Whittle Down goals

The canonical Whittle Down use case is reaching Inbox Zero — this goal type was even once called Inbox Fewer. But it's useful for other things too!

When should I use a Whittle Down goal?

Whittle Down goals are best used when you're trying to whittle down a backlog over time. Similar to an Odometer, you'll want to know your daily total backlog size, which you want to be reducing over time.

Common examples: managing inbox size, reading Pocket articles, grading assignments, watching downloaded movies, completing lessons in a MOOC.

Why can't I set my rate while I'm setting up my goal?

When you create a Whittle Down goal, it starts out flat. Once you've set it up, go to the "Commitment" tab of the goal:
Text says: "Commitment Dial: Dialing your red line means changing your commitment starting a week from now. This will adjust the final segment of your red line graph, so if you already have graph changes upcoming, you might want to use the more powerful graph editor to make changes to your commitment." Below, a stepper allows you to select the rate per day, or you can just enter the number you want if it isn't an integer. The "Commit" button sends us your changes. Below there's a button to "Change goal date and goal value", which opens a more sophisticated rate editor.
If you want to get rid of 10 units (e.g. emails) per day, then enter -10 in the rate box. If you want to make sure you don't have to get into negative numbers of emails, click on "Change goal date and goal value". That will open up this editor:
"Commitment dial", showing the more advanced editor where you can set two of "goal date", "goal value" and "rate".
You can only edit two of those fields; the greyed-out field is auto-calculated from the others. So if you want to do -10 emails per day until you reach zero, set the rate to -10, and then set the "Goal value" field to 0. The goal date will be greyed out and it will automatically calculate the day you hit inbox zero!
"Commitment dial", showing another example where the greyed out field (date) is auto-calculated, while the user has picked 0 for the goal value and -10 for the rate.
If you derail in the meantime, the goal date will be revised to take into account the setback.

(These examples show the units as books, and if that's what you're tracking then we strongly suggest you're actually a bit more conservative and set a rate of 0.1 per day, or whatever matches your reading pace!)

How should I enter data for a Whittle Down goal?

Beeminder needs to know your current total of whatever you're beeminding each day, e.g. the number of emails remaining in your inbox, not the number of emails you archived today.

So for example, say I have a goal to clear out my inbox over time, and I've set my rate to -10 emails per day, and I had 500 emails in my inbox at the start of the goal. I archived 20 emails on the first day, putting me at 480 emails in my inbox, so I submitted a 480 to my graph. The next day, I archived 30 more emails and get to 450 remaining, so I submitted 450 to my graph. The next day, I only dealt with 5 emails, so I submitted a 445. And so on.

After those three points have been submitted, the graph will look like this:

Example graph showing that the data has been entered as 500, 480, 450, and then 445

I'm below my bright red line — doing better than my goal rate! Cool.

What happens when I reach zero?

If your graph is configured to end at 0, the goal will end once you also reach the end date (either the one implied by the rate and the end total, or the one you set specifically). You need to stay at 0 until the end date, so watch out if you're using any kind of automatic data reporting! Once the goal ends, you can restart it if you'd like to maintain a certain maximum value.

If your goal doesn't have an end-total set, your graph may continue decreasing, eventually asking you to get to a negative total. This is usually not possible, of course! You can prevent that by configuring the goal to end at 0, or setting the rate to 0 at the backlog size you want to maintain. If your graph is asking you to do something impossible, contact support and we'll help you get that sorted out.

Example of a goal that's set up with a goal date and goal rate, meaning you have to reach negative numbers of email:

"Commitment dial" example where "goal value" is the greyed-out field, so the rate of -10 means you have to reach -28530 emails total by the goal date.

To fix that situation, in the screenshot below the goal date is set to 2022-03-15, and the goal total to 0. The rate will be automatically calculated, and the graph will end when I reach 0 emails remaining and the date is 2022-03-15.

"Commitment dial" where the goal date and goal value are set, and the goal rate is auto-calculated, so you have to reach 0 emails by 2022-03-15 at a rate of -9.15 emails per day

What happens if I need to restart my count at a higher number?

If the goal has ended or been archived, you'll be prompted for your current value when restarting, and we'll start your graph in the right place.

If the goal is still active, you can use Take a Break or the Graph Editor to schedule a jump in the graph at least 7 days in the future. When the line jumps, you can input your new count safely. Or if you need to derail because you should've kept up with it (we've all been there), you can just enter the new figure and allow your goal to derail. Your slope will automatically resume from that higher point after the derailment.

How can I pause my Whittle Down goal temporarily?

This is easy to do on a Whittle Down! Using the Take a Break section in the Stop/Pause tab below the graph, first pick the dates that you'll be away, then set the break rate to 0. This will make your graph flat at that time, so you don't have to make any progress until it starts sloping down again. Don't forget, you need to make the change seven days in advance.

You'll need to make sure that no data enters the graph while you're away. If an automatic data source enters a value that lands above your bright red line, even on your break, you will derail. This is definitely not legit and we'll sort it out in support, but stopping the data source will prevent it from happening in the first place! If you're using our Gmail integration, you might want to select a label you know will stay empty, for example.

Why did I derail when I had several safe days yesterday?

Whittle Down goals are not incredibly forgiving when your data value can bounce up and down a lot. The "safe days" estimate Beeminder uses assumes that your data moves in one direction only. But things like your inbox size can increase as well as decrease, so the "safe days" estimate may be blown away if you receive an unexpected deluge of emails that takes you over the limit.

How can I pause my Whittle Down goal temporarily?

This is super easy to do on a Whittle Down goal! Using the Take a Break section in the Stop/Pause tab below the graph, first pick the dates that you'll be away, then set the break rate to 0. This will make your bright red line flat at that time, so you don't have to make any progress until it starts sloping up again.

Sample Whittle Down goal creation

  1. Head to create a new goal (also accessible through the New Goal link in the top menu).
  2. Click the + icon to start a new manual entry goal.

    "How will you track your progress?" with a hexagonal button marked with a + to use the method "Add progress manually to Beeminder (web, email, Slack, SMS, or mobile apps)"
  3. Select Whittle Down as your goal type.

    "Select goal type" with all the options below: Do More, Do Less, Lose Weight, Gain Weight, Odometer, Whittle Down
  4. Enter the units you want to use and today's value, to set your starting point. In this example, I'm tracking emails and I have 58 emails right now.
    "Enter today's value", followed by a field to enter your units and your current value
    You set the rate etc once the goal has been created, unlike with most other Beeminder goals, so click continue and carry on to...
  5. Give your goal a brief name. If you want, you can also write a short description with more information.
    "Give your goal a name", followed by two text entry boxes. The first allows you to enter a short slug which will name your goal and create a URL for it. The second textbox allows you to set a short description, and is optional.
  6. Finally, choose your initial pledge. This is the amount you will pay the first time you derail on the goal. After derailing, the pledge will increase by default — use the dropdown below to control how high it goes. In the example below, I have chosen to start at a $5 pledge, which will increase each time I derail, until it reaches $270 — the pledge cap. (To read more about pledges and payments, check out some FAQs!)

    Screenshot of the "Pledge your money" screen, showing the starting stakes (choosing between $0 and $5 using radio buttons). The text below that says "Your pledge will increase each time you derail until you reach your pledge cap", with a demonstration below showing the pledge progression: 5, 10, 30, 90... to the pledge cap, which is a set of stepper buttons currently showing $270.
  7. Step through the preview and confirmation steps, and your graph will be created.

    An example Whittle Down graph right after goal creation, with no data due

    There's more to do before we're ready, though! Now we have to set the rate.
  8. To do that, go to the "Commitment" tab below the graph image.
    Screenshot of the bar of options below a graph, including "Commitment" (highlighted), "Stop/pause", "Data", "Statistics" and "Settings"
  9. In the commitment dial, you can set your rate. You may just want to put in your rate per day and leave it at that... but that might be a problem if you have a short-term deadline in mind, and don't want to end up with your graph asking you to get below 0 emails left! So usually with a Whittle Down goal, you want to open up the extra options by clicking on "Change goal date and goal value".

    Screenshot showing the Commitment Dial. There's a warning above reminding you that changing this takes a week to take effect, and may not work the way you expect if you have upcoming breaks planned. There's a stepper to just change the number of emails you want to handle per day, and a commit button... or, highlighted, the option to "Change goal date and goal value"

    I want to get to a total of 0 emails by the end of June, so I'll edit the goal value to 0 and the goal date to 2023-07-31. That automatically calculates a rate of -1.71 emails per day.

    "Commitment dial", with options to set the goal date, goal value and rate per day
    Now I can click commit, and my new rate will kick in a week from now! I'll have to enter a datapoint of 56 emails (58-2) next week in order to avoid having to pay $5. If you want to be on the hook sooner, you can ratchet!

    Example graph with -2 due in 8 days

Keywords: inbox fewer, non-cumulative goals

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