The Road Dial and the Akrasia Horizon

Wednesday, August 31, 2011
By dreeves

A sort of dial, on the horizon. Or something.

Previously on the Beeminder Blog…

How can we set up a commitment contract with minimal risk that we’ll regret it? It’s a tricky balancing act. You want something solid enough that you’ve truly committed yourself to your goal and can’t weasel out whenever a friend bakes some brownies (or whatever). But you also want to retain as much flexibility as possible.

That was from “Force Majeure, Or Beeminder’s SOS Clause”, in which we described how we build flexibility into Beeminder’s standard contract to allow for truly unexpected circumstances.

But there’s another sense in which you may need flexibility. What if you discover that being hungry all the time sucks much more than you thought it would? Maybe hitting 150 pounds by next Christmas will quite suffice. [1]

Wouldn’t that kind of “flexibility” defeat the whole point of a commitment contract? Not necessarily!

“We immodestly think this is an ingeniously simple way to get the best of both worlds — meaningful commitment with almost total flexibility.”

We went a little overboard in analyzing the fundamental reasons for akrasia — why it is that you need a commitment device to reach your goal in the first place. But it led us to what we immodestly think is an ingeniously simple way to get the best of both worlds — meaningful commitment with almost total flexibility. Let us explain. First, recall the fundamental problem of akrasia: over-weighting immediate consequences. When some of the consequences are immediate (the yumminess of this pie, the comfiness of this couch, the hilarity of these talking kitten videos) and some are distant (weighing less, being in better shape, getting a promotion) your decision-making is distorted. [2] A study on grocery-buying habits illustrates this nicely: When buying groceries online for delivery tomorrow people buy a lot more ice cream and a lot fewer vegetables than when they’re ordering for delivery next week.

Akrasia Horizon

What does that mean in terms of flexibility to change your yellow brick road? Simply this: there’s no harm in changing your mind about the steepness of your yellow brick road as long as you’re only changing it starting a week from now. We call that week your akrasia horizon: it’s the time horizon beyond which you can make rational decisions, undistorted by akrasia.

Based on thus-far scant evidence, we’re treating one week as the universal akrasia horizon.

Road Dial

What that means for you, the Beemindee, is that you see this underneath your graph:

Road dial

We call that the road dial. You use it to dial up (make steeper) or dial back (make shallower) your yellow brick road. With the one-week delay of course. Here’s what a newly dialed up road looks like:

Road that has been dialed up

Note that you can change the rate to anything, including zero, to pause your road altogether. You can even make it go in the opposite direction for a while. Maybe you’re going on an all-you-can-eat-buffet-hopping vacation.

You can also change the goal date to any date in the future that you desire, except within the coming week, or leave it effectively open-ended by setting it to a year (or twenty years) in the future.

Easy Street

“The daily struggle to stay on the road does not induce you to touch that road dial.”

You may be wondering how anyone could ever fail to stay on a yellow brick road that’s this flexible. Here’s how: if you’re highly akratic. Such a person may well find it a daily struggle to stay on the road. Yeah, you can always choose to wuss out and flatten the road, but only starting in a week, which you don’t want to do. You want to wuss out Right Now, dammit! I mean, just for now, while you eat this pie, and then you’ll behave again. No such luck though.

The daily struggle to stay on the road does not induce you to touch that road dial. You always want to make it easier “just for today” — which the road dial doesn’t allow — and you always think you’ll get your act together by next week.


Perhaps surprisingly, it took a ridiculous number of iterations to get to this point. For the longest time we struggled with different ways to deal with the fact that it’s so often hard to decide what to commit to. We tried many variations of having multiple yellow brick roads for a single goal, so that you could specify an ambitious goal as well as a bare minimum. It was always too messy. We think the road dial with an akrasia horizon is a big leap forward. And it seems so obvious in retrospect!


[1] There’s a lot to be said for losing weight nice and gradually. Though in practice “gradually” often means endless oscillating and no long-term net progress. Unless you’ve committed to a gradual yellow brick road, of course.

[2] In the case of procrastinating on youtube or not getting your butt off the couch to work out it may not be the immediate pleasure of the videos or the couch but the immediate pain of starting the work, or the workout, you should be doing. Either way, it’s the immediate consequences distorting your decision-making, i.e., akrasia.

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