Beeminder vs CBT

I’ve been having an email discussion/debate with the creator of a quasi-competitor of Beeminder (I’ll invite them to chime in and identify themself if they’d like – and of course I’ll be happy to promote their startup!). The question is whether Beeminder is too shame/punishment-focused and shouldn’t we change underlying thought patterns, like with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) instead? Beeminder is like guardrails but if you change your motivations at a deeper level, maybe you don’t need guardrails?

Here’s my answer so far:

I think Beeminder and CBT (or any more positive approach – changing environmental cues, tiny habits, success spirals, etc) are great complements! Beeminder is the guardrails and eventually you may have such confidence in having changed your underlying thought processes that the guardrails are superfluous.

But I think it would and should take years before you’d be sufficiently confident of that. Also it’s not just the guardrails, Beeminder is also a nice visualization of your progress and a way to reinforce/ritualize habits, so may be worthwhile even with the guardrail aspect superfluous. Also, for some of us, skating the edge, always relying on the guardrails, doesn’t feel aversive or shamey or anything. This may be especially true for ADHD types who thrive under stress. I think people are different in this way. For me it’s almost relaxing. I set up a Beeminder goal and know that I don’t need to worry – I just do what Beeminder tells me to do each day.


i’d consider myself an “adhd type” (ie autistic/neurodivergent) and to me beeminder is more of a short term solution to a long term struggle. i guess i can imagine improving my executive functioning to the level where i don’t need beeminder (though dedication to beem does itself require executive functioning, just fewer spoons by relying on precommitment). but in the meantime i still need to be drinking water and exercising.


I actually see Beeminder as a form of behavioral therapy, in that it focuses on changing your behavior and provides incentives to do that.

I think Beeminder is incomplete, in that it doesn’t address the deeper inner conflicts that prevent you from doing what you want, but it was never supposed to be a complete solution, just a way of dealing with akrasia and correcting for hyperbolic time discounting (“five years from now, I want to have been sober for four years and eleven months,” as The Office put it).

It’s just a part of your complete breakfast!

For that matter, CBT doesn’t address the deeper conflicts either, and has often been criticized on those grounds.

The psychodynamic approach to therapy (examples include Internal Family Systems Therapy, Focusing, and Coherence Therapy) takes a deeper approach by having you look at and embody your objections, rather than just trying to counteract them by pushing them away and argue against them the way CBT does.

Beeminder, like any tool, can be abused. Making it shame-based is one obvious way to do that - clearly shame is counterproductive. Another way is setting goals mindlessly, so you push yourself hard to do something you really don’t want to do (like a degree or a career choice you don’t really want but feel pressured into).

A good solution is to beemind time to reflect on your goals. My new daily schedule includes a goal for vision thinking, where I take time to think and write about a vision for my future, as well as a goal for time to examine what my objections are and look at them closely.


I know CBT works great for some, but I found it… philosophically irritating, I guess. I found ACT (a sort of derivative therapy) somewhat more effective, and also liked IFST as @zedmango mentioned. But honestly, the biggest thing that has improved my outlook on life has just been accomplishing more (on a day to day basis, not in terms of overall life success necessarily). Turns out, my brain is happier when I’m more productive, and I can either fight that or just work with it :woman_shrugging:

Which for me means that beeminder isn’t just guardrails, it’s actively improving my overall mood and functioning in an end-game kind of way. If I ever do stop using beeminder, I don’t expect it’ll be because I’ve “outgrown” it, it’ll be because I’ve found another product/service/system that does the same thing for me.


I totally agree.

So this basically is behavioral therapy - which is of course one part of CBT. It’s the cognitive part I find philosophically irritating - the symptoms you’re trying to get rid of are there for a reason, and sometimes it’s more helpful to address the reason rather than just sort of push it away.

My ideal recipe is something like:

  • three parts behavioral (feel better by doing things, using whatever tools facilitate that, such as Beeminder - I would include meditation in this as well)
  • one part psychodynamic (spend some time looking at the reasons for your reluctance, anxiety, procrastination, or whatever, see why it’s there and what it’s doing for you)
  • and just a dash of a cognitive approach to recognize when you’re going into a negative spiral.

thank you @dreev, great chat on email

I’d claim not a competitor! We help men who binge eat:
We use CBT exercise laced with Peer2Peer interactions to help guys move away from dietary-based rules to tackling underlying thought processes which lead them to eating when they don’t want to

interested to see what others think


I’d love for Beeminder to have deeper, personal, tools for folks to better achieve what they want to achieve.

I think Beeminder could even start with something like a roundup on things that have worked for Beeminder users, linking to relatively “reputable” upstream sources. This may be fine as a blog series that is coalesced into a help page. That might not be as effective as a step-by-step process with periodic check-ins or something, but it might be a reasonable place to start.

I think that if I were creating a Beeminder-adjacent tool designed for a more targeted audience, of which there are definitely hundreds, I would probably pull in design notes and think about creating deeper tools based on things like ACT or CBT or IFST (I do not have any experience with IFST, but also please don’t read this post as psychological advice even for the things I do have experience with :D). I think a tool that targets a more particular sub-niche of users would be able to do this more effectively than Beeminder could.

Going a different direction, as a short example of how different types of thinking can steer even something like Beeminder, I have found a lot of success (depending upon the goal) with starting with “doing a thing because I want to get a thing done” and moving toward “doing a thing because it’s part of who I am”. Beeminder does a great job of the initial part, and targeted thinking and journaling and other things help me move it towards “part of who I am”. As I started as a user with one real goal, and 3 Beeminder goals towards it, I had a feeling of “Beeminder is awesome and helps me get my thing done!”. After feeling really successful, I grew to quite a bit more goals, and 2-3x as many Beeminder goals as I started thinking about more and more things in a Beeminder-like way. After a few years of that, Beeminder often felt like homework, and I had a fair amount of “Ugh, I have 8 things I have to do today because Beeminder says so” feelings. I stopped looking for ways to Beemind different things I wanted to change or accomplish, and I stopped tuning my goals because I often associated Beeminder with the drudgery and slog, rather than with the success. Intellectually, I’d tell you Beeminder and how I was using it was instrumental in successes, but day to day, it felt more like the slog than the victories. I forget which things I read inspired this, but something talked a good amount about the difference between identity rather than projects or tasks. I decided to push my Beeminder use that way, and I’ve felt more recharged with my Beeminder use than I have in a while.

I wonder if Beeminder could use things like targeted communications and other things to frame thinking about Beeminder in different ways… well, I mean, of course they can–I wonder if there’s a way to really be effective with it, I guess :slight_smile:


There’s a really interesting book called “Goals Suck” by M. F. Stone that discusses this - he went too far with goals and ended up hating things he used to love. He had to fix it by swinging dramatically in the opposite direction - giving up all goals and just doing what he felt like. I think it takes some balancing and I think breaks from Beeminder can be really important (like the rests in music).

How did you rebalance towards identity?


Rebalancing is much too active of a verb for what I did :slight_smile: It was just a mental shift, going out of my way to think about the reasons for doing the thing beyond “making beeminder happy”. It didn’t take more than a few seconds per activity.

(I think the place where I got the inspiration from was Atomic Habits.)


This sounds like a perspective I need for how I struggle with reading sometimes! The identity-based goals idea, too… hmmm.


Interestingly, Beeminder has worked in an opposite direction for me. Very much like the catholic church, I get to pay for my sins (against productivity) and be absolved without the pesky shame spiral and self-flagellation. So I didn’t do it that already cost me $10 tomorrow’s a new day, no sense in obsessing over it if I didn’t make it despite even having money on the line. There was obviously something in my processes or in my life that kept me from it and I lost the bet this time.

(Works ~80% of the time unless it’s anxiety/depression that had me miss the goal anyways but then I’m also likely to call non-legit because mental health is a health-related issue obv.)

Edit: Your CBT friend would get a chuckle out of the reframing, I’m sure.


That’s great framing. I have tended to keep feeling badly about sliding off track after a derailment and I like this idea of just setting the pledge to whatever the appropriate amount would have to be for me to be able to just “buy” that absolution from my own brain on it, hehe.

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I have issues with food. I am one of those people who’s on a diet by default. I have recently gained back a lot of the weight I lost a few months ago.

Beeminder has helped keep me in check and slow the process down. I am eating better most of the time. It’s not perfect and I have paid for my derails. When I derail, I binge and go out of my way to do so.

Still, overall, the picture is a lot prettier and healthier. Most days I am eating well (low carb by my definition).

Do I have issues with food to deal with? Possibly yes. Do I want to dig into it? No. Seems easier to manage the symptoms with Beeminder.

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This is interesting. Perhaps it’s because I’m naturally an avoider, but my CBT therapist spends a lot of time encouraging me not to push my difficult feelings away, instead becoming aware of them and directly addressing them.

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I agree, my CBT experience does have practical focus – What can you do to improve this situation or to influence the way you think about it? – but that is not to the extent of suppressing or ignoring bad thoughts/feelings/symptoms. Rather, those things are discussed, but then the focus is on things you can do (physical things) that will help (as opposed to trying to think your way out of it, or talk your way out of it).

@zedmango if you ever look at CBT again maybe try a different therapist?

To be clear, I’ve also had talking therapy ([arts] psychotherapy) and I also think that’s good.

Anyway, to this end Beeminder can be compatible with CBT. Suppose you spend a while talking about some insecurity about your body (e.g. hair loss), after a while you might agree with your therapist that doing exercise might help you feel better about your body (and overall). Now, is this directly addressing the root cause? I guess not: Doing exercise won’t help you grow more hair, and there is probably some underlying insecurity that it is not directly addressing. Is this ignoring the thoughts/feelings/symptoms? No, because you’ve spent a long time discussing it with your therapist. Could this make a significant difference towards improving your symptoms? Potentially yes: Doing exercise can help you appreciate your body and marvel at it, even though it is an imperfect machine. It can help you feel more connected to and content with your body. All of this could combat/counter feelings of insecurity.

Beeminder is compatible here because you could set up an exercise goal.

Oh I totally want to read that book, thanks for mentioning it! I have always been of the opinion that goals suck, and I’m curious to read the author’s experience with them.

I would love to know what you think of it!

He’s kind of the anti-Danny Reeves, in his extremy extremeness - Danny wants to make (almost) everything into a goal, this guy says nothing should be a goal.

There’s definitely something to be said for taking breaks from goals to let yourself realize the consequences of inaction and to get more in touch with what you really want. Putting too much pressure on yourself can make you lose sight of the fun and the real purpose.

But for many people who are very ADD or akratic, like me, we need some form of structure to allow us to start, and without it we become very depressed and listless. On the other hand, maybe that’s something we need to somehow deal with in some way or work through rather than avoid? I’m not sure.

I think it’s important to check in regularly about your goals - I think people know deep down whether their goals are good for them, and whether they’re being used in a healthy way. You have to be able to self-correct and avoid unhealthy extremes so any system or anti-system you set up needs some kind of regular check-in or escape valve.

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This may depend on what “goal” means but, as we say in an ancient blog post, Beeminder is the very embodiment of systems over goals.


To be clear, a system is just a type of goal - specifically, a measurable one.

It sounds like you’re using goal to mean “any intentional planned behavior”; I mean goals in the sense that people mean it when they say “it’s important to have goals” – new years resolutions, “5 year plans”, OKRs, etc.

I don’t find the latter helpful at all, but I do find the former a requirement for life. “Lunch” is a goal, after all (and in fact I have a daily to-do for lunch, otherwise I tend to forget it!). In a slightly less reductionist example, I spent this weekend putting up a porch swing – this was intentional, and planned (it involved many steps that were unlikely to happen coincidentally – buying the swing, buying wood stain, checking the weather) but I didn’t actually put “build swing” on my list of things to do yesterday. Instead I left it up to how I felt at the time; I was fairly confident that I would feel like building the swing (I want a swing, after all) but it’s not an urgent task that I will suffer for leaving undone.

So by my own metrics, building the porch swing wasn’t a goal, it was a spontaneous activity I did of my own volition; it just needed some advance planning to be ready for spontaneity (and good weather). Based on the summary of the Goals Suck book, that sounds like the angle the author is aiming at, but there’s probably other nuances as well.

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