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An Elephant and its hapless Rider

This is a post by Philip Hellyer, which he wrote before Chelsea Miller’s recent Weasel Heart-To-Heart but which serves as a sequel, or perhaps a prequel — advice on avoiding those problems in the first place.

Maybe you can be counted on to faithfully and unfailingly report true numbers to your own commitment contracts, but I shouldn’t be. Not that I set out to cheat on myself, but it can get awfully hard. Remember that my lucid self that enters into these contracts isn’t the same stressed self that has to fulfil them. [1] The self that sets the alarm clock isn’t the same self that is woken by it.

Our selves are divided, like Jonathan Haidt’s elephant and rider. Beeminder is a tool used by the lucid rider to alter the inclinations of our in-the-moment elephant selves.

The problem is this:

  • Beeminder seeks to find the pledge amount that’ll keep me on the road to my goal
  • It’s up to me to report whether I’m on the road

We’ve entered into a contract where one party has an information advantage. My stressed self is the one in the know, and might be prone to fiddle the numbers “just a little”, “just this once” in order to keep my goal on track. Unfortunately, such weaseliness only keeps the pretty graph on track, not the actual goal itself.

So what’s the solution?

“A goodly number of Beeminder’s meta goals are independently verifiable”

For that, we can look at the people with the worst potential conflicted desires: Beeminder founders Daniel Reeves and Bethany Soule. If you’ve been following along with Beeminder’s own meta goals, you’ll see that a goodly number of them are independently verifiable. When the founders commit to delivering a User-Visible Improvement every day, the benchmark is that they tweet their progress on @beemuvi. In turn, they’ve got the pressures of pride and reputation to only claim progress that’s worth announcing.

Consider it the job of your lucid self to set things up so that even your stressed elephant-self thinks it’ll be easier to just, say, go for a short run, than to fake the data. [2]


In the absolute ideal, Beeminder would just notice that you’ve done the thing and record the data for you. For example, why should you manually report a new blog post like this one, when you could ask your Beeminder goal to subscribe to the blog feed? The act of posting would itself increment the counter. [3] Not everything is as easily observable as a new blog post, but I could tweet or facebook where I am in my latest book, or how many jobs I’ve applied for, or whatever it is that I’m counting.

For every activity, there is a natural place to record it. [4] If it’s work hours, then you might keep a timesheet, update your calendar, or use TagTime or some other semi-automated monitor of your activities. If it’s your weight, then a Withings scale is just the ticket. If it’s running or calorie counting, well, there are apps for those too.

If I’m going to track my run with GPS anyway, why not use that same data source to update Beeminder? Doing anything else is a duplication of effort and requires me to do the task and also remember to tell Beeminder that I’ve done it. By eliminating the doing-reporting gap, I’m more likely to make actual progress toward my goal.

“Productive Laziness requires us to change the path of least resistance”

This isn’t necessarily a lack of trust of my future stressed self, it’s productive laziness. In my work I help people build better systems and structures, ways for them to be appropriately and productively lazy. I want them to keep moving in the right direction even when they don’t have the energy to think at a meta level, and that requires structural solutions that change the path of least resistance.

That means I can reserve my lucid thinking for when I’m setting things up, not for everyday activities. And that matters because my lucid self cares about the actual goal and about a better future, no matter what my right-now self feels. Beeminder knows that the self that sets the goal is still the same person that sticks to it, that the rider is also the elephant. Make the most of your divided self when making your graphs.



[1] Our esteemed CEO chimes in: Fancying myself as Chief Scientist and Beehaviorial Economist I just wanted to coopt a footnote to chime in — since I’ve seen this be contentious — that I agree Multiple Selves is a valuable metaphor but ultimately there’s one self, whose decision-making is distorted in the face of immediate consequences. This is the phenomenon of hyperbolic discounting. You fight it (with Beeminder’s help) by altering the future immediate consequences you’ll be faced with. Which is entirely in tune with Philip’s thesis in this post so don’t mind me and read on!

[2] Which, for the record, is total anathema to the Way of the Bee. If you’re not actively getting value out of Beeminder then we don’t want your money. We’d rather refund you a charge than have you lie to the graph. Even more, we’d encourage you to set achievable goal slopes and cap the pledges on your less important goals. You’re trying to steer your elephant, not cause a rebellion!

[3] You can do this via IFTTT or Zapier which makes it easy to automatically beemind a lot of things. Automatically as in no need to reply to the Beeminder bot or otherwise manually add datapoints. And using our IFTTT macros, you can even extract a datapoint from freeform text.

[4] My current set of tools for automated beeminding include:

  • Withings scale for tracking my weight (as a proxy outcome for my overall fitness)
  • Runkeeper for tracking my running distance and times-per-week
  • Fitbit on my iPhone to track my ten thousand steps (on average)
  • TagTime (space cadets only!) for estimating productive time
  • HabitRPG (now Habitica!) for marking progress on tasks
  • Foursquare checkins (via IFTTT), for going to the gym
  • Twitter tweet counter, for making sure my business is posting items on social media
  • A Beeminder premium plan, to auto-adjust some of my goal slopes
  • Other stuff that’s enabled by the Beeminder API


Image credit: Laughing Elephant Sprays a Man Riding It from Imbecile Entertainment