Anti-akrasia tool: like for data nerds

In 2009 I first de­scribed here on LessWrong a tool that Bethany Soule and I made to force our­selves to do things that oth­er­wise fell vic­tim to akra­sia (“How a patholog­i­cal pro­cras­ti­na­tor can lose weight”). We got an out­pour­ing of en­courage­ment and en­thu­si­asm from the LessWrong com­mu­nity, which helped in­spire us to quit our day jobs and turn this into a real startup: Bee­minder (the me-binder!).

We’ve added ev­ery­one who got on the wait­list with in­vite code LESSWRONG and we’re get­ting close to pub­lic launch so I wanted to in­vite any other LessWrong folks to get a beta ac­count first: http://​​bee­​​se­cret­signup (no wait this time!)

(UPDATE: Bee­minder is open to the pub­lic.)

It’s definitely not for ev­ery­one since a big part of it is com­mit­ment con­tracts. But if you like the con­cept of (forc­ing your­self to reach a goal via a mon­e­tary com­mit­ment con­tract) then we think you’ll adore Bee­minder.

StickK is just about the con­tracts—Bee­minder links it to your data. That has some big ad­van­tages:

1. You don’t have to know what you’re com­mit­ting to when you com­mit, which sounds com­pletely (oxy)mo­ronic but what we mean is that you’re com­mit­ting to keep­ing your dat­a­points on a “yel­low brick road” which you have con­trol over as you go. You com­mit to some­thing gen­eral like “work out more” or “lose weight” and then de­cide as you go what that means based on your data.

Someone outperforming their yellow brick road

2. You have the flex­i­bil­ity to change your con­tract in light of new in­for­ma­tion (like, 40 hours of ac­tual fo­cused work per week is damn hard!). That also sounds like it defeats the point of a com­mit­ment con­tract, but the key is that you can only make changes start­ing a week in the fu­ture. (De­tails at blog.bee­​dial which de­scribes the in­ter­face of the “road dial” for ad­just­ing the steep­ness of your yel­low brick road.) The point is that akra­sia (dy­namic in­con­sis­tency, hy­per­bolic dis­count­ing) means over-weight­ing im­me­di­ate con­se­quences, so to beat akra­sia you only need to bind your­self for what­ever the hori­zon on “im­me­di­ate” is. Based on a study of gro­cery-buy­ing habits—when buy­ing gro­ceries on­line for de­liv­ery to­mor­row peo­ple buy a lot more ice cream and a lot fewer veg­eta­bles than when they’re or­der­ing for de­liv­ery next week—and raw guess­work (so far), we’re tak­ing that Akra­sia Hori­zon to be one week.

So Bee­minder as an anti-akra­sia tool means com­mit­ting to keep­ing all your dat­a­points on a yel­low brick road that you spec­ify and can change the steep­ness of at any time, with a one-week de­lay.

You may be won­der­ing how any­one could ever fail to stay on a yel­low brick road that’s this flex­ible. Here’s how: if you’re highly akratic. Such a per­son may well find it a daily strug­gle to stay on the road. Yeah, you can always choose to wuss out and flat­ten the road, but only start­ing in a week, which you don’t want to do. You want to wuss out Right Now, dammit! I mean, just for now, while you eat this pie, and then you’ll be­have again. No such luck though.

The daily strug­gle to stay on the road does not in­duce you to touch that road dial. You always want to make it eas­ier “just for to­day”—which the road dial doesn’t al­low—and you always think you’ll get your act to­gether by next week.

We’d love to hear peo­ple’s thoughts on this! Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, it took a ridicu­lous num­ber of iter­a­tions to get to this point. For the longest time we strug­gled with differ­ent ways to deal with the fact that it’s so of­ten hard to de­cide what to com­mit to. We tried many vari­a­tions of hav­ing mul­ti­ple yel­low brick roads for a sin­gle goal, so that you could spec­ify an am­bi­tious goal as well as a bare min­i­mum. It was always too messy, or would back­fire al­to­gether and be par­a­lyz­ing. We think the road dial with an akra­sia hori­zon is a big leap for­ward. And it seems so ob­vi­ous in ret­ro­spect!