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On the goodness of Beeminder

Beeminder.com improves my life a lot. This is surprising: few things improve my life much, and when they do it’s usually because I’m imagining it. Or because they are things that everyone has known about for ages and I am slow on the uptake (e.g. not moving house three times a year, making a habit of eating breakfast, making habits at all). But Beeminder is new, and it definitely helps.

One measurable instrumental benefit of Beeminder is that I have exercised for half an hour or an hour per day on average since last October. Previously I exercised if I needed to get somewhere or if the fact that exercise is good for people crossed my mind particularly forcibly, or if some even less common events occurred. So this is big. It seems to help a lot for other things too, such as working, but the evidence there is weaker since I used to work pretty often anyway. I’m sorry that  I didn’t keep better track.

Unlike many other improvements to my life, I have some guesses about why this is so useful. But first let me tell you the basic concept of Beeminder.

Take a thing you can measure, such as how many pages you have written. Suppose you measure this every day, and enter the data as points in a graph. Suppose also that the graph contains a ‘road’ stretching up ahead of your data, to days that have not yet happened. Then you could play a game of keeping your new data points above the road. A single day below the road and you lose. It turns out this can be a pretty compelling game. This is basically Beeminder.

There are more details. You can change the steepness of the road, but only for a week in the future. So you can fine-tune the challengingness of a goal, but can’t change it out of laziness unless you are particularly forward thinking about your laziness (in which case you probably won’t sign up for this).

There is a lot of leeway in what indicators you measure, and some I tried didn’t help much. The main things I measure lately are:

  • number of 20 minute blocks of time spent working. They have to be continuous, though a tiny bit of interruption is allowed if someone else causes it
  • time spent exercising weighted by the type of exercise e.g. running = 2x dancing = 2 x walking
  • points accrued for doing tasks on my to-do list. When I think of anything I want to do I put it on the list, whether it’s watching a certain movie or figuring out how to make the to do list system better. Some things stay there permanently, e.g. laundry. I assign each task a number of points, which goes up every Sunday if it’s still on the list. I have to get 15 points per day or I lose.

At first glance, it looks like Beeminder is basically a commitment contract: that it gets its force from promising to take your money if you lose. In my experience this seems very minor. I often forget how much money is riding on goals, and seem to keep the ones with no money on about as well as the others. So at least for me the threat of losing money isn’t what’s going on.

What is going on? I think Beeminder – especially the way I use it – actually does a nice job of combining a bunch of good principles of motivation. Here are some I hypothesize:

Concrete steps

In order to use Beeminder for a goal, you need to be clear on how you will quantify progress toward it. This means being explicit about the parts it is made of. You can’t just intend to read more, you have to intend to read one philosophy paper every day. You can’t just intend to do your taxes, you have to intend to finish one of five forms every week. You can’t just intend to ponder whether you’re doing the right thing with your life, you have to intend to spend twenty minutes per week thinking up alternatives. Making a goal concrete enough to quantify it destroys ugh fields and makes it easier to start. ‘What get’s measured gets done’ – just making a concrete metric salient makes it easier to work toward than a similar vague goal.

Small steps

To Beemind a goal, you need to divide it into many small parts, so you can track progress. ‘Finish making my presentation’ might be explicit enough to measure, but the measure will be zero for a long time, then one. Breaking goals up into small steps has nice side effects. It removes ugh fields, induces near mode, makes success likely at any particular step. In Luke Muehlhauser’s terminology, it increases ‘expectancy’ and allows ‘success spirals’*. Trading long term goals for short term ones also avoids the kind of delay that might make it easy to succumb to procrastination.

Don’t break the chain 

Otherwise known as the Seinfeld hack. This might be the main thing that motivates me to keep my Beeminder goals, in the place of the money. Imagine you are skipping rope. You have made it to 70 skips. It was kind of hard, but you’re not so exhausted that you have to stop. You probably feel more compelled to keep going and make it to 80 than you did when you started. In general, once you have successfully done something a string of times, doing it again seems more desirable. Perhaps this is particular to OCD kinds of people, but a Google search suggests many find it useful.

Beeminder is a nicely flexible implementation of this, because the chain is a bit removed from what you are doing. You only have to maintain an average, so you can work extra one day to slack off the next. This doesn’t seem to undermine the motivational effect.

Hard lines in middle grounds

Firm commitments are naturally made to extremes. This is partly due to principled moral stances, which tend to be both extreme and firm. But that’s not all that’s going on. It’s hard to manage a principle of eating 40% less meat. If people want to eat less meat, they either eat none at all, or however much they feel like pushed down in a vague fashion with some bad feelings. The middle of the meat eating spectrum is too slippery for a hard line – it’s hard to tell how much you eat and annoying to track it. ‘None’ is salient and verifiable. In other realms intermediate lines are required: your diet can’t cut eating to zero. So often diets are more vague; which makes them harder to keep.

Similarly, it’s easy to commit to doing something every day, or every Sunday, or every month. It’s harder to commit to do a thing 2.7 times per week on average, because it’s awkward to track or remember this ‘habit’.

Compromised positions are often more desirable than extremes, and desired frequencies are unlikely to match memorable periods. So it’s a pity that vague commitments are harder to keep than firm ones. Often people don’t make commitments at all, because the readily available firm ones are too extreme. This is a big loss.

Beeminder helps with making firm commitments to intermediate positions. Since you only ever need to notice if the slope of your data isn’t steep enough, any rate is as easy to use as a goal. You can commit to eating 40% less meat, you just have to estimate once what 40% is, then record any meat you eat. I’ve used Beeminder to journal on average five nights per week. This is better than every night or no night, but would otherwise be annoying to track.

A small threat to overcome tiny temptations

While working, there are various moments when it would be easier to stop than to continue, particularly if you mostly feel the costs and benefits available in the next second or so, and if you assume that you could start again shortly (related). It is in these moments that I tend to stop and get a drink, or look out of the window, or open my browser or whatnot.

Counting short blocks of continuous time working pretty much solves this problem for me. The rule is that if you stop at all the whole block doesn’t count. So at any given moment there might be a tiny short term benefit to stopping for a second, but there is a huge cost to it. In my case this seems to remove stopping as an option, in the same way that a hundred dollar price on a menu item removes it as an option without apparent expense of willpower.

I originally thought it would be good to measure the amount of work I got done, rather than time spent doing it. This is because I want to get work done, not waste time on it. But given that I am working, I strongly prefer to do good work, fast. So there’s not much need for an added incentive there. I just need an incentive to begin, and one to not stop when a particular moment makes stopping look tasty. In Luke’s terminology, this kills impulsiveness.

Less stress

The long term threat of failing to write an essay is converted into a short term pleasure of winning each night at Beeminder. I’m not sure why this seems like a pleasure, rather than a threat of losing, but it does to me. Probably because losing at Beeminder isn’t that unpleasant or shameful. And how could getting points or climbing a scale not seem like winning? (This is about value in Luke’s terms).

More accuracy

It’s harder to maintain planning fallacy, overconfidence, or expectation of perfection in the future, in light of detailed quantitative data, and a definite trend line.

Just the difference between ‘I should do that’, and ‘I should do that, so how much time will it take?… About two hours, so I guess it should get 20 points.. that probably won’t be enough to compel me to do it soon, but that’s ok, it’s not urgent’ seems to change the mindset to one more sensitive to reality.

***

In sum, I think Beeminder partly works well because it causes you to think of your goals in small, concrete parts which can easily be achieved. It also makes achieving the parts more satisfying, and strings them into an addictive chain of just the right challengingness. Finally it lends itself to experimentation with a wide range of measures of success, such as measuring time blocks or ‘points’, at arbitrary rates. The value from innovations there is probably substantial. So, averse as I am to giving lifestyle advice, if you’re curious about the psychology of motivation in humans, or if you want to improve your life a lot, you should probably take a look at Beeminder.

*you can also increase expectancy by measuring something like time rather than progress.

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Testing An Idealistic-Tech Hypothesis

Katja:

Relatively minor technological change can move the balance of power between values that already fight within each human. [For example,] Beeminder empowers a person’s explicit, considered values over their visceral urges. … In the spontaneous urges vs. explicit values conflict …, I think technology should generally tend to push in one direction. … I’d weakly guess that explicit values will win the war. (more)

The goals we humans tend to explicitly and consciously endorse tend to be more idealistic than the goals that our unconscious actions try to achieve. So one might expect or hope that tech that empowers conscious mind parts, relative to other parts, would result in more idealistic behavior.

A relevant test of this idea may be found in the behavior of human orgs, such as firms or nations. Like humans, orgs emphasize more idealistic goals in their more explicit communications. So if we can identify the parts of orgs that are most like the conscious parts of human minds, and if we can imagine ways to increase the resources or capacities of those org parts, then we can ask if increasing such capacities would move orgs to more idealistic behavior.

A standard story is that human consciousness functions primarily to manage the image we present to the world. Conscious minds are aware of the actions we may need to explain to others, and are good at spinning good-looking explanations for our own behavior, and bad-looking explanations for the behavior of rivals.

Marketing, public relation, legal, and diplomatic departments seem to be analogous parts of orgs. They attend more to how the org is seen by others, and to managing org actions that are especially influential to such appearances. If so, our test question becomes: if the relative resources and capacities of these org parts were increased, would such orgs act more idealistically? For example, would a nation live up to its self-proclaimed ideals more if the budget of its diplomatic corps were doubled?

I’d guess that such changes would tend to make org actions more consistent, but not more idealistic. That is, the mean level of idealism would stay about the same, but inconsistencies would be reduced and deviations of unusually idealistic or non-idealistic actions would move toward the mean. Similarly, I suspect humans with more empowered conscious minds do not on average act more idealistically.

But that is just my guess. Does anyone know better how the behavior of real orgs would change under this hypothetical?

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Personal experiments: fueled by innovation?

Another way personal experimentation might be worth it for me, yet not used up by those before me: there is so much innovation that there are constantly new things to test, even if people experiment a lot. Beeminder and Workflowy are new. The abilities to prompt yourself to do things with a mobile phone or eat Japanese food or use your computer in a vast number of ways are relatively new.

I doubt this explains much. The question applies to many things that have been around and not that different for a long time, e.g. wheat, motivation, reading, romantic arrangements. And even if Beeminder is new, many of the basic ideas must be old (e.g. ‘don’t break the chain‘). As a society we don’t seem to have a much better idea of the effects of wheat on a person than we do of Beeminder.

Another way innovation could explain the puzzle is if all kinds of innovations change the value of all kinds of ancient things e.g. prevalence of internet use changes the effects of going to bed early or sitting in a certain way or doing something with your hair or knowing a lot of stories. If this is the case, experimentation is worth less than it seems, as the results will soon be out of date. So this goes under the heading ‘I’m wrong: experimentation isn’t worth it’, which would explain the puzzle, except the bit where everyone else perceives this and knows not to bother, and I don’t. I will get back to explanations of this form later.

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Why personal experimentation?

I experiment with many things, as do those around me. Some of this is randomization and explicit records, more is just trying different things, muttering ‘VOI‘ and repeating what felt good. I refer here to everything between a cautious banana-mustard-ham sandwich and polyamory.

Robin has suggested that I over-invest in such exploration. That most new things should be bad, and so most experimentation a private loss for public gain. What’s more, there shouldn’t be lots of low hanging fruit in trying things out. Most of the things humans frequently want to do (eat, sleep, change moods, organize time, learn, interact with others) should have been well figured out in ancient times. And anything that does still need checking out should be divided between many people.

Nonetheless, it looks to me like experimentation is worth it. Lots of the things we do seem barely satisfactory, there seem likely to be better alternatives, it seems hard to learn what has been tried for what ends, or what is good from listening to others or reading, and I and my friends seem to actually find good things by looking. e.g. Beeminderexplicit charity evaluation, unusual degrees of honesty, workflowy and explicit organization seem to often add value over the defaults, not to mention many tiny things, like banana-mustard-ham sandwiches.

If it is true that a lot of experimentation is worth it, we have a slight puzzle: if there is valuable information I might glean by experimentation, why hasn’t it been worth it for others in the past to collect it and put it where I can see it?

I will try to answer this over the next few posts. Before that, what do you think?

 

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Why don’t futurists try harder to stay alive?

A significant share of the broader ‘singularitarian’ community believes that they have a chance to live for hundreds of years, if they can survive until the arrival of an AI singularity, whole brain emulation, or just the point at which medical technology is advancing fast enough to keep extending our health-span by at least a year each year (meaning we hit ‘escape velocity‘ and can live indefinitely). Some are sufficiently hopeful about this to have invested in cryonics plans, hoping to be revived in the future, including Robin Hanson. Many others plan to do this, or think they should. (For what it’s worth, I am not yet convinced cryonics is worth the money – for reasons I am writing up – but I do think it warrants serious consideration.)

But there are much more mundane ways of increasing the chance of making it to this glorious future: exercise regularly, eat a nutritious diet low in refined carbohydrates, don’t smoke or hang around those who do, drink in moderation, avoid some illegal drugs, develop strong social supports to lower suicide and other mental health threats, have a secure high-status job, don’t live in an urban area, don’t ride a motorbike, get married (probably), and so on. While the futurist community isn’t full of seriously unhealthy or reckless people, nor does it seem much better in these regards than non-futurists with the same education and social class. A minority enjoy nutritional number crunching, but I haven’t observed diets being much better overall. None of the other behaviours are noticeably better.

I am fairly confident that the lowest hanging fruit would be raising fitness levels, which may even be lower among us than the general population. In addition to the immediate benefits regular and strenuous exercise has on confidence, happiness and productivity, it makes you live quite a bit longer. One study suggests that just 15 minutes of moderate exercise per day adds three years to your life expectancy (HT XKCD).

Now, maybe you are skeptical that those few years will allow you to live long enough to reach the end of involuntary death. Probably they won’t, but the whole life extension approach is to bank on a low chance of a giant payoff (living for hundreds or thousands of years). Furthermore, as the Singularity Institute has compellingly argued, we should not think we can confidently predict when AGI will be invented, if at all. The same is true to a lesser extent of progress towards whole brain emulation, or ending ageing. Furthermore, cryonics preservation procedures, and the selection of organisations that offer cryonics are gradually improving. Extending your life by five to ten years by doing all the ordinary things right could really make the difference; at least anyone considering gambling on cryonics should surely also find regular jogging worth their time.

I have even heard smart people claim that there is no need to worry about staying healthy because new technology will cure any diseases you get by the time you get them. But uncertainty about how soon such technologies will appear, combined with the high potential reward of living a little longer, would suggest exactly the opposite.

If I had to provide a cynical explanation for this apparently conflicting behaviour, I would suggest people are signing up for cryonics, or engaging in nutritional geekery, to signal their rationality and membership of a particular social clique. Going to the gym, even if it is a better bet for extending your life, doesn’t currently have the same effect. If you fear you’re stuck in that or some similar trap, consider using Stickk or Beeminder to make sure you do the rational thing.

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