Between Lion and Ladybird, or Figuring Out What Works

Those who frequent this forum will no doubt be familiar with the the impulse to take drastic, even ‘heroic’, action in the face of some desire to do something or a challenge that needs to be overcome. This can range from trying to make sure to stick to a daily meditation habit, or it can mean learning the meaning of 5000 words in a new language. If I can just hit the problem smack in the centre with the right combination of energy and determination, the argument runs, then I’ll probably be able to get through to my goal.

There’s a lot of science which suggests that things aren’t necessarily this easy. Some goals are hard to keep plugging away at on an ongoing basis; witness the failure of most new year’s resolutions. It’s hard not to be seduced by the idea, though. Many parts of the dominant Anglo-American culture seem to push us in that direction. ‘The American Dream’ encourages hard work in the face of obstacles to reach new stations and status in life. Countless diet, health and self-improvement programmes of all stripes encourage this kind of heroic action. As a corollary, failure is an indication that not enough effort was applied. How often are the overweight told that they are just not trying hard enough?

The rigours, rules and rubrics of Beeminder can sometimes encourage this kind of thinking. There’s a good deal of wise counsel on the blog and in this forum which suggests otherwise – that working on smaller improvements might be a better idea than the path of the hero – but it’s hard to kick a habit, I guess.

Beeminder, My Health and Me: an Interlude

Before I get to the core of what I wanted to write, a little background is perhaps necessary. I’ve used Beeminder for several years, with mostly excellent results. I hammered out 100,000 words of my PhD (a ‘shitty first draft’) over the course of a couple of months in 2012. I’ve kept up with a daily meditation habit more or less continuously for the past couple of years. I started a flossing habit (for which I no longer need the Beeminder prompt). I enforced a challenge to study Arabic for a 100 hours of deliberate practice prior to taking a summer course this year. I could go on. Beeminder is a big part of why I consider myself successful in a variety of parts of my life.

In 2011 I got sick, following some routine dental surgery. The ins and outs of it would be boring to detail, but I had a mix of things involving heart arrhythmia, anxiety, panic attacks, abdominal pain, kidney issues, inflammation and food sensitivities. It included a lot of time spent visiting doctors and hospitals. All this has happened off and on, for the past four years. It was these health issues that first led me to the quantified self movement as a way of approaching my health. Beeminder was an early addition to my quiver of self-care. I added in various things to keep plugging away at to support my recovery.

Add to my personal health issues the fact that my mother got extremely sick and I ended up having to stop my regular work, move to Holland and back home to live with her. I had initially discounted the stress that being the default caregiver in cases of chronic illness – first cancer coupled with surgery and chemotherapy, then severe heart failure followed by a serious stroke – can bring, but I think it made just as big an impact as my own health problems.

Introducing the Lion, or How Success Spirals Can Turn Septic

At some point, my desire for change and my self-belief that I could some how heroically pull my body and my illness into submission started to get in the way of my recovery. I recognise this mostly in retrospect. At the time, the only thing that indicated something was wrong was the sea of Bees (my non-canonical term to describe Beeminder goals) on the screen in front of me, most of which were Red or Yellow. I was constantly teetering on the edge of failure. Every three or four months I’d dramatically flop on my face, default on a bunch of goals, nurse my defeat for a week or two, only to get right back on the horse. Every time I’d tell myself to start slowly, to create goals with a realistic chance of being able to keep going with them in the long-term. I’d start out with two or three core goals, then would gradually increase them as I felt more comfortable and confident. A few months later, I’d have a dozen or two, and keeping up with my Bees would be the core of what I did each day.

All this reflected the values of what I’m going to call my inner lion. The lion believes that it’s possible to force yourself through difficulties, through pain. The lion says, “I can take anything.” The lion says an emphatic ‘Yes!’. The lion is no stranger to aggression or to the belief that struggle is a core part of what it means to be alive. The lion’s motto is “ALL THE BEES!”

Writing all of this down, I can see how it looks. To describe it this way makes it seem self-evident that this approach wasn’t working. But at the time, it made sense. I don’t know what proportion of Beeminder users have over a dozen goals, but I’m guessing the tendency towards what Bethany has called the ‘Type Bee’ personality makes it likely that people over-invest in a system like this, especially if it’s working for them. At the time, I didn’t start out with the idea of creating twenty-plus goals. It was an incremental process: add one, success, add one, success, add one…

Team Ladybird, or How Following the Rules Sometimes Isn’t Enough

Cut to a few months ago. My abdominal pain had led me down a bunch of different paths, but the one that ended up having the most success was broadly modifying my diet according to the specifications of the auto-immune paleo approach. Known as AIP, this diet is a pretty strict kind of elimination diet. Most people on it tend to have really serious full-blown auto-immune conditions. Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis are examples you may have heard of, but the list is huge. (See here for more). I found I was less symptomatic when I stuck to the list of ‘approved’ foods, even if I didn’t have anything approaching the kind of full-blown autoimmune symptoms that many adherents report.

After several months on the most restrictive version, the idea is that you can start introducing certain foods and food groups back in to see if you have a reaction. AIP is extremely restrictive in many ways. No dairy, no nuts, no legumes, no gluten, no grains. Lots of things are completely off the menu. Couple that with the fact that I was also low-FODMAP at the same time (see this New Yorker piece), I was forced to be fairly creative about what I ate each day. The restrictions of the AIP are such that it’s also more or less impossible to eat out any more, since you can’t guarantee restaurants won’t use certain ingredients in their cooking.

That said, the AIP approach can offer an extremely healthy template for what to eat. It’s a very pure way of cooking: everything is fresh; it includes lots of vegetables and a mix of meat and fish; the core emphasis is on maximising nutritionally-dense ingredients (think organ meats and dark leafy greens). I found quite quickly that my metabolism started humming away very contentedly after a month or two of exclusively following the AIP-approved food lists. Removing the rubbish from my diet meant that my system (read: my body, my digestion, my energy levels) started to function well and I started to feel better. A lot of my symptoms became less severe after a while. Some disappeared completely.

But it didn’t clear everything up.

This is when I discovered my inner ladybird. I read a book whose title I’m even vaguely embarrassed to write on the page here, but I’ll do it anyway: The Loving Diet by Jessica Flanigan. The core thought that I took away from this book was that sometimes AIP isn’t enough. It’s something that you’ll find everywhere among advocates and clinicians who recommend the AIP approach, but often it’s just lip service. Everyone these days knows on some level that too much stress can confound progress in a whole bunch of issues, but it’s often left to a side-comment or a footnote. Jessica Flanigan puts that back to the forefront. She argues that if you don’t find a way to work on things like self-talk, mental attitudes, and general acceptance, all the effort you put into the dietary restrictions might not bring much in terms of results.

(By the way, apologies if you find the metaphor distracting / off-putting; believe me, I was in the same boat when I first came across it.)

The ladybird stands for love. Self-care and a slow gentleness are core values. The ladybird takes time for reflection and mindfulness, and has the humility to change course when things aren’t working. The ladybird is open to change. The ladybird likes to say “No”, and embraces minimalism. Needless to say, the ladybird lives in a different part of the jungle to the lion.

I’m generally wary of diametrically opposed characterisations. Nothing is ever that simple and I love to inhabit the realm of shades of grey.

But the more I read in Flanigan’s book, the more I found value in what she was saying. Medical testing showed that my sympathetic nervous system is consistently overfiring. My cortisol levels are in a more or less permanent state of arousal, slowing only gently towards the end of the day. On one hand, it helps explain how I’ve been able to harness my inner lion for so long. Energy is rarely in short supply and I’m usually able to push forward with tasks. Cortisol is the Lion’s best friend. Long-term, though, this is unsustainable. At some point, my adrenal glands will become exhausted. Most likely, a lot of my abdominal systems relate to this over-stressed system. It’s never a good idea to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.

So I’ve been trying to embrace my inner ladybird. I’ve been trying to encourage my parasympathetic nervous system (read Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for a great explanation of how the interaction between the two works). This doesn’t come naturally to me. My default pathway is that of the Lion. I still have to remind myself to breathe, to take time to notice how my body is feeling, to try to live more in the present moment instead of reaching for something in the future.

So, of course, I started a few new Beeminder goals. My meditation is ongoing – now accompanied by a Muse brainwave-reading sensor – as is my use of the Emwave heart rate variability trainer. I’m making sleep a priority. I’m taking one day a week where I don’t use any technology that involves a backlit screen (laptops, phones, and televisions, but not my old-generation Kindle). I’m trying to encourage a gratitude habit.

Middle Ground, Kaizen and Long-Term Approaches

So why did I write all this, and why am I posting it on the Beeminder forum. I guess I thought thinking about some of this out loud might resonate with some of you. I’m especially curious as to how you have navigated this tension between heroic action and a more reflective, self-care-dominated approach? Perhaps none of you have this tension, which would in and of itself be interesting.

Beeminder, of course, can facilitate both modes, and I’ve used it here more as a placeholder around which to discuss more general issues.

Perhaps long-term thinking, the attempt to improve things by just 1% as in Kaizen provides a kind of antidote. As with most things, the middle ground is probably a mental habit I need to find a way to encourage.

I really struggle with preventing myself from overcommitting. My inner Lion seems constantly on the verge of dominating my approach, as is the case for the upcoming week. I’m writing this, on my laptop, on the day I’ve allocated as my ‘tech-free’ day, and I’m beginning a maniac week tomorrow. So much for limiting my stress.

I’d be interested in hearing from any of you for whom any or parts of this ring true. Thank you for reading, if you managed to get all the way down here.

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Thanks for this!

This shows an impressive amount of self-awareness, without getting navel-gazey.

Many parts of this are things I don’t struggle with at all, and other parts I struggle with, but in different ways than yourself.

For instance, I really struggle with overcommitting too, but it has to do with saying “yes” to new things when I should say no. I actually am logging a few things daily in order to create an “overwhelmedness” metric, with the goal of not saying yes to new work when the metric says I shouldn’t. I saw an interesting post on Medium after I had been doing this for a few months, where the author said they were creating a “depressed” metric, and if they haven’t filled it out, or if it went under a certain threshold, it would alert friends and family and ask them to check in on the person. (I am not recommending this or belittling depression–it is serious and many people battle daily with it. There are people who this wouldn’t help at all, but there are probably people who it would help, or at least not hurt.)

I would really like to hear more about how you use the Muse and HRV sensor, and what you think of them. I am an electronics hacker, and am tinkering around with the idea of an HRV earclip fashiony wearable thing, with the point of alerting you with a gentle vibration or a soft bell sound when your HRV goes over or under a threshold, for a bit of ambient, awareness. I’m certain this is going to happen by big companies, but if there’s any part of my life that I want to be open source and under my complete control, it’s the always-on, wearable stress monitor. I don’t need that uploaded to the cloud :smile:

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I’m new to Muse – just one month in. I’m still not entirely sure if it suits what I want to get out my meditation practice, but I’m open to the possibility that it might help. This piece was what originally got my attention, though not so much because of his conclusions. I love the idea of biofeedback, and the EmWave delivers in a way that the Muse has yet to do so. I use my EmWave all the time, though the clip on to your ear is a bit unwieldy. There are patches you can stick on your arm and they’ll hook up to HRV apps etc, but they’re not really user-friendly yet. I agree, though, that this is coming very soon.

I’ve been using the EmWave for about 4 years and I’ve really found it useful. Though lots of people swear by its iPhone app instead of buying the physical box/piece of hardware. I am glad to get away from my phone, so I think it’s worth the extra investment to get a separate unit/device.

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Thanks for sharing your story.

More ladybird and less lion sounds like it might be a good idea for me too.

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Thanks for that. It’s worth reconsidering the number of goals and the demands we place on ourselves. (Especially if we’re going to reinforce them with commitment devices.)

My approach has also been one of ALL THE BEES!
They’re just… nice bees… bees that don’t ask too much of me right away. (Okay, some haven’t been as nice as others. I’d kill for a coffee…)

Most of my personal goals have very easy slopes, save one or two. Occasionally, I let some of my work goals get a little overwhelming, but I usually scale it back pretty quickly. (Though, sometimes I have to derail to realize that I need to do that.) Using the “super easy starting slope + autodialing the rate to my recent average” method (along with some very lenient fine print) has been my way of trying to land somewhere between the possible extremes.

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@strickvl Fascinating read, thank you for sharing :slight_smile:

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Really nice metaphor! (Would you be game for turning this into a guest post on the Beeminder blog? #blogideas)

I’m trying to decide where I fit myself. It seems like I’d be on the lion side of the spectrum, having used Beeminder aggressively to do things such as create Beeminder. But it doesn’t feel that way. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface and a future better Beeminder will make me much more lion-like and that’s very appealing.

Maybe I’m saying I’m fully on the lion end of the spectrum but I don’t see the downsides of that and want to keep pushing the envelope further. I often describe the holy grail or end state of Beeminder as like a nannybot that tells me minute-by-minute what I should be doing for optimum happiness/fulfillment/awesomeness (and enforces it, of course).

This reminds me of our advice on Beating Beeminder Burnout and that a good way to start with Beeminder is to focus on egregious deviations from optimal behavior. Which sounds similar to Kaizen, as you say.

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I think it’s super interesting all the different ways people use Beeminder.

I use Beeminder for a bunch of different things, but to me, instead of
using it to create a nannybot that tells me minute-by-minute what to do, it
tells me day-by-day if there’s any parts of my life I’m neglecting that I
shouldn’t be. I basically just realized this, but this probably explains
why I don’t really care about the deadline waterfall.

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My first idea for writing something here was actually inspired by our brief discussion of Pavlok and negative reinforcement the other day. I then wanted to look at whether maybe Beeminder could somehow come up with a “Ladybird Mode” or something like that: where you weren’t allowed to post steep roads, and everything went through someone else who was second guessing your tendency to overcommit, and where there was support along the way when derailing happened, which could kick into play some sort of glorified review process as to why that happened, and where maybe you could only add new goals when everything was above the road. (etc, you get the idea).

P. S. Happy to talk about seeing if we can make this into a blogpost perhaps.

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That’s really hard to detect. Only you know (and not always!) how aggressive a slope is.

One thing I’d like to see is being able to specify how aggressive I think a goal is, and to draw the graphs accordingly. i.e. not every do-more should end at the upper-right corner; less lionesque goals should look less steep…

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Thank you for posting this!

I struggle a lot with wanting to do too many different things. This includes work related stuff, spending time with friends and family, changing the world, etc. I’ve burned myself out frequently, and am trying to be better about it. I hit my head last September and that forced me to slow down and reflect on how to build my habits in a more sustainable way (I gave a talk about this if anyone is curious.)

My approach has been to use the dailies feature on Habitica for little habits I commit to doing each day. Habitica is more forgiving than Beeminder, so if I feel like I have a good reason to not do the thing I don’t do it. I’m not allowed to add more things until the habit is blue (about 12 days with perfect compliance, more if not). I use beeminder for tasks that don’t need to be done daily, require better tracking, and/or are tasks where I need a kick in the pants to do them (pomodoros on my PhD project is a good example).

This has been working pretty well for me. I’m good at not adding new things compulsively. The hard part I’ve been facing lately is feeling bad about not doing more things. Like there is something wrong with me because I find my current level of commitments to be as stressful as I can handle. That’s a hard thing for me to accept and something I’m working on. It is hard to break the mindset that less may be the right thing to do, even when I feel like I’m letting myself or someone else down (which I’m probably not actually, but it certainly can feel that way.)

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That’s a really useful suggestion, actually. I’ve tried various things in the past for lighter commitments, but perhaps Habitica is the one that will allow me to stay on track without too much ‘stick’. Thank you.

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I hope it works for you! Would be interesting to hear what you think if/when you try it out.

For me, Habitica is a good amount of stick for little habits. The penalty of not doing a daily (losing HP) was less of a motivator for me than potentially damaging my party members during quests. At first this was so motivating that I’d always do dailies if my party’s HP was on the line, but now it has settled down to the point where if I really don’t want to do something or think I shouldn’t because of self-care, I won’t and I’ll let my party take the damage. I am also liberal about using the “inn” feature, where I can still check off dailies while not taking any damage. I’ll use it if I’m on vacation, sick, or just need a break but want to keep track if I do complete things.

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You might like this: http://www.amazon.com/The-ONE-Thing-Surprisingly-Extraordinary/dp/1885167776

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@strickvl, thanks for sharing! This is a really helpful way of thinking about things. In retrospect, a lot of my journey with beeminder can be seen as trying to converge on the right balance between lion and ladybird.

@dreev, I actually hate the idea of using Beeminder as a nannybot that tells me what to do every minute (though as @adamwolf says, it is definitely interesting seeing the many different ways people use Beeminder, and there’s obviously no one “right” way). Maybe I’m just misunderstanding what you have in mind, but for me, (1) my schedule is too variable to be able to set up daily “waterfalls” that actually work consistently, and more importantly (2) it seems to remove the possibility of serendipity and making space for others. For example, if one of my (life, not necessarily beeminder) goals is to be a good mentor to my students, then sometimes that means I need to drop what I was planning to do for the next hour and talk to a student about a crisis. I cannot make a Beeminder goal to “spend more time being a good mentor” (well, sure, there are some aspects of it that I could beemind). And when something like that comes up I want the flexibility to be able to respond, without having to think “is it worth $90 for me to talk to this student right now”.

Maybe the answer is that I should try to keep all my goals blue or green to allow me that flexibility — and I do indeed try to do that to some extent. But then beeminder isn’t really functioning as a minute-by-minute nannybot anymore.

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I have exactly the same experience like yours. And even more. My variability due to serendipity will be sometimes for more than a few hours delay, to the extent that I have to increase a task time into twice or three times what is Beeminder asking me to do in a day, but then I have to omit other tasks which of course Beeminder will not allow me to do.

Today for example, I had the energy to do the most boring/important task twice the time for what is allocated by my daily schedule. I cannot do that usually, unless I get super good mood and energy. I am super happy to throw away less important tasks today and do this twice. The problem is I cannot predict my mood and energy unless I start with the task.

Now how can a person like me who is super variable in his daily schedule to use Beeminder? The solution is: I have invented a bank where I can exchange this currency with that. I put in the bank +4 hours for task 1 (since I did 4 hours extra of task1 ) and put -4 hours of task 2 in the bank (since I did 4 hours less from task2). Beeminder will not know all of this and task 1 and 2 will be Beeminded just like any other day. Because, if I enter the data correctly in beeminder, I will be punished because I did super well today, much more better than my usual daily routine.

Now, is this cheating? Certainly I don’t feel it like that. On the contrary, I am super happy that I got the energy today to do more from task1 even on the expense of deleting the less important task 2 from today. There will be a day in the future where I feel very low in energy, that I need the favor that I have done for myself today. And what I had put in the bank (the +4hr of task1), I will borrow it and will not do task1 and do more from the easier task2 by +4hr, and return to equilibrium.

Actually, this is the only way that Beeminder worked for me. For such users with variable, unpredictable daily routine, it is impossible to use Beeminder. I speculate that such people will be turned off once they know the rules of Beeminder and never return back.

I wished if there is way to make Beeminder better for all users. To be flexible in the settings to make it work for people like us. Normal users with fixed daily schedule can turn off such settings and we can use that flexibility. This is a very conscious choice. It is not akrasia. It is the contract from the beginning, just like when I choose the pledge amount and the daily amount of the task when I create the goal settings.

Probably this is a related idea that @chelsea and I strongly support. And to my surprise, now I have opened the thread, and saw @byorgey the 1st one replied “that is a great idea”.

It is not a coincidence the same users are asking for such remedies to Beeminder in a way or another. We feel Beeminder should be able to attract such personalities as well. This is not cheating. It is just rearranging tasks in a very conscious way for people where tasks are depending on serendipity and energy.

P.S.:
Just a note for anybody thinks that using the bank method means that I cannot be derailed in any of my tasks.
That is not the case. I have been derailed many times. Actually, I cannot put in the bank a -4 hours unless I put +4 hours in another task in the same day. The total sum should be >= 0. So this will be instead of rearranging tasks within the same day (Beeminder allows same day arrangements if “waterfalls” are not used), it will be rearranging within a week or within a month which I need to do, due to serendipity (which I am happy to embrace and catch the opportunity if it happens).

This is a major issue for people like me. Any suggestion/comment is highly appreciated.
I have been for years trying to find a better way, and feeling the pain of those who would love to use a commitment device like Beeminder, but because of their flexible daily schedule they cannot be here.

Any idea what features to add to Beeminder to attract such users?

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Just to enforce my statement further, that there are a good proportion of productive people who cannot be fixed on a rigid schedule like beeminder currently works, I’ll give you an example of a well known productivity blogger since he was at MIT and now a professor, Cal Newport. Particularly in this post titled “Deep Habits: Three Recent Daily Plans” he states:

My goal, of course, is not to make a rigid plan I must follow no matter what. Like most people, my schedule often shifts as the day unfolds. The key, instead, is to make sure that I am intentional about what I do with my time, and don’t allow myself to drift along in a haze of reactive, inbox-driven busyness tempered with mindless surfing.

I really encourage to read this excellent post, since it does have a lot of interesting insights. But let me give a couple of other paragraphs if you have no time:

The columns growing to the right side are rewrites that I made throughout the day as my plan changed. Someone stopped by my office during the 12:30 block to discuss a research problem, which shifted the length of my 1:30 task block. But even that shift was not enough as that block ended up lasting until 3 — requiring yet another rewrite of the plan.

and this:

The grayed out blocks that follow involve me taking my youngest son to a doctor’s appointment — a disruptive task from a scheduling perspective. But notice how my use of daily planning allows me to salvage every ounce of productivity from the day. Not only did I get a lot done before I left, but on arriving at campus, I was ready to inline core tasks into the down periods that arose during my regularly scheduled office hours.

You can see, how it is a must to change the schedule at the same day for most people. I doubt Beeminder in its current way will work for Cal Newport and most other people like him!

P.S.: By the way, for productivity lovers, skim the other posts as well and choose what grabs your attention. This blog has a lot of interesting ideas.

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Thanks. And I remember seeing your video when it first came out. Really found it useful. I’ll give Habitica a try.

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Looking at the number of goals I have, I would fall into the lion category. I have quickly become a believer in beeminding all the things! However, if I look at the rates on most of my goals, they’re set quite conservatively and I have very little trouble maintaining most of them, which makes me seem much more like a ladybird. I’ve been gradually increasing my lion-ness in that I’m cranking up a few goals, but still doing it very conservatively.

One of my concerns with beeminder has always been overwhelming myself and burning out, so, oddly enough, I am using beeminder to make sure that doesn’t happen. Here’s what I mean: The more I track with beeminder, the more I know about how I spend my time and what my priorities really are. Therefore, I can use that information to adjust my goals and rates in a way that is appropriate and helpful, rather than continually cranking them up until my internal lion can’t take it any more. Any time I notice something that is out of balance in my life, if I am tracking it with beeminder I can adjust my goal to force me to return to balance. If I’m not tracking it with beeminder, my first impulse is to figure out a metric I can track. In fact, I’m currently finding myself unable to cope with my emotionally demanding job, and trying to figure out a metric to track specifically for self-care.

Does this make me a lion or a ladybird? @dreev came up with the phrase “lion-like ladybirding” when I was talking to him about it, and that sounds right to me. Beeminder allows me to use my lion-like tendencies to force myself into being a ladybird, which makes me overall a happier and more awesome person. So, if you’re finding yourself overwhelmed by beeminder goals, the solution is obviously to just beemind more things! :slight_smile:

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This is what I originally thought when I started using Beeminder, and have now found it to be the exact opposite! Beeminder has provided me with some of the only consistency I have. Each of my days are generally dedicated to one of three priorities, and all are prone to interruption and variability. Doing one of those things means that I generally can’t do the others that day, or can only do a very little. This used to leave me feeling like I was always neglecting something. Using beeminder to track and regulate how much time I’m spending on each of those three major things on a weekly basis has given me a much more realistic perspective on how much I’m getting done. Granted, in order to make this work I keep those goals set at a minimum rate.

I also beemind a whole bunch of less time-consuming metrics, and have found that as long as I start with a conservative rate I am generally able to find the time to accomplish what I set out to accomplish, although on an erratic schedule. I look at most of my rates as weeklies, not dailies, which gives me enough flexibility to manage the variability. I’ve been gradually increasing rates on those goals and surprised by how much more I can do than originally thought.

For me, beeminding lots of things allows me to recognize where my time goes, what my priorities are, and how to make what I want and need to do happen.

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