Limitations of the Beeminder Model

I’ve been having somewhat on and off relationship with Beeminder. I’m not going to waste time explaining what it is as if it wasn’t done again and again all over the internet, but for the sake of keeping you on this page: it is a service that keeps you motivated, using commitment contracts and a bit of money pledging. On one side I’m convinced this is absurd model and we are rational enough to achieve our goals without pledging money on the progress. On the other side though: I can’t stop procrastinating on my rationally chosen goals and somehow this relatively simple behavioral trick does wonders. I can tell the difference in productivity between the time I’m actively using Beeminder and the time I’m off, and this difference is as problematic as this is great: there is no long term effect to it all. It goes back to square one the moment you decide to archive your goal or stop using the service altogether. Before I go into detail, a little disclosure is due: I’m no psychologist or economist and my understanding is based on pretty anecdotal evidence. I’m not going to pretend this all is somewhat objective and smartass, at least I don’t want you to have that impression.

So let’s start and create a goal. Actually, let’s create two goals: a Do More (steps done) and a Do Less (cups of coffee). We’re tracking them for some time and we walk a lot and are extremely decaffeinated. After a couple of months we decide we don’t need Beeminder anymore. We’ve grown over it. However, the next couple of days we suddenly notice that we just don’t do as much walking as before and drink a lot of coffee, probably even more than we used too. What happened? In my understanding Beeminder goal is a little economy in itself, an equivalent of Monopoly money. You have a commodity (cups of coffee, day of sedentary lifestyle, etc) that you attempt to limit artificially through placing a price on that. Thus the economy is born. Especially if you never retroratchet your goals it may get a little silly, as you start accumulating your buffer and making spending decisions. For example: one cup of coffee costs 1 step of Beeminder graph, you can accumulate steps available to you by saving, you can also inflate and deflate your Beeminder step, or you can get some buffer in exchange for money. You always have the price for your negligence, so that the negligence becomes a commodity in itself.

When you occasionally deflate the step too much by removing the goal or making it too easy — you create a situation where the consumer (you) is subconsciously driven towards increase in consumption. You’re creating an economical situation that has psychological consequences. In my opinion the problem is that eventually you remove your authentic self from the loop: “I don’t drink this much coffee because it’s unhealthy” becomes “I don’t drink coffee because I don’t have enough magic or real coins for that”. This substitution may be effective at first, but in the long run it eventually comes to catching up on coffee when the artificial limitation drops. When you suddenly have all the money in the world can you find enough willpower not to buy as much as you can carry? I noticed this effect with various goals: not only it all returned to the original level, it got worse for some time. You may have noticed similar problem with diets, as soon as you get off, all the weight is back and sometimes it gets even worse. Beeminder treats the symptoms without fixing the underlying problem and that is the greatest limitation of this model.

What’s most troubling about all that, I don’t really have a solution in mind, only a hint of it. In his book Existential Psychotherapy Irvin Yalom suggests a near death experience as a method of becoming a more motivated and authentic self. Of course it’s a bit extreme, although there are exercises to emulate this effect to some degree. Somehow this idea also correlates with Tim Urban’s brilliant Ted talk on procrastination which makes me think there is something about this idea. In my opinion if there is really somewhat universal key to finding your real authentic goals and sticking to them in the long run, it is somewhere in the area of realizing our finitness and creating a short feedback circuit to review every day in the perspective of the time we still have. Making every day the first day of the rest of your life. But there is still no clear methodology, that would help you avoid being lulled into the mundane, the comfort zone of seemingly endless life, full of mindless routine and the ensuing procrastination. Until we are there, let’s Beemind our way through.


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