Cross posted from Overcoming Bias. Comments there.
Beeminder.com improves my life a lot. This is surprising: few things improve my life much, and when they do it’s usually because I’m imagining it. Or because they are things that everyone has known about for ages and I am slow on the uptake (e.g. not moving house three times a year, making a habit of eating breakfast, making habits at all). But Beeminder is new, and it definitely helps.
One measurable instrumental benefit of Beeminder is that I have exercised for half an hour or an hour per day on average since last October. Previously I exercised if I needed to get somewhere or if the fact that exercise is good for people crossed my mind particularly forcibly, or if some even less common events occurred. So this is big. It seems to help a lot for other things too, such as working, but the evidence there is weaker since I used to work pretty often anyway. I’m sorry that I didn’t keep better track.
Unlike many other improvements to my life, I have some guesses about why this is so useful. But first let me tell you the basic concept of Beeminder.
Take a thing you can measure, such as how many pages you have written. Suppose you measure this every day, and enter the data as points in a graph. Suppose also that the graph contains a ‘road’ stretching up ahead of your data, to days that have not yet happened. Then you could play a game of keeping your new data points above the road. A single day below the road and you lose. It turns out this can be a pretty compelling game. This is basically Beeminder.
There are more details. You can change the steepness of the road, but only for a week in the future. So you can fine-tune the challengingness of a goal, but can’t change it out of laziness unless you are particularly forward thinking about your laziness (in which case you probably won’t sign up for this).
There is a lot of leeway in what indicators you measure, and some I tried didn’t help much. The main things I measure lately are:
- number of 20 minute blocks of time spent working. They have to be continuous, though a tiny bit of interruption is allowed if someone else causes it
- time spent exercising weighted by the type of exercise e.g. running = 2x dancing = 2 x walking
- points accrued for doing tasks on my to-do list. When I think of anything I want to do I put it on the list, whether it’s watching a certain movie or figuring out how to make the to do list system better. Some things stay there permanently, e.g. laundry. I assign each task a number of points, which goes up every Sunday if it’s still on the list. I have to get 15 points per day or I lose.
At first glance, it looks like Beeminder is basically a commitment contract: that it gets its force from promising to take your money if you lose. In my experience this seems very minor. I often forget how much money is riding on goals, and seem to keep the ones with no money on about as well as the others. So at least for me the threat of losing money isn’t what’s going on.
What is going on? I think Beeminder – especially the way I use it – actually does a nice job of combining a bunch of good principles of motivation. Here are some I hypothesize:
In order to use Beeminder for a goal, you need to be clear on how you will quantify progress toward it. This means being explicit about the parts it is made of. You can’t just intend to read more, you have to intend to read one philosophy paper every day. You can’t just intend to do your taxes, you have to intend to finish one of five forms every week. You can’t just intend to ponder whether you’re doing the right thing with your life, you have to intend to spend twenty minutes per week thinking up alternatives. Making a goal concrete enough to quantify it destroys ugh fields and makes it easier to start. ‘What get’s measured gets done’ – just making a concrete metric salient makes it easier to work toward than a similar vague goal.
To Beemind a goal, you need to divide it into many small parts, so you can track progress. ‘Finish making my presentation’ might be explicit enough to measure, but the measure will be zero for a long time, then one. Breaking goals up into small steps has nice side effects. It removes ugh fields, induces near mode, makes success likely at any particular step. In Luke Muehlhauser’s terminology, it increases ‘expectancy’ and allows ‘success spirals’*. Trading long term goals for short term ones also avoids the kind of delay that might make it easy to succumb to procrastination.
Don’t break the chain
Otherwise known as the Seinfeld hack. This might be the main thing that motivates me to keep my Beeminder goals, in the place of the money. Imagine you are skipping rope. You have made it to 70 skips. It was kind of hard, but you’re not so exhausted that you have to stop. You probably feel more compelled to keep going and make it to 80 than you did when you started. In general, once you have successfully done something a string of times, doing it again seems more desirable. Perhaps this is particular to OCD kinds of people, but a Google search suggests many find it useful.
Beeminder is a nicely flexible implementation of this, because the chain is a bit removed from what you are doing. You only have to maintain an average, so you can work extra one day to slack off the next. This doesn’t seem to undermine the motivational effect.
Hard lines in middle grounds
Firm commitments are naturally made to extremes. This is partly due to principled moral stances, which tend to be both extreme and firm. But that’s not all that’s going on. It’s hard to manage a principle of eating 40% less meat. If people want to eat less meat, they either eat none at all, or however much they feel like pushed down in a vague fashion with some bad feelings. The middle of the meat eating spectrum is too slippery for a hard line – it’s hard to tell how much you eat and annoying to track it. ‘None’ is salient and verifiable. In other realms intermediate lines are required: your diet can’t cut eating to zero. So often diets are more vague; which makes them harder to keep.
Similarly, it’s easy to commit to doing something every day, or every Sunday, or every month. It’s harder to commit to do a thing 2.7 times per week on average, because it’s awkward to track or remember this ‘habit’.
Compromised positions are often more desirable than extremes, and desired frequencies are unlikely to match memorable periods. So it’s a pity that vague commitments are harder to keep than firm ones. Often people don’t make commitments at all, because the readily available firm ones are too extreme. This is a big loss.
Beeminder helps with making firm commitments to intermediate positions. Since you only ever need to notice if the slope of your data isn’t steep enough, any rate is as easy to use as a goal. You can commit to eating 40% less meat, you just have to estimate once what 40% is, then record any meat you eat. I’ve used Beeminder to journal on average five nights per week. This is better than every night or no night, but would otherwise be annoying to track.
A small threat to overcome tiny temptations
While working, there are various moments when it would be easier to stop than to continue, particularly if you mostly feel the costs and benefits available in the next second or so, and if you assume that you could start again shortly (related). It is in these moments that I tend to stop and get a drink, or look out of the window, or open my browser or whatnot.
Counting short blocks of continuous time working pretty much solves this problem for me. The rule is that if you stop at all the whole block doesn’t count. So at any given moment there might be a tiny short term benefit to stopping for a second, but there is a huge cost to it. In my case this seems to remove stopping as an option, in the same way that a hundred dollar price on a menu item removes it as an option without apparent expense of willpower.
I originally thought it would be good to measure the amount of work I got done, rather than time spent doing it. This is because I want to get work done, not waste time on it. But given that I am working, I strongly prefer to do good work, fast. So there’s not much need for an added incentive there. I just need an incentive to begin, and one to not stop when a particular moment makes stopping look tasty. In Luke’s terminology, this kills impulsiveness.
The long term threat of failing to write an essay is converted into a short term pleasure of winning each night at Beeminder. I’m not sure why this seems like a pleasure, rather than a threat of losing, but it does to me. Probably because losing at Beeminder isn’t that unpleasant or shameful. And how could getting points or climbing a scale not seem like winning? (This is about value in Luke’s terms).
It’s harder to maintain planning fallacy, overconfidence, or expectation of perfection in the future, in light of detailed quantitative data, and a definite trend line.
Just the difference between ‘I should do that’, and ‘I should do that, so how much time will it take?… About two hours, so I guess it should get 20 points.. that probably won’t be enough to compel me to do it soon, but that’s ok, it’s not urgent’ seems to change the mindset to one more sensitive to reality.
In sum, I think Beeminder partly works well because it causes you to think of your goals in small, concrete parts which can easily be achieved. It also makes achieving the parts more satisfying, and strings them into an addictive chain of just the right challengingness. Finally it lends itself to experimentation with a wide range of measures of success, such as measuring time blocks or ‘points’, at arbitrary rates. The value from innovations there is probably substantial. So, averse as I am to giving lifestyle advice, if you’re curious about the psychology of motivation in humans, or if you want to improve your life a lot, you should probably take a look at Beeminder.
*you can also increase expectancy by measuring something like time rather than progress.
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