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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 Telegraph.co.uk