Getting Back On The Wagon

Friday, May 25, 2012
By Philip Hellyer

A boogle of weasels

This is a guest post by Philip Hellyer who can walk on water and outrun bullets, with the help of Beeminder. He eloquently describes what we think is currently the single biggest pain point (though there are many) with Beeminder right now — how to keep from procrastinating indefinitely on getting back on the wagon when you derail.

[UPDATE: This problem has now been solved.]


Beeminder is a tool for my lucid self, the one that knows it’ll take regular effort to get to a substantially different future. But the self that sets up the commitment contract isn’t the same self that needs to follow through. The self that books a personal trainer for 6am isn’t the same self that drags his butt out of bed.

Beeminder’s akrasia horizon helps tremendously with this, so long as I’m somewhere on the road. My lucid (or stressed) self can change the difficulty, but only starting some way into the future. It’s like committing in advance to put aside a portion of bonuses and salary increases. Future sacrifice sounds cheap, especially if it’s a slice of a bigger pie.

“Re-committing to a goal should be a joyous and positive step; it means that the goal is valuable even if the path to it is hard.”

Where Beeminder can’t help (yet!) is when I don’t just fall off the wagon, but send it careening off the yellow brick road and into the ditch of despair. My trouble is that the self who drives off the road might not be in a lucid enough state to commit to trying again. And if I don’t re-commit promptly, I’m in danger of failing to do it at all. Ever. The longer I avoid restarting work on my goal, the easier it becomes to keep avoiding it. The spectre of formally admitting failure grows rather than shrinks. Eventually I’ll ignore not just that one goal, but the whole pile of them that Beeminder tracks. And that would be a disaster for my “substantially different future”.

Here’s the nub of it:

  • Driving off the road is just a blip.
  • Failure is abandoning the goal.

But that’s not how Beeminder makes it feel right now. To unfreeze your road is to formally admit that you failed to stay on it. Re-committing to a goal should be a joyous and positive step; it means that the goal is valuable even if the path to it is hard.

Beeminder’s current (May 2012) interface reinforces the feeling of failure during a reset. Instead of showing a brief discontinuity on the graph, my entire history of good driving is relegated to another tab. It feels like starting over, instead of continuing a successful journey. I wonder what it would feel like if the history graph was the one shown on the front page, or if my recent history were to be re-cast with rose-coloured optimism.

A Bit of a Push

There are a couple of things that would help make it feel like I’m building on success rather than admitting failure. One is to re-commit as soon as I’m psychologically able. The second is to re-commit to an easily achievable slope, not a flat line. Flatlining is bad; the goal isn’t dead. What I need after losing momentum is a bit of a push.

I need encouragement to reduce the length of time between going off the road and re-committing to the goal. So I asked Daniel and Bethany to help me out. Here’s my fine print:

If I fall off this road I will give the nice folks at Beeminder an extra $50 if I don’t reinstate it within 48 hours of receiving the off-the-road email, plus $10 per day delay. Alternatively I can walk away for $100.

That was surprisingly hard to write, which is why it’s got some pretty weaselly wording. I didn’t want to trigger the initial payment by accident, so 48 hours instead of a day, and there’s a zero-cost path that still lets me sulk for a couple of days. And that $100 clause caps my losses, in case I really go MIA.

Despite what I wrote earlier about abandoning the goal being failure, that’s only true if it’s done in the moment, thoughtlessly and reactively. My fine print allows me to throw up my hands and walk away for a price, and that price is high enough to make me seriously consider the value of my goal. When I fall off the road, as hard as it might be to start up again, I want it to be my decision to re-commit, and as positive an experience as we can create.

Economics and Flow Control

“I need to be gently encouraged to do what I’ve already decided is the right thing.”

While I’m on the yellow brick road, Beeminder lets me take a pause or slow down, subject to the akrasia horizon delay. I can immediately stop work and simply fall off the road; there’s a defined cost to shortening the horizon. What’s missing is an incentivising cost to influence the length of time before I decide to either positively re-commit to my goal, or to abandon it. Hence my fine print.

I will already have paid my pledge for falling off the road, and in re-committing will be obliged to re-pledge a higher amount. What the incentive clause does is gently encourage me to do what I’ve already decided is the right thing.

It’s important that I have control over the length of time that passes before I decide. If I know that I want a week’s respite, I can re-commit immediately to a flat start and a post-akrasian slope. If I don’t want to even think about thinking about it for a week, that’s got a defined cost. And it’s a cost that slowly and gently increases, nudging me toward making a decision.

Weasely Weasels

Nudging is important. Gentle nudging. Nudging is important because of my inner weasel, the one that mustn’t get loose.

Daniel said to me recently that there are three levels of weaseliness. Out-and-out weasels would falsify their data to avoid the consequences of a commitment contract. Second-degree weasels intellectually accept the consequences but would never get around to implementing them. And of course level zero weasels are not weasels at all but paragons of honor and conscientiousness. Most of us Beeminders are the second type, weasels of omission.

Me, I think I’m all three kinds of weasel. It depends on the context. That’s why my anti-procrastination systems need to be gentle. The more obligation that gets heaped on, the weaselier my weasel gets.

I know that as soon as I report a made-up number to Beeminder ‘just this once’, I’m doomed. This is especially true of numbers that are subjective. Counting doughnuts is one thing, determining whether this was an hour of time well spent is another.

Beeminder needs to support me in keeping my weaseliness at bay. It needs to encourage me to stay on the road without being too scary, and it needs to make getting back on the wagon an experience that no weasel could object to. For my part, I need to set goals that I care about, few in number, with manageable slopes, and report truthfully my progress against them. Between us, I’m confident that I will achieve my substantially different future.

Image credit: A Boogle of Weasels from

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13 Responses to “Getting Back On The Wagon”

  1. Blue Sky

    Who knew weasels were so cute? . . . I think i’ll YouTube videos of weasels really quickly . . . Oh no, I’m a weasel!

  2. I’ve not yet had to reinstate a goal, though I’ve come pretty close to it on a couple of occasions, so I’m not clear about what happens when you do. There’s no description in the instructions (or if there is it’s so well hidden that I can’t find it). All I can find is that the goal is “reset”, which could mean just about anything. From what Philip has written above it sounds as if it’s something which makes you feel that you’ve failed to keep the goal.

    Anyway here’s a suggestion of how the pledge mechanism could work without making anyone feel they’ve failed. My apologies if it describes what is already happening.

    We live in a world in which we are offered “extended guarantees” all the time. How about extending the same principle to Beeminder? Beeminder already contains a guarantee – that if you are in the right lane of the yellow-brick road you can’t lose tomorrow. The yellow-brick road will expand to include your data however far off the mark it is.

    The extended guarantee would be that if you are anywhere – right lane or wrong lane – on the yellow-brick road you can’t lose tomorrow. The yellow-brick road will expand to include your data. However the extended guarantee can only be activated by buying the next one.

    The sequence would go as follows:

    Run off road
    System freezes
    Activate extended guarantee by buying another
    System unfreezes: yellow-brick road expands to include data
    Yellow-brick road adjusts as further data is added

  3. Just to expand a bit on what I wrote above, the advantages of the “extended guarantee” approach would be:

    – no interruption of the existing graph
    – the graph (once reset) does not show a failure
    – there is motivation to expunge the red freeze signs and get one’s graph back to normal
    – the goal is not changed
    – the rate of progress towards the goal is not changed
    – the akrasia horizon is not changed
    – even though the yellow-brick road is liable to get wider and wider a narrow road which costs nothing to drive off is considerably less motivating than a wider road which costs hundreds of dollars to drive off.


  4. @facebook-728856766:disqus Your guess is correct. The current system not only makes you feel that you’ve failed to keep the goal, it also removes the pleasure (and/or the challenge) of seeing your journey thus far on your graph and seeing it continue once you’re back on track.

    In fact the word “unfreeze” is misleading. What really happens is a *reset*: all your previous achievement is relegated to another tab and you effectively begin working again with what looks and feels like a fresh goal. That might be alright for some people or some situations, but Philip sums it up perfectly when he writes:

    “Here’s the nub of it: Driving off the road is just a blip. Failure is abandoning the goal. But that’s not how Beeminder makes it feel right now. To unfreeze your road is to formally admit that you failed to stay on it. …Beeminder’s current (May 2012) interface reinforces the feeling of failure during a reset. Instead of showing a brief discontinuity on the graph, my entire history of good driving is relegated to another tab. It feels like starting over, instead of continuing a successful journey.”

    Philip shouldn’t have to jump through hoops or invent elaborate fine print conditions, because the problem and therefore the solution lies in how Beeminder handles the concept of “unfreeze”. Perhaps users could still be given the option of a clean “reset” for a fresh start if they choose, but the default should be a genuine unfreezing, in which there is an indication of a brief discontinuity, an adjustment of the goal curve as desired or required, but – important! – the original goal and the graph continues.

    I would so love to see that change. How about it Beeminder?

  5. Thanks, Yvonne. What you’ve said reinforces my feeling that what happens in a “reset” shouldn’t represent a break from the work already done on the goal.

    The advantage of my idea of an “extended guarantee” is that the only things that change are the width of the yellow-brick road and the amount pledged. The goal, the slope and the akrasia horizon remain the same.

    I don’t personally see the need for an option for a clean reset or adjustment of the goal curve. The trouble with these is that they give a reward for failure in that one can make immediate adjustments instead of having to look beyond the akrasia horizon. If one wants to change the goal or the slope, then the existing method of altering the parameters to take effect beyond the akrasia horizon should be all that is required. In that way the new target is not discontinuous from what has gone before.

  6. Ooh, this is clever. My hesitancy is there’s value in the universality of the width of the road. Like you pointed out, Beeminder guarantees that if you’re in the right lane today you’ll still be on the road tomorrow. And it’s actually more general than that:

    If you’re in the green (good side of the road) today then at worst you’ll be in the blue (right lane of the road) tomorrow, and orange (wrong lane) the day after that, and then the following day you’ll be in the red (wrong side of the road). If you’re on the wrong side of the road you have till the end of the day to get back on.

    That has nice properties, like how you can make sure to get into the green by Friday night and then you’re safe through the weekend. You can do nothing Saturday and Sunday. Monday will then be an emergency day.

    So I’m loathe to throw a monkey wrench in all that with your otherwise awesome Extended Guarantee idea. But we’re trying to figure out a way to get the best of both worlds. Thanks again, Mark!

    (For anyone who doesn’t know, Mark Forster is an internet celebrity and productivity guru. We blogged about him a few months ago: )

  7. Great points! (See my response above as well.) We do think it’s worth at least having the option to keep all your data on one graph after you re-rail. Right now it’s relegated to a History tab. Some people like the fresh start but it’s obviously not for everyone.

  8. Wow, beautifully argued, Yvonne! Ok, we’re officially convinced. There are a couple technical difficulties that will delay this (having to do with auto-summing graphs) but it’s coming. It may also become moot when we have fancy interactive graphs where you can pan and zoom. Then it really won’t make sense to ever relegate historical data to another tab.

    Thanks so much to you and Mark for helping us think all this through!

  9. I’m trying to understand why my suggestion would throw a spanner into your existing workings. The “nice properties” you describe seem more theoretical than real. To get back into the green on my own weight-loss chart (the only one I’m working seriously on at the moment) I would have to lose 2.5 lbs. I could then leave the chart untouched until well into the second week of June without its hitting the red.

    At the moment (this is my real situation) I’m skating down the top edge of the yellow-brick road, in imminent danger of plunging into the red. The centre-line no longer matters to me – that’s only a distant dream. What’s keeping me making the effort to lose weight is the top line.

    What happens when I do plunge into the red? I get a “reset”. I can’t find any exact description of what that means, but as far as I can make out it means in effect starting a new weight-loss goal. That means everything I’ve done so far is irrelevant. It wipes out the akrasia horizon and puts me back onto the centre-line.

    For the pledging to reach a level at which it would significantly motivating me I would have to go through this process four or five times. That means that I have to move from the blue to the red four or five times before I find enough motivation. By the time I’ve done that I suspect I could be weighing considerably more than when I first started out!

    But if my suggestion were followed, it would be a very different story:

    I would remain on the top line, and I would NOT be moved back to the centre-line. That means that the financial motivation would increase very quickly if I continued to go into the red. What’s basically happens is that you give me some help. increase my motivation but then make me continue to fight the battle as it currently is.

    If I wanted to get back to the centre-line I would have the existing choices of making more effort to lose weight or of adjusting the goal beyond the akrasia horizon. My previous history would still remain very relevant, and I would not lose the benefit of the akrasia horizon.

    This point about the akrasia horizon is a very important one. If I understand the “reset” mechanism at the moment, you are basically letting people off the akrasia hook every time they fail. In other words you are undermining the entire basis on which you have constructed Beeminder.

  10. See my reply above for a full response. But I think it’s important to emphasize that I am not talking about cosmetic changes – like whether you can keep all your data on one graph.

    The point I am making strongly is that your present re-set mechanism (if I understand it correctly) is actually undermining the entire basis on which you have constructed Beeminder.

  11. I’m not quite clear what you are planning to do here, but if it as Yvonne proposes, my feeling about the changes would be as follows:

    1. original goal and graph continue (GOOD)

    2. indication of a brief discontinuity (SO SO)

    3. Adjustment of the goal curve (BAD)

    #3 means that if you fail, you can avoid the akrasia horizon – which is the whole point of Beeminder.

  12.  Now that really is a worthwhile goal!