I’ve been using this system for more than a month, and I’m proud of how well it seems to be tracking and incentivizing the behaviours that matter to me, so I thought I’d share it!
I’m a PhD student deeply indebted to Cal Newport for turning my attention to deep work – serious, sustained focus on difficult ideas – as a critical life-activity to optimize for, particularly in academia. But it’s a tough thing to beemind! Especially since I hate manually entering data.
So, this is my current system: when I want to start working, I fill out an initiation sequence google form, which, via Zapier, submits a 1 to my “initiate deep work” goal. When I’m done working, I fill out a post-mortem google form, which, via Zapier, submits the “hours actually worked” number to my “work deeply” goal. (Those forms take you to copies of my forms, not the ones I use, so you won’t affect my goals if you submit data to them.) It’s simple, but powerful!
It doesn’t feel like “manually entering data” because I find the forms valuable tools in and of themselves. It’s easy to start filling out a form, and the questions transition me into a working frame of mind. The recap, too, is a rewarding moment of reflecting on my accomplishment and giving myself permission to stop working.
I’ve already derailed on “work deeply” once, which seemed like proof of the goal’s measurement accuracy: when I saw the derail coming, I had to start rearranging my life to carve out true-work time, and strategizing around my mental focus. When I failed to do the sustained cognitive work I needed to do, I couldn’t fake it with make-work – I derailed.
Even better, gradually dialing up the road on the “work deeply” goal will encourage me to gradually improve my focus and increase the length of my work sessions. It also encourages me to be very intentional about my work: if I happen to get a lot done, it doesn’t ‘count’ unless I’ve set goals in advance.
I was really pleasantly surprised by the granularity of detail possible with the Zapier / Google Sheets / Beeminder integrations, so this general principle is probably adaptable to a very wide range of semi-qualitative goals! I highly recommend it.
 I recommend the ‘initiation sequence’ independent of everything else, actually, if it’s at all applicable to the kind of work you do – I could never have predicted the helpfulness of writing out the steps I intended to follow, for example, but it really improves the quality of my work when I’m shifting from routine to complex tasks!
 Yes, I could have lied to the form, but as we all know, that would have immediately destroyed its utility, so I refrained.
 Or, I suppose, to find a lot of 45-minute focused sessions throughout the week, but that is a fine outcome, too.