In October 2018, Nick Winter was a guest on Cody McLain’s podcast.
This is a highly edited transcript of the several minutes where they talk about Beeminder.
StickK is just bad UX and has strictly binary goals — do the thing or not. Its best feature is connecting you to people to check in with you. But I view Beeminder as really having the solution here in a way that a lot of these other ones don’t. The core problem is akrasia, which is kind of the opposite of motivation — not doing what you want to do, including procrastination. The way that the motivation equation works is that the long-term rewards are heavily discounted compared to the short-term consequences and costs. So anytime that you want something in the future, you still don’t want to put in the work now because the reward comes later. You can measure this kind of hyperbolic discounting function even in pigeons. Everything works this way. And you can draw a lot of really basic and obvious conclusions from applying that, when you start to use something like Beeminder, where you commit to how much work you’re going to put into your goals.
The key aspect to Beeminder, I find, is not the threat of the monetary penalty. When you derail, it starts at five bucks. If you want to work out three times a week and you eventually don’t work out on average three times a week, you pay five bucks and it re-ups for [$10]. The next time you don’t do it, it goes to $30 and $90 and it triples each time until, even when you don’t really want to work out, you really don’t want to pay $270, so you work out anyway. Thus, past-you has forced you to continue working out forever or at least until you change your mind on your long-term goals.
So that’s one thing about Beeminder that’s really, really useful is that you can change your mind about what your goal should be, but you can only do it a week in the future. And if you still want the benefit a week in the future, you just don’t want to pay the cost now? Well, tough, because you can’t change it now. You can only change it in a week. So it gives you the perfect blend of flexibility while still keeping your foot to the fire that you can trust you’re going to do what you said you would do. And that’s key. The expectancy of success makes doing any sort of project or putting in the work so much easier. It’s not even a question of motivation. If you really think you’re going to win, it’s just a question of organization.
For that, the main point of Beeminder is that as you set in, okay, I’m going to work out three times a week, I’m going to put two hours per day into my business on average, you have something that tells you exactly how much more you need to do to meet that commitment so that there’s no fuzzy logic, no rationalization, no weaseling out of it by saying, well, I’ll do some more tomorrow. Beeminder says no, your average means that you need to do point 3.4 hours more today, or you fail.
That bright line is absolutely important for not weaseling out of your word to yourself when your word to yourself is actually the core product and being able to trust that you would do what you said you would do. Absolutely critical if you want to work for yourself, run your own business, achieve your study goals, be personally productive, learn languages, have side projects, anything that you want to put into any sort of goal. You need to be able to trust your word to yourself and that’s what having a system that strengthens that word as opposed to risking it will do.
So that’s why I’m in love with Beeminder, because I think it’s the perfect combination of being able to specify clearly exactly what your goal is as well as showing you every day what you need to do to be on track so that you can’t just forget or slack or kind of weasel out.
HOST: Yeah, and the other thing I liked when I did use Beeminder — I haven’t gotten into the habit of it, but whenever I tried to email to cancel a goal that I actually decided I didn’t want to have for a vacation — I thought I added the vacation setting but they still wanted to ding me and then I emailed them and then they reply and they actually ask you, why do you not want to do this anymore? And so they try and be an accountability coach to some degree about preventing you, but ultimately they’ll still let you cancel it, but I’ve always found whenever I’ve used that or StickK that I’ve always found myself weaseling my way out of it and not really being able to successfully implement new habits and goals myself. Although many people look at me as somebody who is able to create a lot of good positive habits and I have my three keystone habits every day — my meditation, my exercise, and my reading — but I’ve never been able to use external applications and I’d actually go back to this idea of, I think it’s the contrast effect fallacy where when we have something we don’t really care about it, but when something’s taken away, then we want it more and I feel like these external applications can kind of lock this desire away.
Yeah, there are different types of people and some people will just weasel out of whatever they told Beeminder they’re going to do. And especially if you built that habit with Beeminder, then it might mean that Beeminder is blocked off to you. What humans will do is they will have very compartmentalized expectations of themselves in various areas. So people might say, oh, I can never diet. It never works for me. And yet then they can go on to learning a language and they have no problem spending 20 minutes a day or something like this. Or they think, oh, you know, I’m just incredibly socially anxious. I can never go out and talk to people and make friends and yet they’re putting in the time when it comes to working on their business. And they don’t generalize that these activities in terms of putting in the effort and the time to improve are kind of like each other.
You can just completely burn out on a certain area and thinking “I will never be good at this” and it takes a lot to come back from that kind of expectancy of failure. And you can do that with specific tools — to-do list, email inboxes, people, etc — where you kind of burned your bridge and you’ve lost trust in your word to that person, that tool, yourself or that process, whatever it is, but still be able to go and start fresh with a new person, tool, process, or area and give it a good shot. Your brain’s pretty good at compartmentalizing these past histories of failure and not transferring them to other areas. And so that means if you try Beeminder, you try StickK, you try accountability buddies, you try any sort of system, give it a really good shot the first time because if it doesn’t work the first time, you’re probably not going to be able to try again. You’ll just have this expectancy barrier in your way. But at the same time, if you fail on various strategies, processes, etc in the past, you can still find something that works for you as long as in your mind, it’s clearly different this time. But you should really try as hard as you can to succeed with that because every time that you fail it makes it a little bit harder on net to trust your general word to yourself.
So if you’re looking to try Beeminder, really try it. If you failed at it a few times in the past, try something else. If you’re going to weasel out of your commitment to yourself on Beeminder and you know that, then you could try, say, adding a personal accountability coach or something on top of it, or just doing something else. The Beeminder team is really great because — if you’re running your own business, you may know this or have seen this somewhere, it’s kind of the Paul Graham recommended approach to early stage startups and businesses: Just do really insanely great customer support. So if you contact the Beeminder team at any time about anything, you will very quickly get a response where they just go out of their way, bending over backwards to help you with your problem and understand your need, etc, in a maximally fair way. So this is really great for creating dedicated, loyal users, but also understanding their needs. You can’t do that once you’re super huge, but when you’re small and you’re just starting with your business, I highly recommend it.