Team Black vs Team Yellow: The Two Styles of Beeminding

Thursday, August 25, 2016
By Oliver Mayor

Karate kick in black and yellow

This is a guest post by Oliver Mayor, an avid Beeminder user for going on four years. He’s a software developer who’s interested in human-behavior-shaping technology and often has pretty deep insights related to Beeminder. We were especially impressed with his thoughts on the different modes of beeminding (and the black vs yellow characterization) and asked if he’d like to expand on it here, along with some of the story of his own Beeminder journey. We’re still thinking about what this means for how Beeminder should present itself to new users, and in terms of the new premium plans, which could be seen as paving the way for more emphasis on Team Yellow.

Although Beeminder was built on the ideas of Behavioral Economics, it supports both pledge-driven and more purely gamified ways of tracking and pursuing goals. Beeminder uses pledges to keep your goals on track. But I’ve talked to a bunch of people who don’t like that.

“Losing money just makes me want to quit!” a few friends told me.

I could be tapping into a biased sample, but it makes sense that the prospect of losing money could scare people off. Emotionally, it’s hard to get around the feeling that losing money equals losing in general. At the same time, these are competitive and often numbers-driven people. They want to get to 10,000 steps on Fitbit today before their other friends, they want to log so many dozens of pomodoros this week, they want to hit their goal of X miles in RunKeeper. And these same friends of mine gladly pay for other services and apps they think help their goals along.

They sound like Beeminder users to me. So what gives?

“Beeminder’s core tracking functionality is powerful even without pledges”

Pledges and commitment contracts rightly get front billing when explaining Beeminder. But Beeminder has some other core aspects that folks might not understand at first glance. In my own handful of years experimenting with tracking my goals with Beeminder, these other aspects became important in guiding how I formulated goals, and structured my life in general. For me, these were more important than pledges.

I joined Beeminder back in the day because I was pretty desperate for anything that would help me make progress in my life. The idea of having something on the line sounded sort of neat, and dramatic, and the people behind Beeminder seemed pretty smart and relatable (in the best nerdy way possible).

So I gave it a try. And I lost a fair amount of money in pledges. (I won’t say exactly how much.) But despite the misteps, I felt that lessons I had learned, on top of the progress I had made, justified the expenses. I kept tweaking my goals. I would look at things like: Is it reasonable to expect myself to do this much reading every day? What do I need to do to make sure I can meet my Japanese audio quota for the day? Eventually, I became pretty good at specifying goals so I could stay in the game. I stopped derailing and having to pay the pledges so often.

But over time, I began to see that not losing at my own goals was becoming more important on a daily basis than the threat of paying up when I derailed. This seems to puzzle some of my fellow Beeminder users who really love the commitment contract aspect. I offer the heresy that Beeminder’s core tracking functionality is powerful even without pledges. By the end of this, I hope to lay out the case that Beeminder is much more than “losing money when you fail”.

Beeminder Without Penalties

Here, I’m hoping to take a decent look at some beneficial concepts Beeminder embraces and promotes that don’t have to do with commitment contracts.

Beeminder breaks down goals for you, keeps you engaged, and keeps you focused on day-to-day actions. It makes sure those actions are concretely linked to your long term progress. When you track something, it updates to reflect what you’ve done, and what you still need to do. By creating and adjusting Beeminder goals, you improve your overall goal design skills and become more adept at structuring and navigating your life. I see it as a game framework, but it’s not a stretch to call it a coaching aid.

Here are a few other things Beeminder does:

  • Tells you exactly how much you need to do every day, and how much more you need to do if you want to get a day or two or six ahead
  • Lets you track your progress in dozens of different ways, from dozens of different devices and services
  • Friendly support for when you have a problem, or if you’re confused about something
  • Provides fancy statistics on your progress so far, things like daily averages and 90% variance
  • Keeps your data for you, so you can export it and analyze it later

That’s a lot of stuff already — much more than penalizing you when you fail. But I did say I would talk about pledges. How might those fit in to this picture?

Something at Stake

“Putting a nominal price on a goal reminds me to take the larger picture into account”

Beeminder can do all these great things for your goals without demanding a single pledge. I think the core Beeminder FAQ and other blog posts have illustrated the Behavioral Economic side — the case for commitment contracts and the power of loss aversion — quite extensively. I want to talk about why pledges can still be valuable to people like me, for whom the tracking and game-like aspects of Beeminder goals are almost sufficient.

Pledges help me be cognizant and deliberate about my commitments. A lot of my goals are added-value things: from an outside perspective, I wouldn’t intrinsically lose anything if I called it quits. I have the tendency to get excited about potential change, and commit to too many things. But pursuing goals takes resources. I’d say that even setting goals takes resources, in terms of anxiety and regret. Part of the reason I reached out for tools like Beeminder was the weight of the graveyard of incomplete projects and unfulfilled promises I’d created in the preceding years.

Somehow putting a nominal price on a goal or an aspect of a goal reminds me to take the larger picture into account. It helps me to devote more time and attention to the fewer goals that are really worth sticking by. And it helps give me the courage to pursue riskier, more challenging goals, because I have a better idea of what I’m willing to put at stake.

Black & Yellow: Two Paths for Beeminder Success

Despite all that I’ve said, the prospect of, say, giving up $30 when I could instead take two minutes to practice typing before midnight motivates me too sometimes. Beeminder is a very flexible tool that supports a lot of use cases, and whole different use-philosophies. These could differ from person to person. (And maybe also from goal to goal.) I wanted to make the case for another way to approach and use Beeminder, one that debunks the myth that Beeminder is just about losing money when you fail. That doesn’t make the traditional, behavioral economics way of looking at Beeminder any less valid, and I don’t think the option (via premium subscription) to create pledgeless goals decreases its effectiveness for people who create goals with pledges.

Along this pledge/pledgeless axis, I see Beeminder as a multi-paradigm tool that supports both of these patterns. I’ve wondered what would happen if you emphasized two distinct paths when people first sign up:

  1. Do you love commitment contracts and Behavioral Econ? Does having to pay a fine for getting off-track really motivate you? Beeminder was created around those principles, with exponentially increasing pledges (though you can cap them). And you can try this out for right now — just create an account, put down a pledge and get to tracking. We only charge you when you legitimately fail to meet your goal.

  2. Beeminder is a tracking and accountability tool. It tells you just how much you need to do Right Now to stay on track for your goal. It features a graph that shows moving averages and trends to show how your daily actions affect your long term progress. Beeminder lets you track and collect your data from dozens of services and devices. It has reminders that help you stay on track every single day. We think having something at stake still helps, but you can track and analyze your goals with an auto-canceling subscription. Subscribing also lets you create an unlimited number of goals and unlocks special goal types.

  3. = 1 + 2… of course, combine them! Beeminder does both things very well. We believe that commitment contracts and powerful tracking tools are best friends!

Beeminder’s animal mascot has two colors: black and yellow. Let’s use them as team colors for the different kinds of Beeminder users.

Black Team: Pledged Commitment Contract Warriors. Harness the threat of penalties as their source of power. Their raiment is black, showing their fearlessness and relentlessness.

Yellow Team: Elite Tracking Quantifiers. Wizards of planning and goal construction, they can engineer tracking and accountability schemes to surmount obstacles. Yellow is the color of their order, symbolizing the bright light of their ambitions and devotion to constant learning and improvement.

(Or something like that.)

But the point is that Beeminder is a flexible, multifaceted tool. Most often it’s described as tracking and commitment contracts. But there are many reasons to try it out even if that doesn’t sound so exciting. I consider it a game framework for helping you solve problems, create new habits, and chase opportunities for growth.

Beeminder has reshaped the way I approach challenges and ambitions. I’ve learned a lot from using it, and I’m glad to be part of a community so enthusiastic about finding new creative ways to make changes in our lives.

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  • Michele Gill

    Thank you for articulating this–I agree! For me, the pledges are a minor but important part. I like keeping track of goals, but without something at stake, it’s easy to blow them off when life gets crazy. Having $ at stake makes the goals *worthy* of time and attention as much as the other obligations in my life.

    You also hit the nail on the head about anxiety reduction via Beeminder. I never consciously realized this feature of Bee, but it’s so true for me. I’m the type to have multiple self-improvement goals going on anyway. I tend to always feel like I’m not doing enough though, which leads to anxiety. With Bee, I have a clear list of the things I’m currently working on and that’s it–I don’t have to keep adding more, In fact, I can’t add too much more because I’ll derail, so it makes me reassess my priorities on a regular basis. Plus, as long as I’m on the right side of the road, I can relax, knowing I’m where I need to be. It helps me live in the imperfect moment with greater peace, and for me, that is much more powerful than the pledge system.

  • Jennifer Thomas

    You might want to check out Applied Behavioral Analysis / Learning Theory (as applied to both non-human animals and animals). (Fear of) punishment can work to motivate (or suppress) behavior. However, if the punishment is too severe (and the point at which is it too severe depends on the learner), punishment can lead to disengagement and walking away or shutting down. Small units of positive reinforcement for incremental differences in behavior tend to be more effective methods for influencing future behavior and they do not have the side effect of paralyzing or turning off the would-be learner. Framed this way, what you are saying is that for many beeminderers, the satisfaction of meeting their concrete beeminder daily goals (or of getting ahead on their beeminder goals) is more effective reinforcer of behavior than the financial punishment for derailing, particularly as that punishment escalates.