of crazy incentive schemes and productivity hacks. They apparently worked, since I got my PhD that year.

Q: What impact has it had? What have you heard from users?

Soule: Our users think it’s the bees’ knees! I assume that bees have awesome knees.

Reeves: We do have a small number of users who find it powerfully motivating. Lots of weight loss success stories, of course. And we use it to force ourselves to keep up momentum on Beeminder itself.

Soule: Here’s an ongoing success story that we blogged about: Our friend and early beta user, Jill, wanted to join a new gym, which is often a recipe for throwing away money. But she actually worked out how often she would need to go to make the membership worth the money (1.8 times per week, on average) and then used a large Beeminder contract to force herself to maintain that average. That’s been going since March: beeminder.com/jill/gym.

Reeves: There are plenty of failure stories, too. We find that it really only makes sense to beemind things that are both objectively measurable and that you have complete control over. So you can beemind how much time you spend working but not, say, how focused you are. Weight loss is a borderline case: you don’t have complete control over it since your weight fluctuates randomly from day to day, but we’ve put a ton of work into adjusting for that with an auto-widening yellow brick road and other data-smoothing tricks.

Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?

Reeves: Primarily that it works as a commitment device. Most goal-tracking sites don’t work that way (nor do they want to). A notable exception is StickK.com. What sets Beeminder apart from StickK is the focus on the data and the graph and Yellow Brick Road. By having everything based on your data you get far more flexibility. We think it’s more motivating and insightful to pledge to keep your data points on a yellow brick road to your goal than to StickK to your goal.

Soule: Yeah, with StickK it’s all about the contracts. You have to fully pre-specify exactly what you’re committing to do and how much money to put at risk to force yourself to do it. With Beeminder you just first start tracking. Your data then informs you on what to commit to. You don’t even have to think about how much to risk — we tell you, and you climb up the fee schedule until you hit an amount that really motivates you. There’s also this clever thing called the “akrasia horizon” that lets you continuously adjust your commitment — the steepness of the yellow brick road — without it, y’know, defeating the whole point of a commitment contract.

Q: What are you doing next? How do you see Beeminder evolving?

Reeves: We’re working our butts off on a ton of features that our users are asking for in the Beeminder feedback forum.

Soule: Beeminder is literally getting better every day. In fact, we’re beeminding that: We have to make one User-Visible Improvement to Beeminder on average per day or pay one of our users $1000. We’ll have made about 300 improvements when this goes to press!

Reeves: In the near future we’d like to add more ways to automatically collect data instead of needing to report data points to the Beeminder bot. We can currently connect Beeminder to Withings scales and our own (very hacky) TagTime stochastic time tracker. Bethany also made a pushup counter for Android which semi-automatically counts pushups (you put the phone on the floor and touch your nose to it). Finally, we have a version of our API in private beta which a couple people have used to automatically send data to Beeminder as it’s collected.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

Reeves: If you want to keep up with the latest on Beeminder, follow the Beeminder blog — we’re committed (literally) to posting frequently!

Product: Beeminder
Website: http://beeminder.com
Platform: Web, email or SMS
Price: Free as long as you stay on your Yellow Brick Road

(If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact Rajiv Mehta at rajivzume@gmail.com) 

About Rajiv Mehta

Rajiv helps companies evaluate and commercialize innovation through Bhageera Consulting, is developer of the Unfrazzle self-care and family caregiving app, is co-organizer of the San Franicsco Bay Area Quantified Self meetup group, and is on the board of the Family Caregiver Alliance.
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23 Responses to Toolmaker Talk: Bethany Soule & Daniel Reeves (Beeminder)

  1. David says:

    Dan and Bethany are two of the smartest and most philosophical hackers I know. They’ve built some amazing tools to quantify their actions and control their future impulses. I highly recommend quantified selfers to dive into Beeminder, their most user-friendly quantification system and to open yourself up to an entire world of self-measurement that they’ve been working on over the past 10 years.

  2. I think if you look at my graph, you can see the benefit of the yellow brick road – it is horizontal until it hits the road, then jumps up.

    I’m thinking about thesis-related stuff every day, but without the prompting, it’s easy to stay thinking and never write.

  3. Robbie Clarken says:

    I’ve been using this for a while now to ensure I find time for meditation and reading each day. It works splendidly – I’m still a serial procrastinator but those goals I “beemind” always get done. In fact it is a little scary how well it works. A challenge now is to ensure that goals that aren’t quantifiable are not neglected in favour of those that are.

  4. Jim McClintock says:

    After using Beeminder for 100 days, I have to say this is the first device I have found to keep me on track of accomplishing my goals. I now can make decisions whether to do something or not based on data not just from my gut – take a look at any of my goals, and you will get the idea.
    Do yourself a giant favor and sign up today.

  5. Michael says:

    Beeminder has definitely been a great tool for me. I’ve actually found myself loosing my contract a few times and it’s been pretty interesting keep going with my goal after loosing. I think most of us are fairly busy and end up dropping the ball on something or another. The impact Beeminder has is that it forces us to become very honest about the commitment we have to our goals. That’s both from a long-term view by making this monetary bet for long term achievement and at a short-term view by forcing close to daily action.

    Take a look at my these graph (restarted for 3rd time). You’ll see that I’m still at it! Have taken a slightly different approach from Johnicholas and have been going for hours sitting at the computer and deliberately working.
    https://www.beeminder.com/mimercha/goals/thesis

    My exercise goals are a little more fun. I have a deck of cards that I use for this. Each exercise routine, I’ll take a card and do as many reps as show up on the card. Here’s the graph:
    https://www.beeminder.com/mimercha/goals/exercise

    Oh and if the monetary bet wasn’t enough to keep me motivated, Daniel checks in if I’m been loosing too much. It’s as if he really doesn’t want to get rich off of me! Haha.

    I’m definitely an enthusiast on Beeminder and have found it become part of my daily process! Great site. I’m excited for new features and wishing Bethany and Daniel all the best!

  6. So much love! Thanks everyone! If anyone has questions about Beeminder I’d be delighted to try to answer them here…

  7. Rodrigo Belo says:

    I’ve been using Beeminder for a few months now and I am extremely happy with the experience and results. I’ve been able to keep a ‘fairly’ constant exercise rate, something I had tried several times before and was unable to accomplish. I have also created a list of house-related tasks that I
    kept postponing, mainly because they are really boring and not urgent… My goal is to complete at least one of these tasks per week. I’ve been able to complete several tasks that were waiting forever to be done. Because these are so boring, I’ve lost twice, but now that I have raised the stakes I’m pretty sure I’ll keep doing them ;)

    I currently use Beeminder for all kinds of goals and I am pledging real money on most of them. This way I keep motivated. Also, it feels like a game: you have to do this by midnight or you lose!

    Congrats to Daniel and Bethany for building such a wonderful tool!

  8. Jessica Wainman says:

    I LOVE this service. I started with one graph to help me begin running and stick to it. It worked so well that I started another to keep me on track of no sweets and junk for 6 days of the week. This took me a few minutes to figure out how to make it quantifiable, but after I did, it has been the BEST inspiration for me. I can no longer justify to myself during the day that I can have that candy, because it is NEVER JUST THAT ONE CANDY. The week lag in changing my graph means that I can never justify it at the moment, and therefore stay on track. You can see this graph here. I post 24 hours for every day that I do not eat Junk or sweets and it is an all or nothing principle. If I eat any sweets or junk, I do not get the 24 hours. I set my goal at 144 minutes a day, which is 6 days a week.
    This system has really helped me to stick to my goals. I tried stikk but it didn’t work for me. It was too rigid and too long term. This is day to day, but I can’t change what I do today. I love that. It really make me stick to my goals.

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  10. Glenn Davis says:

    I’ve only been using Beeminder for less than 2 months, but I am extremely enthusiastic about it. And I say that as someone who is probably a poster child for how NOT to use Beeminder!!

    I have primarily used it, so far, to lose weight. In so doing, I have been doing exactly what one shouldn’t do — skating as close to the edge as possible without going off track. Sheepish confessions follow. (Here’s my graph.) I pledged enough — $30 — to make it distinctly uncomfortable if I lose, partly because I didn’t fully understand the mechanics of how the pledge thing worked when I did so. In order to avoid paying up, and more importantly to avoid the shame of failing, I have had to resort to extreme measures on certain days to get my weight down to a level where I wouldn’t lose that day: Going for long runs and fasting. Public service message: Please don’t follow my example.

    Having said all that, I note X number of things:

    I am losing weight!!
    I am acquiring useful knowledge about why I generally find it hard to lose weight. (I’ve used the Hacker’s Diet in the past with mixed results.)
    Every day, I ponder additional areas of my life in which I might be able to use Beeminder to improve the quality of my life. Perhaps I ought to make a Beeminder to set at least one new Beeminder goal in the next week… Hmmm… *stroking beard*

    Skip this paragraph if you are allergic to grandiose statements. I think Beeminder is the missing weapon in my personal development armamentarium. Without it, I was a pathetic loser. With it, me and my robot unicorn army will CONQUER NEW JERSEY!!! MWAH HAH HAH HAH HAAAAH!!!

    Well all right I don’t have a robot unicorn army. But Beeminder is way cool anyway.

    One more note: Greatest. Customer. Service. Ever. Bethany and Daniel monitor my progress and continually send me motivational messages. I have no doubt they will continue to do this once Beeminder is as big as Facebook. Go Beeminder!!

    • Glenn, we’re blushing like bees! (We don’t know Glenn in real life, honest!)

      And, Glenn, we monitor your progress in particular because your graph is a total nailbiter! It’s very exciting.

  11. Eep! Beets. I meant we’re blushing like beets. we’re otherwise indeed quite bee-like.

  12. Gandalf says:

    I am a physics student and used Beeminder throughout november this year to see if it made a difference. I actually felt it did as I using it to secure a minimum amount of hours per week on average. Spreading your effort out evenly over the whole semester is crucial and I’ve found it to be an excellent tool for students as well.

  13. David says:

    I enthusiastically used Beeminder for a few weeks to help me to meditate daily, something I’ve always wanted to do but have never stuck with for more than a day or two. It worked great and I actually built up a number of safety days by meditating more than I had intended to. Then, as always happens with me, I fell off. I haven’t meditated in a few weeks. But today I finally exhausted my safety days, and I meditated. I know there is only one reason I did it today while I haven’t for the last few weeks: The image of crossing over that Yellow Brick Road kicked me back into gear. Every day that you enter data above that line, you feel good about it. The prospect of going over it makes your failure clearly visible and more immediate. Today, Beeminder helped me stick to what I really want, helped me to do what’s best for me when I very likely wouldn’t have done it on my own. I’m very grateful!

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