A few months ago I got an email from someone on the behalf of Beeminder, a goals tracking web product that I hadn’t been aware of. What struck me about the email, unlike many I get regarding products, was how personable and transparent it was in its tone. It was infectiously charming, and thus intrigued I went to check out the product itself.

Beeminder allows you to track anything you can count on a daily basis: pushups, cigarettes, etc, and it plots them on a graph as you enter them. There’s an ideal curve called the yellow brick road, meaning that you are hitting your goals consistently over time.

If you fall off that ideal curve, the graphing stops, and you can’t enter in any more data. And this is where Beeminder starts to play mind games with you. If you want to start the graphing again, you pledge some real money. If you fail again, you have to pay the pledge, which is sort of like buying another “life” in a video game. Or, you could also rage-quit and stomp away muttering about how the goal was never very good to begin with, but that’s up to you. If they are your goals, and they’re important to you, you will not mind putting a little money on the line to help trigger the powerful loss-averse aspect of your primitive brain.

Yes, really. It’s such a powerful concept that I’m afraid to sign up for it, though I suspect it is just a matter of time before I do. That’s because Beeminder is not just a graphing program: it is an artifact that makes the underlying productivity theory both visually accessible and quantitatively concrete. It specifically draws on observations about human behavior, like how we suck at thinking rationally about the future. Specifically, Beeminder seeks to be a “commitment device” with teeth by making you PAY UP.

Beeminder is also a tool for people who like to analyze data. It’s exactly the tool I wish I had when I was following the Hacker’s Diet several years ago, because it applies the “sliding window smoothing” filter to daily weight using “Rose-Colored Dots”. There are a variety of other averaging and threshold filters with fun names like The Turquoise Swath and the aforementioned Yellow Brick Road. They are somewhat hard to see unless you zoom in; this is an example from their site:

Beeminder Graph Detail

But this isn’t really why I’m writing about Beeminder, even if it IS a nicely-designed web application copy-written with a charm reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth. The reason I’m writing is because the blog is an amazing trove of writing about goal setting, written in an accessible magazine-like style—sort of an academic version of The Atlantic—that’s far more nutritious than the usual 10 WAYS TO MEET GOALS WITH A KITCHEN TIMER list articles rattling around the Internet. It’s smart, amusing, and generously filled with citations so you can learn more. I like it a lot.

The article that induced me to write about this was Flexible Self Control, which introduced me to the ancient Greek term akrasia. From Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

Akrasia (ancient Greek ἀκρασία, “lacking command (over oneself)”), occasionally transliterated as acrasia, is the state of acting against one’s better judgement.

This is an area that’s highly interesting to me, and now a whole new line of research awaits me. Thanks, Beeminder, for being there. Keep doing your thing!

» Beeminder: The App
» Beeminder: The Blog


  1. Daniel Reeves 12 years ago

    David, wow, thank you so much for the kind words! The feeling is quite mutual.

    I was curious what we said in that brilliant intro email so I dug it up. It was from Jill, who helps us with support and spamming productivity bloggers. I mean, sending them very personal emails:

    Hi Dave,

    I’m part of — like for data nerds. Your blog looks awesome and pretty related to crazy Quantified Self / Lifehacker ideas so I was hoping to convince you to try out (and possibly write about) Beeminder! Beeminder is a goal tracking tool where you commit yourself to keeping all your data points on a “yellow brick road” to your goal — first attempt is free but after that you put money at stake, to be paid if you go off track again. I think it is a perfect tool for people to use their time more wisely whether to study or achieve basically any long term goal.

    We can tell you more if it sounds intriguing.


    PS: Here’s a round-up of other Beeminder competitors we know of, in case it’s useful:

    So, yeah, not the most personal email, but then we did become fans of your blog after sending that and sent you apparently half a dozen more emails begging you to write about us. :)

    We’re really grateful that you did! Extremely well put, too.

    Thanks again! Danny of Beeminder

  2. Author
    Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Hey Danny,

    Nice! :)

    Rereading it, it doesn’t look like much on the surface! But what caught my eye was how transparent (the good kind of transparency that goes with authenticity) it was while also containing a few choice phrases that piqued my interest (“crazy quantified self”, for example). It was also short, informative, and didn’t overstep its welcome by deluging me with a lot of text…instead, it invited me to find out more if I was intrigued. The icing on the cake was the list of competitors (ooo, data!) on your own blog. That in itself, and the tone of writing on the blog, showed a remarkable openness and candor that I personally enjoy. Overall, the experience was helpful without being pushy, informative without being cagey, with real people behind it that fits the “positive-minded, conscientious, self-empowered and kind” detection filter by which I mercilessly judge interlopers into my digital realm. Bwa hahaha! You should give Jill a raise if she does this on a regular basis. ;-)

    The typical email I get reads like a press release. And I’ve been somewhat hardened against the occasional “self-serving comment” that attempts to sneak onto the platform under false pretenses without adding meaningfully to the conversation. I really hate that!

  3. Lise 12 years ago

    I found Beeminder through Mark Forster’s Get Everything Done blog and became a convert right away. Beeminder is so flexible that it allows you to count anything by your own rules but once the rules are set you need to stick to them. It seems that many competitors programs have similar philosophy but in practice they all failed to hold my attention and commitment beyond the first few days.

    The most motivating for me was in fact one of the Beeminder blog entries on finding time to work on a commitment to practice guitar playing. It was somehow a huge eye-opener for me how we usually overcommit with many good intentions and fail to realize that we also need to commit time and effort. And somehow anything else that I read earlier on scheduling and time boxing didn’t make such a mark either.

    I started several goals on Beeminder on February 4, 2012 and my will to continue grows stronger every day.