Beeminder puts an end to geeks wasting time

WIRED : I’ve been tracking attempts to help with self-control for several years now, ever since failing, honest to God, to finish…

WIRED: I've been tracking attempts to help with self-control for several years now, ever since failing, honest to God, to finish a book on procrastination

TAXES THIS YEAR were a mess, so you have a new resolution: set up the perfect system for collecting expenses for next year. You could get started on it right now, and avoid the panicked rush of every other year. Or you could surf Facebook.

If you’re wondering why your conscience tells you to do the first option, and your actual practice is to do the second, the ancient Greeks had a word for it: akrasia. It was a constant bugbear of philosophers such as Plato, who assumed that if you knew what the best course of action was, surely you’d naturally just do it.

Despite being known, and worried about, for thousands of years, we haven’t got that much further in beating akrasia. But geeks, at least, are having another stab at fixing it, perhaps because they face it more than anyone else.


Self-directed, smart, but a little on the attention-deficit side of the distractability spectrum, geeks are constantly surrounded by potentially captivating problems to solve. Or at least, half-intriguing websites that are one click away from their main work window.

I've been tracking attempts to help with self-control for several years now, ever since failing, honest to God, to finish a book on procrastination. There's been an amazing amount of work done in the area, including websites such as, movements like the quantified self community, and anti-procrastination apps, a lot of which I suspect were written by people trying to avoid what they were supposed to be doing in the first place.

By far my favourite is Beeminder ( It's a quirky web application put together by a small group of developers working out of Portland. It has some rough edges, undoubtedly from its days as a geek's own tool to help the lead coders get through a graduate thesis, some weight loss and their own start-up's growing pains. But at its heart, it has some smart, new, thinking about the battle against akrasia. And new thinking in this area has been thin on the ground since Plato's day.

Beeminder looks like a program for charting your progress in whatever doomed scheme you’re pursuing these days. Now, charting in itself is a good thing: whether you’re marking off the pounds you’re losing, or the money you’re putting away for a rainy day. A visualisation of those daily improvements undoubtedly helps you stay on track. But, as anyone knows, the moment those changes begin to wobble, so does the morale; and even if every day is an improvement, the fact you have to keep going for months is bound to wear you away.

So Beeminder does two things: firstly, it tries to make the future benefits more immediate. On your graph, your goal is at the end of a yellow brick road. The “road” (really a broad yellow strip) allows you some variation in your behaviour. The width of the road lets you fail a little without screwing up your plan, and it gives you an easy, immediate goal to aim for.

But what if you’re so akrasiac that you can’t even imagine the point of following a stupid graph for some nebulous future benefit? If you really fall off the straight and narrow, the site has an extra twist – you can make vows with yourself to lose money if you don’t follow your plan.

The money is small enough to make it worthwhile, but just enough to hurt, making sabotaging a far-off plan an immediate concern. When I spoke to Daniel Reeves and Bethany Soule, Beeminder’s founders, they were still wondering out loud about how best to make this part of Beeminder work. The idea had come from Soule plotting to encourage Reeves to finish his thesis (money was pinned to the fridge door with threats that it would be destroyed if insufficient wordage was written).

But now, they are trying different schemes of money-charging to work out what encourages their thousands of users the most. Of course, it’s also one of the ways their site could make money, but they seem willing to prioritise experimentation before profiteering . . . at least for now.

As you might guess, I like Beeminder – it’s one of the few examples of a lifehacking tool that I’ve kept coming back to, week after week. But more than its utility, I like how its creators have, to use the ugly programming term, “eaten their own dog food”. The Beeminder creators have pledged to include one visible improvement every day on their site, and you can watch them succeed or fail on their own charts. They document the academic papers that they use to determine how the site should work, they analyse their own flaws, and they even link to competitors as they try to understand what they should learn from.

The world of self-help and personal development has been flooded – I’m sure since Plato’s time – with charlatans and unscientific optimists. Most of the popular literature, as well as websites and applications, could be summarised as “pull yourself together, and try again – but pay us first”.

Beeminder represents what I hope is a new generation of self-improvement experts, who are openly sharing what they have learned, and learning from what they have shared.