Precommit to Recommit: The Third Great Beeminder Epiphany

Tuesday, February 12, 2013
By dreeves

An ostrich with its head in the sand

UPDATE 2013 August: We decided this was so ingenious that we made it fundamental to Beeminder. There’s no longer such a thing as not precommiting to recommit. In other words, goals no longer freeze when you derail. Below is the post in its original form for posterity.


The First Great Beeminder Epiphany was the Yellow Brick Road, for bringing long-term consequences as near possible. [1] The Second Great Beeminder Epiphany was the Road Dial and the Akrasia Horizon for maximally flexible self-control.

“We want continued awesomeness to be the path of least resistance.”

The stage was set for the Third Great Beeminder Epiphany months ago, with Philip Hellyer’s Weasel article, when we formulated a theory of weaseliness and concluded that Beeminders are second-degree weasels. We (Beeminder users, including ourselves) are surprisingly non-weasely in many ways. It turned out that the entirety of the Beeminder commitment contract and SOS clause can be replaced with “keep your dots on the road; talk to us if there was a problem”.

Beeminders are, however, weasels of omission. Which brings us to the Third Great Beeminder Epiphany:

Be very lenient about proactive weaseling and very strict about passive weaseling.

In other words, if you have to take specific action (like reply to an email) to weasel out of a commitment, no problem. We’ll just believe you. But if you can effectively get yourself off the hook through pure inaction, that’s a disaster. It’s not a huge epiphany for those who’ve read Nudge — we want continued awesomeness to be the path of least resistance — but, like the akrasia horizon, it was a hard-won insight, despite being obvious in retrospect.

Our latest manifestation of that principle is a new feature called…

Precommit To Recommit

How it works is dirt simple: check the precommit-to-recommit box above your graph and your yellow brick road will automatically rerail if you derail.

Screenshot of precommit-to-recommit checkbox

If you’re at all nervous about touching that checkbox, here’s why you shouldn’t be:

  1. You can check or uncheck the box at any time, even seconds before you’re about to derail — no akrasia horizon limitations.
  2. It rerails you with a week of flat spot so you can get yourself back off the hook even after the auto-rerail happens by flattening your road again the same day. [2]
  3. Although by default you’re bumped up to the next pledge level, you can drop back down to your previous level. Yes, that takes a week, but you’re flat for that week so there isn’t much risk of paying the higher pledge during that week. UPDATE: You can now also choose not to be automatically bumped up to the next pledge level.
  4. You still get the legitimacy check email when you derail and can cry foul if anything went wrong. The email just also informs you that you’re back on the hook already if you do nothing.

UPDATE: We added one more safety net…

  1. As with our auto-canceling subscriptions, if you stop using Beeminder altogether then all your precommit-to-recommit checkboxes will automatically uncheck themselves.

Now you might be wondering what the point of it is at all, if it’s that toothless. We can answer with one (convoluted neologism of a) word: anti-cranial-silicosis. That is, keeping people from putting their heads in the sand and procrastinating indefinitely on getting back on the wagon after they derail.

For the kind of person who needs Beeminder — and let us tell you, we know this type inside and out — this is a big deal. You intend to rerail, of course, just that “next week” should be a better time. Well, we’ve now automated that problem away.

This may look like a devious scheme to multiply our revenue, and it is, but even more importantly, true akratics really truly need this. We certainly do.


[1] Technically the epiphany was having commitment contracts based on keeping data points on a yellow brick road to a goal. Commitment contracts themselves are a very old idea. StickK deserves the credit for the idea of a web tool to facilitate commitment contracts, even if Beeminder’s first incarnation, Kibotzer, was roughly contemporaneous with it.

[2] We may add a “no mercy” option in advanced settings for those who want to recommit without adding a flat spot. Let us know if you want this! UPDATE: Done!

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  • Tadeusz

    I have derailed on a goal recently and have been procrastinating on recommitting for a week or two. This is a timely post for me.

  • Daniel Reeves

    Some clarifications that came up when discussing this on the Akratics Anonymous list:

    1. Yes, when you auto-rerail you will have a flat week before the yellow brick road starts sloping up again. (Until we add a “no mercy” option, but that will be a separate opti-in feature.)

    2. Being on the hook means having money pledged on a goal. Without precommit-to-recommit, you’re no longer on the hook once you derail, unless you explicitly rerail yourself. With precommit-to-recommit, you’re automatically back on the hook again after you derail. But in a pretty gentle way, since it’s with that week of flat spot. So if you flatten the road right after derailing then you’re totally safe — the road starts flat for the first week and flattening it makes it flat starting in a week. So it would be flat forever. Which makes you effectively off the hook.

    There’s probably a more straightforward way to describe this stuff. It’s really just automating what you *ought* to do anyway: immediately dust yourself off and get back on your yellow brick road when you derail! And it’s all undoable so it shouldn’t be scary. It just means that if you do nothing, you’ll automatically be put back on your road. So it’s just a question of defaults. With precommit-to-recommit you have to say so explicitly if you want to give up on a goal and walk away. By default you’ll be minded indefinitely.

  • Mark Forster

    This sounds like an excellent addition. I’m procrastinating on restarting a goal at the moment, and it’ll make it much easier not to let that situation occur again.

  • moises

    I am in the middle of reading _The Science of Self-Control_ by Howard Rachlin, an experimental psychologist. The key takeaway up to this point in the book is that it is best to precommit to future behaviors. But for most people (and rats, pigeons, and chimps) precommitment is not a viable option. The alternative to attach a punishment to the undesired behavior is almost as good as precommitment. So Rachlin would be a Beeminder fan.

  • Zachary Paul

    I was in this position as well, and let it sit for too long before re-railing. Good feature

  • Daniel Reeves

    Thanks so much for recommending Rachlin’s book! Beeminder owes a lot to behavioral scientists like him and Ainslie and Strotz. (We even name our servers for these folks. :))

    Quite right that true precommitment is tricky to obtain. Beeminder tries to gradually approximate it with our exponential pledge schedule.

  • somervta

    I now really want to know what all your servers are called…

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