Category Archives: Better living through subservience to the machine

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.

Doing less by doing more

My caffeine free goal structure probably seems weird to most people. That’s because it’s based on a simple motivational trick which may be pretty counter-intuitive, but has worked extremely well for me.

That trick is this: Never set out to do less of something. Instead, set out to do more of something that excludes the thing you want to do less of.

I do this primarily with Beeminder goals, but I think it’s more generally applicable.

The reason for this is that setting out to do less of something works very badly for me psychologically: It feels like a punishment, or like I have to ask for permission to do something I want to do. This is basically guaranteed to make me resent the goal and want to avoid the whole thing. Additionally, it turns whatever I’m supposed to be doing less of into a scarce resource, which makes me slightly obsess over it.

Goals to do more of something on the other hand don’t have these problems. Instead of being punished, I’m being rewarded, and the thing I’m wanting to do less of isn’t scarce any more – I can have as much of it as I want once I’ve completed this challenge!

Intellectually I know that these end up with exactly the same result, but I’ve found that despite that this makes such a difference in practice.

It’s usually quite easy to reframe things this way too. The “days without” works well for a lot of things, or you can pick some beneficial activity that is mutually exclusive with the thing you want to avoid (e.g. instead of a “spend less time sitting” goal you could have a “spend more time walking” goal).

This may be unique to me, but it seems consistent with other people’s experiences and the psychology of it doesn’t seem especially peculiar to me. So if you’re struggling to do less of something, I’d recommend giving this a try.

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An experiment in breaking a caffeine addiction

I have a long running addiction to caffeine, to the tune of having probably averaged more than 300mg / day (usually in the form of a significant quantity of black coffee) for most of my adult life.

I would like to eliminate this, at least for a time. I don’t regard it as a problem per se, but due to reasons I want to establish a baseline for what life without caffeine is like.

I’ve tried this a number of times, through a process of going cold turkey, suffering, and then giving up again after about a month when the prospect of feeling like this forever became too much to bear. In reality I believe that after a 2 or 3 months the addiction should have fully worn off and I should feel “normal” (I’m aware that the official claim is 1-2 weeks, but I don’t believe it and the literature on caffeine addiction is so scarce that I feel entirely justified in this), but it sure doesn’t feel that way at the time.

Additionally, sometimes I just have… lets say bad days, and caffeine really helps me get through those.

So it’s pretty clear that the past strategy of just trying really hard is not going to work and it was time to try something different.

Well, I’ve been trying something different for the past few months, and while I’m definitely not out of the woods yet, I think I’ve found a pretty good path to getting there and I’m confident enough that this is going to work that I thought it might be time for a progress report.

It comes in two parts:

The first step was to decouple caffeine from the ritual of coffee. I usually started my mornings with a strong cup of black coffee, and I’d be the first to admit that this served a psychological purpose as much as a physiological one.

This turned out to actually be quite simple to do: Get a good decaf coffee and some caffeine pills. I’ve been drinking the Monmouth decaf and while it’s certainly not the best coffee I’ve ever had, it’s solidly in the category of good coffee. This means that I can start the day with a nice strong cup of coffee that happens not to contain caffeine, and control my caffeine intake entirely in pill form.

Drinking decaf coffee and taking caffeine pills seems perverse, but it’s actually been really useful. As well as the intended benefit of decoupling the two from each other so that I can have either of coffee or caffeine without the other, the caffeine pills make it much easier to regulate exactly how much caffeine I have. I suspect the fact that it makes it very obvious that this is a drug I’m taking doesn’t hurt either.

Anyway, that wasn’t enough to actually break the addiction, but I felt it did help a lot in getting a handle on my intake.

The second thing, which is by far the more important of the two, is a new experiment in using Beeminder.

The goal is to move to a habit where I spend increasingly long periods of time without caffeine. There’s no expectation that I’ll quit caffeine outright, just that I’m going to spend enough time off caffeine to keep the worst of the addiction at bay. Then, over time, I can gradually increase the length of these periods.

This does mean that I spend life in constant low grade caffeine withdrawal, but it’s very low grade, and it comes with the benefit of never having to deal with the really terrible caffeine withdrawal that comes from a full blown addiction.

The way the Beeminder usage works is to commit to having days without caffeine such that longer periods are rewarded more by gaining more “points” the longer I’ve been without caffeine. I score one point for the first day without caffeine, two for the second, three for the third, etc. I then have to make up a certain number of points per week.

This has been working pretty well. The system encourages me to keep up streaks without enforcing it – I get to make lots of tradeoffs of the form “Do I really want to have coffee today as much as N days worth of coffee?”, so unless I really need the coffee I often don’t have it.

I’m about to start an experiment where I also get negative points for days with coffee in the same way: -1 for the first day, -2 for the second, etc. This is because I’ve noticed that if I have about a week on coffee every day then coming off it gets unpleasant again.

You can see my progress here (and maybe predict how grumpy I’m likely to be on any given day based on that…) and the community policing thread here. I’ll report back at some later date how it’s all going.

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Services that won’t buzz off

I’ve long maintained that one of the best things about Beeminder is that it doesn’t go away just because you can’t be bothered. You can’t ignore it, and you can’t just vaguely not feel like it. You can always actively decide not to use it, but it doesn’t get you off the hook for another week, so you can’t give in to temporary weakness.

I’ve recently figured out a usage pattern for this that is working out quite well for me that comes as a direct application of this idea: By roping them to Beeminder, you can give other services the same property.

Lets be concrete:

I love Todoist. I think it’s genuinely great software. It’s well designed, has a great Android app (it has an iOS app, I assume it’s also great), has a great API, and just generally seems like they’ve put a lot of effort into it. It’s in the category of software for which I don’t really need the premium features but I pay for them anyway to support the free version (Beeminder is also somewhat in this category, though I do make use of precisely one premium feature).

But… there’s a problem. I find TODO lists mildly aversive. I don’t have crippling TODO list dread or anything (I’m not being facetious here. That’s a genuine thing people experience), but they make me a bit stressed out so I will tend to default to ignoring them if I can. It’s totally fine when I actually get around to doing them, but I will put it off nearly indefinitely if I can.

Which is where Beeminder comes in! Through a careful application of If This Then That (the only service mentioned in this post that I don’t pay for, and that’s only because they won’t let me pay them. IFTTTT, if you’re reading this, please give me a premium option?), you can rope Todoist to Beeminder’s refusal to be ignored.

So this is what I’m currently doing:

  1. I have a Beeminder goal called todone. It is a do more goal which tracks the number of TODO items I complete. I am required to complete 8 per week. The goal is set to trim the safety buffer so I can’t build up more than 8 days (the fact that these numbers are both 8 is a coincidence. They’re “slightly more than one a day” and “slightly more than a week”) of backlog, although I started this at a short safety buffer so I haven’t quite reached that point yet.
  2. I have an IFTTT rule using the Todoist and Beeminder channels that enters an item into that goal every time I complete any task.

It’s important to note what this is not: This is not a goal about being a productivity machine. 8 TODO items a week is not a large amount, particularly because many of the TODO items are recurring tasks that I would do regularly anyway. I have recurring scheduled tasks for things like “change my pillow cases” (which I always put off for a couple days more than I should) or “shave my head” (which I always intend to do more often than I do. Though given how cold it is right now maybe not). This blog post alone is netting me two TODO items because I have a recurring blogging task (every 6 days) and am now entering draft blog ideas into their own Todoist project (I heartily recommend doing that by the way, in the general interests of writing more). It does also contain more significant tasks – contact a particular client, submit a talk to a particular conference, etc. But I get to choose the mix of task difficulty, so 8 tasks a week is not hard.

The purpose of this goal is twofold:

  1. Keep me using Todoist
  2. Do not increase the stress level of using Todoist. I have previously had a more elaborate Todoist system that was more “productivity machine” focused and that was stressful as all get out and made me hate both Todoist and Beeminder. Do not recommend.

And it seems to be working rather well for this. It turns Todoist into a regular feature of my life, and it makes an excellent piece to add to my Exobrain.

This was originally designed to help me get out of various aversive behaviours, and I think the jury is still out on whether it’s succeeded at this, but it seems to be helping a bit. Even if all it does is keep me using Todoist though I think it’s an unambiguous win and I heartily recommend the combination.

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Backpressure 2: Backpressure harder

You might remember that I implemented a thing for beeminder that I’m calling backpressure. If a goal has less than a week to derailing it generates a datapoint each day. There’s then a “do less of that” goal.

It required a bit of tinkering at first: My initial rate was really low compared to what I actually generated on this front, so I had a few days of scrambling panic to get it under control. Additionally I realised it only worked well for “do more” goals where I can actively work towards making things better as opposed to just not doing anything to make that goal worse for a few days.

Once I got things under control I also decided that my intended rate was too generous, and dialled it down to one which didn’t allow me a full week of leniency: If I have a permanent rate of about one a day being inside the backpressure window than I will derail.

The result is pretty great. I no longer have eep days, I have “oh dear” several day periods (needs a catchier name). When something enters the backpressure window I tend to immediately bat it out again by doing some extra work on it, but it’s no big deal if I need to leave it a day or two. It’s an altogether much calmer experience.

But there is one slight case where it fails to be calmer: Because most of my goals tend to hover a bit outside the one week window now, I still suffer from the correlated eeping problem where multiple things enter the backpressure window at once and I have to deal with both of them because several things in backpressure will cause me to derail much faster. It’s still not nearly as bad as having multiple simultaneous eep days, but it could be better.

I have a couple ideas for how to deal with this, but the easiest one involves me going “Hmm… I’ve got this hammer in my hand. I wonder if I can solve this problem by hitting things?”

So the solution to backpressure’s problems? MORE BACKPRESSURE.

I’ve created a second goal, backpressureharder, which tracks how many goals I have with less than two weeks of grace period left. The idea is that this will be different because it will have a much laxer rate. My current plan is to keep it to just under 2/day, so that I can safely let a single goal slide into the full blown backpressure window, but if two are in there at once I need to deal with it or I’ll derail (or at least burn through my bufffer) – it shouldn’t derail fast. I don’t want to be frantic about it, but at some point in the week I should do something about it.

My initial goal setting on it is not anything close to that because I want to avoid the frantic scrambling around of last time, so I’ve actually got it set to 10 a day. My plan is to clear things out of it gradually, adjust the road dial downwards and retroratchet aggressively to keep myself honest.

P.S. No I’m not just writing this blog post to get my blogging goal closer to being outside the two week window. Why do you ask?