Beeminder is a goal tracking service that is not quite like anything that has gone before it. It can be used to log a wide variety of things you might do, from the number of times you go to the gym each week, to how dedicated you are to clearing out the clutter from your inbox.
I’ve been a fan of Beeminder since my girlfriend introduced me to the site. I fell in love and started using it to track the number of articles I was writing and various other goals. Seeing a graph indicating my progress is often all the encouragement I need to stay on track and stick with what I’ve set out to do, and I decided to catch up with Beeminder co-founder Daniel Reeves to find out where the idea came from.
A Quick Look at Beeminder First
In addition to letting you log any personal goal that can be counted — distance run in workouts, number of pounds lost in a week, the number of calories consumed in a day — there are also loads of neat tie-ins with other online services.
Trying to attain inbox zero? Link Beeminder to your Gmail account and it will help you to keep on track with your aim to reduce the number of messages in your inbox.
Seeing your progress graphed out — complete with all of the statistical analysis you can shake a stick at — may well be encouragement enough, but if you want to make sure you stick to your goal, you can link your credit card to Beeminder and pay a financial penalty if you miss your target in a particular period.
Miss one, and the penalty will probably be quite low (you can set the start point yourself) but next time it will be higher. If you find you lack commitment, getting hit in the pocket may help you to turn things around.
Meet Daniel Reeves
What prompted you to create Beeminder? Did you set out to design a service you had been searching for and never able to find?
As for whether we set out to build something we were never able to find, I guess you could say that. Though I’m not sure we ever searched — we kind of assumed nothing like what we wanted existed. During the time that Beeminder was a side project, StickK.com launched, which pioneered the idea of commitment contracts as a service.
But we’ve always been pretty different from StickK in that we’re focused on the Quantified Self angle. Later GymPact launched and we’ve since learned of many others but I think we’re still the only one combining commitment contracts and Quantified Self.
There are kind of two origin stories for Beeminder — both true! In 2005, the year after Bethany Soule [now Daniel’s wife and mother to their two children] and I met, I was trying to finish my PhD thesis, arguably the most procrastination-prone activity in history. Bethany came to my rescue with all manner of crazy incentive and productivity schemes. She dubbed it the Voluntary Harassment Program.
So we were heading in the direction of Beeminder already years ago but it wasn’t until 2008 that we first built a website embodying the ideas.
That’s when I started helping a friend lose weight by implementing the principles from The Hacker’s Diet via email and Mathematica. Bethany was doing similar things in Excel for herself and we joined forces and hacked together Kibotzer, the kibitzing robot.
That continued as a side project for a couple years till late 2010 when we quit our day jobs to work on it full-time, which is also when we changed the name to Beeminder.
It then took us another year till we publicly launched, in late 2011.
Can you explain the technology behind Beeminder. Is it a horribly complex tangle of code, or is it surprisingly simple?
It is downright horrific. The interface is in Rails, the graphing is in Python (for a long time it was Mathematica), with hideous glue in between, including some Perl. For real nitty-gritty on our technology stack, we’ve detailed everything online.
What do you use Beeminder to keep track of?
So many things! Time spent on Beeminder itself and various other activities, various fitness goals, weight, learning foreign languages… My gallery is at beeminder.com/d and Bethany’s is at beeminder.com/b.
Of particular interest are our dogfood goals — like the $1000 that we’ll have to pay to a user if we ever fall off our average of one user-visible improvement to Beeminder per day.
There is a strong financial incentive to keep on track, but we all go off the rails from time to time. What’s the largest financial penalty you have had to pay?
$270, paid to a user for missing our deadline for a Beeminder blog post. The all-time high payment on Beeminder is $810 so far. Well, not counting an intrafamily commitment contract of $5k from the early days of beta testing (but that lasted until recently) that my mom paid to my brother.
Do you find that people are honest when they veer off the yellow brick road (Beeminder’s personal target system)?
They are shockingly honest as far as we can tell. Not that we’d know, of course, if they successfully deceived us, but the honesty seems to be through the roof. We have close to $10k of revenue per month (and growing steadily) from paid pledges to prove it.
By far the most common excuse for derailing is forgetting to enter the data — we’re trying to add more and more automatic data sources to make that one moot). We’re happy to let people enter the missing data retroactively when that happens, but they do need to go through a human (us) to keep that from turning into a toehold for weaseling.
What is the strangest reason or excuse you’ve been given?
I don’t know if it counts as the strangest excuse but we’ve given special exemptions for natural disasters, including hurricane Sandy and the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
Beeminder is great for keeping track of goals. But are there any other to-do apps or time management tools you use as well?
Are you a well-organized person or is the very fact that Beeminder exists an indication of a need for order?
The latter! Bethany and I are both extremely akratic.
How geeky are you when it comes to analysing your statistics over time? I found that it can be quite addictive studying all of the graphs that are generated!
Absolutely! That’s a big part of Beeminder and we’d love to offer more personal analytics in the future.
Where next for Beeminder? You’ve already made it possible to track data from Gmail, RunKeeper and a number of other apps and services. Is there anything in the pipeline that you can give us some hints about?
Certainly! We have a long list of integrations we’re gradually getting to. We’ll probably mostly attack them in order of popularity on our feedback forum but I’m personally most excited about the Pebble watch and Google Glass since I just got one of each this week. So I’m hacking up things for my own use on those platforms and we’ll hopefully make them official integrations soon after.
Besides integrations with devices and services, our understanding of the psychology behind akrasia continues to evolve and that means a lot of changes to how Beeminder works. In particular we’re still working through all the implications of “the third great beeminder epiphany“. Namely, ever-increasing awesomeness should always be the path of least resistance.
In other words, whenever there’s a way to weasel out or fall off the wagon just by putting your head in the sand and, for example, failing to re-up on your commitment then that’s a terrible failure mode. If you have to do something proactive to weasel out then we see almost no abuse. We’ve learned that defaults are extremely impactful, especially for the kind of people who use Beeminder!