Randomly productive

Note: This is me pre-registering a Beeminder based productivity experiment. I don’t yet know if it’s going to work, but it feels like a good idea.

You know that thing where you have multiple projects and you use them all to procrastinate on each other? And you know how it results in some projects getting sidelined even though you actually really do want/need to work on them?

I’ve got a lot of that going on right now, and I’m not very happy about it.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do better about it. Given my proclivities, this really means that I want to figure out how to define a Beeminder goal that will reduce the incidence of it.

Well, I think I’ve figured one out.

The idea is to structure the goal in a way that forces me to keep on the wagon for my active projects. It’s not there to make me “do enough” on them, only to keep the amount of time since I last worked on them roughly bounded. This should be sufficient to end the procrastination loop where I keep putting them off – once I’ve done some work on them I’m more likely to do more.

And the way to achieve this is the productivity deck.

The productivity deck is a deck of index cards each of which has a project name on it. They’re not necessarily disjoint projects – some may overlap, and the same project may even be in the deck multiple times.

The productivity deck is used to select today’s nominated project by randomly shuffling the deck and picking out a card. That is now today’s project. There is then a beeminder goal (using tagtime, so this is doubly random) which is “time spent working on today’s project”.


  1. If I pick a card and go “This is a stupid project I no longer want to work on it” then I may rip up the card and pick a new one. Note that the requirement is “I no longer want to work on it at all”, not “I no longer want this project to be in the deck”.
  2. If I just don’t want the project in the deck I may accept it for the day but not put it back in the deck.
  3. Cards don’t really have to be “projects” per se. e.g. I’ve got “brainstorm” and “Start a new project” as cards in the deck. I also have a “Pick a card of your choice” card.
  4. I do not have to pick a card each day, but on days where I don’t pick a card I just don’t get to record any progress on the goal.
  5. I may not add new cards to the deck until I have picked the day’s card.
  6. If there is legitimately nothing I can do on this project today because I am blocked on something external I may put the card aside and pick a new one. I may also do this after I have done some work on the nominated project if I get blocked.
  7. If I can’t think of anything to do on today’s nominated project then I should be planning new things to do on it (which counts as working on it).
  8. I am of course allowed to work on projects that are in the deck but not today’s nominated project, I just don’t get any points for them.

Attempts to describe this as “gamifying productivity” will be met with swift and harsh retribution.

I have already started this experiment and today’s card was “blogging”. Tagtime pinged while I was writing this, so I get to record 24 minutes of progress for today, yay (update: And pinged again while I was crafting the tweet to post this, which I’m totally counting)! Points for me! In a totally not gamified sense at all!

As I said, this is mostly a pre-registering of this experiment. We’ll see whether it works – it has the characteristic complexity of my trying stupid things with Beeminder that turn out not to work, but I’m still reasonably optimistic and think it’s a good idea. Of course, that is also characteristic of things that end up not working. But hey, it might work and hopefully it’ll be fun finding out whether it does.

4 thoughts on “Randomly productive

  1. Daniel Reeves

    Sweet way to gamify productivity, brah!

    (I couldn’t resist.) But seriously, I like this a lot and it reminds me of Mark Forster’s productivity systems.

    In fact, it gives me an idea for removing the randomness while still achieving the key anti-starvation goal (referring to the starvation of projects, not you). What if you just take the top card and put it face up in front of you as the tentative project to start on. Then continue through the deck and whenever you hit a card you want to work on first, add that on top of the card in front of you. Continue until you reach the end of the deck or get to something you’re excited to dive into. The catch is that you have to at least make epsilon progress on all the cards in front of you. As soon as you’ve done so, move the card to the back of the deck.

    More on the philosophy of that approach in this draft post: http://expost.padm.us/fv

    PS: You have your TagTime interval at 24 minutes? Heresy!

    1. david Post author

      > In fact, it gives me an idea for removing the randomness while still achieving the key anti-starvation goal

      for reasons I struggle to articulate, the randomness is actually a feature and not a bug for me. It’s also quite important for me psychologically that this is not a todo list and any resemblance between it and a todo list is purely coincidental.

      > PS: You have your TagTime interval at 24 minutes? Heresy!

      Yeah, I find both the standard 40 minutes and the shorter half an hour slightly too annoying when I’m relying on getting a tagtime ping for a goal. 24 minutes is roughly in the boundary zone between annoyingly unreliable and annoyingly pestery, and is a nice decimal fraction of an hour.

      Also because I’m a contrarian I like being on a non-universal schedule.

  2. Suzy Hamilton

    Heh, I built a little command-line tool (well, heavily over-engineered for my own amusement) for doing something similar: it stores a list of things like side projects, programming books and online courses, and randomly chooses one when I’m suffering from choice paralysis. It keeps track of progress, and weights the selection based on how close the task is to completion.

    It doesn’t work for tasks with a deadline or without a clear end goal, but it’s been good at adding pressure to actually finish things, balanced with the occasional excursion into something new. The randomness definitely makes it feel less like a chore.

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