Beeminder creates a series of intermediate daily deadlines, working towards some desired long-term goal. As you probably know, it does that with real-money commitment devices. It’s common to come down to the wire on those deadlines every dang day. It’s powerful motivation. But is it… too powerful?
If you’re a strong believer in the concept of self-discipline then Beeminder may seem like a crutch for the lazy. We have a lot of objections to the premises of that argument but let’s take it for granted for now that self-discipline is necessary and important and constructing elaborate external incentives is cheating, bad, wrong, and counter-productive. Our first claim is that even if all that were true, Beeminder can still be used productively.
Trapezes and Safety Ropes
A tortured analogy might involve trapeze rigging. You could use ropes to help support you as you fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Let’s say that makes you weaker and hurts you in the long run. Our answer: use the ropes to make a safety net. They’re not touching you, but if you slip up, they’ll be there.
In Beeminderland, that means using the Beeminder graph to track your progress but dialing the commitment down to something stupidly easy. Something it would be a travesty to fall short of. Then exercise your self-discipline in staying far above Beeminder’s bright red line. If you succeed, wonderful. If not, Beeminder will enforce that bare minimum. After all, if your self-discipline does fail, better to use the crutch and still get some productivity than fall completely on one’s face. You can keep using other — what those who self-identify as self-disciplined might consider more wholesome — productivity methods until you find something that makes Beeminder superfluous. Also we don’t think Beeminder is superfluous even if you’re not leaning on it for motivation. The data and graphs are a valuable measure and visualization of your progress!
But now let us get back to arguing against the premises of the claim that Beeminder is a crutch for the undisciplined. We have a blog post on the Type Bee personality arguing, a bit self-congratulatorily, what brilliant, disciplined, high-integrity people Beeminder users are. It also analogizes Beeminder to wearing glasses. It’s great if you don’t need them but if you do need them, just wear the dang things rather than stumble around bumping into furniture wishing you didn’t.
Circumstantial evidence, you say? Beeminder users may be hyperproductive superstars but that doesn’t mean Beeminder is making them that way. As for analogizing Beeminder to wearing glasses, what if Beeminder is more like training wheels on a bike, you ask? What if Beeminder atrophies your willpower?
Oh boy. First, there’s a misconception to clear up: willpower is not like a muscle. If you don’t believe us and really want to exercise your willpower, there are any number of ways you can do that. Keep a jar of jellybeans on your desk maybe? Just pick something that doesn’t jeopardize your life goals if your willpower exercising goes awry sometimes.
More to the point, setting up a Beeminder goal is a pretty elaborate act of self-discipline. That’s kind of a self-burn but is still pretty true no matter how intuitive and frictionless creating Beeminder goals may become. Just formulating a graphable goal and making the choice to commit to it is a big deal. And to whatever extent it does free up willpower, that would just let you redeploy it elsewhere. But, again, we don’t think willpower works like that.
Maybe the strongest argument against outsourcing your willpower to Beeminder is that if you’re truly incorrigible then you’ll waste a bunch of money for no benefit. We make a big deal out of the Want-Can-Will Test to try to avoid that outcome: don’t beemind something unless it’s something you want to do and can do. To further ensure you won’t be so incorrigible, you need to find your Motivation Point: put an amount of money at stake that will motivate you to stay on track rather than cough it up. Beeminder has an exponential pledge schedule that helps you find your Motivation Point without having to agonize over it. But if you predict that you would just lose money without making progress on your goals then we don’t really have a counterargument to that. You probably shouldn’t use Beeminder.
Can one fix their self-control problems at a deeper level and not need Beeminder?
Even if you can, we don’t see it as an argument against commitment devices and other incentive-alignment tricks. Unless you’re somehow certain that you’ve permanently and fundamentally solved your akrasia, it’s too soon to discard Beeminder and related techniques. Maybe you can use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or self-affirmations or raw introspective magic and then effortlessly maintain plenty of safety buffer on your Beeminder goals. That would be amazing and we don’t want to be dismissive about the possibility. Just, you know, maybe start with the Beeminder graph and use it as proof that that magic happened?
“That’s habit-building 101”
But also! We think Beeminder can be a path to fixing self-control problems at a deeper level. Predictive Processing implies that actions shape beliefs, not just vice versa. This is profound. As Jacob Falkovich puts it: “If you manage to get yourself going to the gym no matter what dirty tricks you had to use, you’re more likely to keep going. That’s habit-building 101. Once you start doing, your brain will reorganize to support the doing.”
What about studies suggesting that monetary rewards decrease intrinsic motivation?
We’ve got three counterpoints to this one.
Point 1: Beeminder doesn’t offer monetary rewards, only punishments.
Maybe that’s not too persuasive of a counterpoint. (Point 0 would be to question whether those studies even replicate, which is even less persuasive because we have no idea if they do.) The next ones are better.
Point 2: Doing something because Beeminder is making you isn’t all that extrinsic anyway. Beeminder is just a proxy for your own past self. Did we mention the Want-Can-Will Test? If, after balancing all the pros and cons, you don’t genuinely, unambiguously want to do something, don’t beemind it!
Point 3: This is the trapeze safety ropes again. Think of Beeminder as insurance and try to make it irrelevant and superfluous. Find that intrinsic motivation, cultivate habits, get your System 1 and System 2 in alignment, set up Trigger-Action Plans. Whatever you think is better than Beeminder, do those things! Beeminder can just be there to catch you if they fail.
Personally we find that Beeminder goals reinforce our intrinsic motivation, but that might just be us. We hope we’re at least convincing you that Beeminder isn’t inherently harmful to intrinsic motivation.
We believe there’s only one argument remaining for how Beeminder may count as a crutch, in the sense of helping you in a way that keeps you weak. We’ve actually heard this more than once in the rationality community. It’s that you shouldn’t use Beeminder because not using Beeminder will force you to solve your self-control problems at a deeper level. Fortunately this argument is beautifully self-defeating, taking the value of commitment devices as a premise.
It brings us back to the trapeze analogy. If you can learn to fly, so to speak, without safety ropes, our hats are off to you. If you refuse safety ropes because you “should” be able to learn without them even though you haven’t, then, well, we’re putting our hats back on.
(And if it’s just that you hate the idea of being the kind of person who needs Beeminder, maybe read about the Type Bee personality?)