# When the carrot is too distant, and there is no stickJuly 19, 2012 2:51 AM   Subscribe

Beeminder provides an interesting and novel solution to the problem of akrasia. Got a long term goal or habit you'd like to change or develop (like losing weight or writing every day), then set out your targets, record your progress every day and pay cold hard cash the day you fall off the 'yellow brick road'.

Bonus material: The Messy Matters blog, written by Beeminder's founders, has mathematically literate and accessible takes on interesting problems, such as how to split bills in restaurants, how to record your time, and whether to buy collision insurance for your car.
posted by grahamspankee (37 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

Interesting idea. I probably wouldn't use the money-pledging feature (mostly because my credit card is pre-paid and is unlikely to have any credit if/when I go off track) but the statistics they give you for your goals seem like they could be useful in themselves.
posted by anaximander at 3:07 AM on July 19, 2012

Reminds me of the Stephen King story, Quitters, Inc.
posted by Wolfdog at 3:14 AM on July 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Huh? almost 2% of the people in the poll answered yes to this...
“not taking a high-paying job for fear of getting hooked on the lifestyle it will lead to.”
boy, I wish I had that decision to make.
posted by quazichimp at 3:25 AM on July 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

I used Beeminder for awhile and really, really liked it. Don't think it would be useful for weight loss, though, as that tends to happen - even if people are following their diets to the letter - in a decidedly nonlinear way. Maybe if they used a moving average, or something, it would make sense.
posted by downing street memo at 3:56 AM on July 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

That bill splitting link is ridiculous. To me splitting a bill implies that each person pays a proportion of the bill, but the method suggested just assigns it to one person. While this might be 'fair' from a mathematical point of view, the problem is that while someone may be able to afford to pay their share, they may well not be able to afford to pay for everyone at once. Even if this works out to the same amount they'd spend over the longer term.

The people who can afford to do this are almost certainly in a postition where they don't really need to worry financially about their restaurant bills not being perfectly fair. And the people who do need a fair method have budgets that are unlikely to allow large one-off expenses.

To put it another way it's a symptom of tryping to solve social problems with technology. And that almost never works.
posted by xchmp at 4:07 AM on July 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've forgotten where I've heard it before, but I remember a saying that goes like this:
"The main problem with using creative solutions to get your future self to do what you want is that you are up against an equally creative person who will do anything to not do that."
posted by weewooweewoo at 4:23 AM on July 19, 2012 [30 favorites]

To be fair to the bill splitting thing, I don't think he's proposing it as the method you should use, just that it's a method that is fair to all participants going in (your expectation of payment). It's certainly not a method I propose to use next time I go out for dinner.

I can see that it would be workable if you regularly went out for dinner with the exact same group of people each time, as I think the net result is that you would, over time, pay pretty much exactly what you ought to have done without any of the messy hassle of splitting the bill.
posted by grahamspankee at 4:28 AM on July 19, 2012

I thought it had already been proven you couldn't make people better merely by paying them to be.
posted by DU at 4:29 AM on July 19, 2012

Somethingawful forums do this with the "Toxx". If you promise to do anything, you get banned if you don't do it.

I'm up for 1000 words of a sci fi noir story I've been not writing. It will work.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:18 AM on July 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I remember this when it was called StickK!
posted by escabeche at 6:16 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your brain's great at anticipating short term rewards, but pretty terrible at paying short term costs for long term rewards, I think is the crux of it. Substituting a short term cost for failure can help a bunch.

My wife actually got me to quit smoking doing something like this. We were fairly broke, and I was a computer science major trying to compile code on a rickety-ass eMachine running Windows ME. One day she said, "You know, if you quit smoking for six months, I'll save the money you spent on cigarettes and we'll use it to buy a new computer. HOWEVER, if you smoke even once, I GET THE CASH."

Challenge accepted. She knew how badly I needed that computer. Clever girl. And it worked, big time. Suddenly I wasn't facing the drudgery of hourly self-denial, I was earning new hardware and making sure she didn't win. Carried me through a lot of days.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:25 AM on July 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have done something like this a number of times for various writing projects. I take a set amount of cash out of the bank and set it aside as my reward. If the writing project is finished by the set date, that money is free to be spent on frivilous things. If I fail to meet the goal, I have to put that money in savings and can't touch it for a year.

Because I am a person who needs deadlines and consequences to my failure to accomplish tasks, this method motivates me quite well and I don't really lose the money if I fail. It worked to help me complete a number of self-directed projects in the acceptable time frame. My only problem I can see with BeeMinder would be that I don't get to keep the money.
posted by teleri025 at 6:34 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I like their breakdown of the psychology involved. I doubt it will work for everyone - I certainly would see the bet as a sunk cost, a prepaid "blow this off" fee - but it's way more helpful than the "have goals!" stuff, which is the workout equivalent of "just be yourself!"

On one hand, this isn't actually that different from the advice to track your workouts (or track whatever habit you want to adjust) and the mantra "what gets tracked gets changed." Going to the gym without some kind of overall context is pretty easy to blow off or half ass, but when going to the gym means completing today's step of your larger plan, just like last time and the time before that, it becomes much easier to pull yourself together. Simplefit and couch-to-5k work on that principal.

(For non-workout material, there's also the brute force Seinfeld Method.)

On the other hand, beeminder seems intended to harness that procrastinator's panic by making it more frequent and more useful. That's some self-discipline jujitsu right there.

Most of all I like that I just learned a perfect word, akrasia.
posted by postcommunism at 6:38 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Beeminder was just way too confusing to me. It tries to be all things to all people... on the same graph. And the money part was just odd.
posted by smackfu at 6:44 AM on July 19, 2012

"Beeminder" makes me think of an online service where you sign up to improve yourself somehow, and if you don't, you get attacked by bees.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:55 AM on July 19, 2012 [14 favorites]

I really liked the service, up until they closed down my goals because I couldn't enter my progress for a week, due to being offline.
posted by dominik at 6:57 AM on July 19, 2012

Somethingawful forums do this with the "Toxx". If you promise to do anything, you get banned if you don't do it.

If only metafilter would do this, I would ACHIEVE ALL THE THINGS.
posted by lollusc at 7:07 AM on July 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

The Toxx clause is basically just forcing you to buy your way back in with with another 10bux, right? Or does the ban last for a certain amount of time?

It seems that the community aspect is important there. You've public committed yourself to something in a recognized, ritualistic fashion that community members generally take seriously, and the consequences of which an authority will enforce.
posted by postcommunism at 7:11 AM on July 19, 2012

"Beeminder" makes me think of an online service where you sign up to improve yourself somehow, and if you don't, you get attacked by bees.

That would actually be a far better motivator for me than a financial commitment.

Bonus points if the bees actually chase me to the gym!
posted by catlet at 7:14 AM on July 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe I'm missing something. Couldn't I just lie about meeting my goals? I mean, it wouldn't be a good thing to do -- but I don't want to lose money, either.

If I could resist lying, I could probably accomplish my goals without beeminder.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:25 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe I'm missing something. Couldn't I just lie about meeting my goals?

Sure you could, but a) why would you? you've voluntarily signed up to this thing that makes you accountable and b) you have to show progress daily, meaning take the trouble to log into the site, enter a fake number, etc and if you've done that, why not just do what you've set out to do?
posted by downing street memo at 9:54 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can see that it would be workable if you regularly went out for dinner with the exact same group of people each time, as I think the net result is that you would, over time, pay pretty much exactly what you ought to have done without any of the messy hassle of splitting the bill.

My method of "I got this one, you get the next one" accomplishes the same thing without having to resort to math.

On the other hand, if you can't work out who pays using their method, it's probably a sign you should call a cab...
posted by madajb at 9:57 AM on July 19, 2012

you've voluntarily signed up to this thing that makes you accountable

What makes Beeminder users so honest?
Self-selection! If you were the type who would falsify your data to weasel out of paying what you pledged on your yellow brick road then you would've rolled your eyes and walked away several paragraphs ago.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Friends with the people who run beeminder.
posted by davidjmcgee at 10:11 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know. I tried using a similar trick to get essays written for my Lit classes in college. I'd say that I'd have to get half a page written within the next half hour, or else I'd spend two hours telling myself that I was useless. That didn't work, so I raised the stakes to telling myself I was useless every waking moment. In the end it didn't work for me. YMMV.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:07 AM on July 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

benito.strauss: I don't know. I tried using a similar trick to get essays written for my Lit classes in college. I'd say that I'd have to get half a page written within the next half hour, or else I'd spend two hours telling myself that I was useless. That didn't work, so I raised the stakes to telling myself I was useless every waking moment. In the end it didn't work for me. YMMV.
Self-abusive commitments are not at all the same as financial commitments. YMMhaveV if you didn't pick such a self-esteem-based system.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:14 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

This looks REALLY interesting. Exactly the sort of useful, life changing stuff that I never do. It's so easy to just click off the page and never think of it again. Hmm...

Seems like there'd be two challenges to watch out for: setting realistic benchmarks and pledging a penalty that actually hurts. One way to fail would be to set up goals that are unrealistically hard to achieve, lose a bunch of money, then cancel the contract in a panic and decide that's it's too hard/dangerous. Then there's the other extreme of just betting pocket change, so the cost for not achieving your goals isn't great enough to motivate action.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:58 PM on July 19, 2012

IAmBroom: I was kinda poking fun at how foolish my patterns were. You just couldn't see my wry smile over the internet.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:00 PM on July 19, 2012

Wow, thanks for the wonderful comments, everyone! And thanks to everyone trying out Beeminder; you can see the spike in our meta graph for number of users: beeminder.com/meta/users

Kevin Street: We actually try to solve that by starting small but having the pledges, as we call them, ramp up very quickly. So you'll cough up some pocket change, as you say, which is actually where we make all our money (we're just now ramen-profitable; yay!), with some false starts but then you'll soon reach an amount that's actually motivating and you'll stay on track. We've experimented with how that works a bit. Currently you're are strongly encouraged but not forced to pledge exponentially more each time. Details at beeminder.com/money
posted by dreeves at 1:23 PM on July 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Why not get straight to the heart of the problem and make a contract with a friend that commits you to forfeiting a very painful sum of money if you don’t follow through on your weight-loss plan?

Because I don't give much of shit about the consequence?

I have done something like this a number of times for various writing projects. I take a set amount of cash out of the bank and set it aside as my reward. If the writing project is finished by the set date, that money is free to be spent on frivilous things.

I have a friend who does this, and it works for her, but I really think I would just eat the large delicious meal, or whatever, and then shrug about not being able to buy frivolous stuff.

So I guess I'm saying, what if losing money isn't a motivator? If it was, I wouldn't have squandered that gym membership.
posted by Squeak Attack at 1:23 PM on July 19, 2012

I should mention the more fundamental way we're trying to fix the problem Kevin Street points out: how to set realistic goals with penalties that actually hurt.

Namely, we let you adjust the commitment as you go with the catch that there's a one-week delay in your changes taking effect. Gory details at blog.beeminder.com/flexbind. This is where we see the big value of being very data-nerd focused. You start by visualizing your data and use that to decide what's realistic to commit to.
posted by dreeves at 1:38 PM on July 19, 2012

I'd like it if you could pledge a certain amount to go to another user if you didn't make your goal. I'm in a weight loss competition right now with a friend and this looks like an nice tool to facilitate this.
posted by BostonEnginerd at 1:55 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's pretty easy to do that without the Internet, BostonEnginerd. But your friend has to be trustworthy.

Just give them all the cash at the beginning, and they give it back to you a piece at a time as you meet your goals. \$5 this week, \$5 this week, no \$5 this week (I get free coffee!), \$5 this week...
posted by Kevin Street at 2:46 PM on July 19, 2012

What about the old "tell everybody" method? Being a sly beast, I keep my projects under my hat - this with the idea that if the project is not a success, there is less embarrassment and explaining. Plus, it's in stark contrast to all those "all talk and no action" folks who earn everyone's secret contempt. I'd rather do the project and then present the results - all action no talk.

Except.

It doesn't quite work. Because nobody knows about the project, it's easy not to have deadlines. And when you have no deadlines, it's easy to get sidelined and distracted. I'd love to work on the project, but heck I need to repaint the room. I'll get started after the surgery. The project is not being ignored - I'm gaining valuable perspective, I'm too close to it, I'll do the rewrite once I give it some time off... oops, that was a year ago. And so on.

Whereas, the few times I went ahead and announced "by Thanksgiving I'll have a complete X", by dog, I do it. Because I don't want to be that guy who talks but doesn't DO.

Friends will keep you honest - or rather you will keep yourself honest because of friends. Something far more is involved than money - your identity. You don't want to be "that guy".

So now, my tactic is "announce far and wide", but "follow through at all cost".

Going from "Keep silent and carry a big stick" to "Speak softly and carry a big stick" and now to "Talk loudly and carry as big a stick as you can muster".
posted by VikingSword at 3:07 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Their idea, as I understand it, is to put yourself in situations where you have to do something unpleasant (which you actually want to do, or believe you should do, but find difficult to actually execute) in order to avoid an even less desirable outcome (in their system, loss of money).

That's (self-)coercion.

I resent being coerced, and will sometimes accept the less desirable outcome to spite my coercer — even if the coercer is me, or, say, the structure of our society, or the mechanisms of biology, or, you know, causality. After I've successfully shown the fundamental processes of existence that they're not the boss of me, I'll ruminate on the childishness of doing that and conclude that I deserve the less desirable outcome if I'm going to be so stupid about it. Then maybe I'll let that conclusion stew in a nice self-loathing broth for a few weeks so the topic becomes so painful even to think about that I'll just abandon the whole project rather than deal with it properly (which again is childish, leading back to rumination, see above). Repeat that whole process a few hundred times and you've got something like a completely internalized punishment spiral* which eventually mills the situation down to its most desperate form, which I'll try to escape by smashing the situation, which usually makes things worse (and is again childish, see above).

So, yeah. These guys propose to add financial penalties to this process? Like what I need is a more diversified portfolio of self-imposed punishments? Like depression is awesome but would be even better if it had fiscal effects more like a gambling addiction? Thanks, but no thanks. There is more to akrasia than is dreamt of in your philosophy of time inconsistency and self-binding.

I know I'm not the only person with this kind of neurosis (on the contrary, we're a dime a dozen), but lots of people seem to love these restructure-your-incentives-and-punish-yourself-in-the-Right-Way schemes. Different strokes, I guess, but for me, it seems like bringing economics to a psychology fight. People do respond to incentives, but often perversely.

*Thanks to anotherpanacea for teaching me this term by mentioning it back in the no-zeroes thread.
posted by stebulus at 5:50 PM on July 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm up for 1000 words of a sci fi noir story I've been not writing. It will work.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:18 AM on July 19 [2 favorites +] [!]

And it just did. Thank you, Toxx clause!
posted by Sebmojo at 5:31 AM on July 20, 2012

benito.strauss: IAmBroom: I was kinda poking fun at how foolish my patterns were. You just couldn't see my wry smile over the internet.
Glad to hear it. :) I have too many acquaintances for him that kind of a statement is a literal truth.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:49 AM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

"for whom", rather.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:58 PM on July 20, 2012

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