Outsourcing self-discipline?

So when I discussed Beeminder with my dad, he was not impressed at all because he thought I was doing harm to myself by outsourcing my self-discipline. I wanted to know y’alls thoughts on this.


I’m curious to hear what he believes the harm in outsourcing self-discipline would be!

I find that using Beeminder to track commitments over the long term frees up mental energy that I can then apply to shorter-term tasks that require self-discipline. Eventually, I end up forming habits and the tasks then don’t require any self-discipline at all to complete. The sorts of goals best suited to Beeminder require consistent daily effort to succeed, and I still have to actually do the thing. Beeminder mostly keeps me from telling myself “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

You might be interested in the relatively recent post here discussing a related topic:


I think his line of thinking was that if I use Beeminder to force myself to do something, it’s like cheating. If I disciplined myself to do it, then I would be improving my own self-discipline in an honest, straightforward way.

I agree. That’s a good way to think about it.


That’s unfortunate.

I’m curious–does your dad ever drive or take the bus, or is that cheating
that prevents him from developing his legs?


I can see that happening to some degree. The counter argument is also that you are now able to do many more things even than people who have a well developed self-discipline.

My other argument is that beeminder is a nice set of training wheels. I know because I took beeminder of my active goal today (be active at least 3 times a week) because I think I have developed the habit of going to gym and it is nice knowing that when shit happens, I don’t have to stress out over beeminder, or remember to schedule a break. BB I would never have done this.


Many people outsource self-discipline to their alarm clock in order to get out of bed on time. The harm comes when they start ignoring that reminder set by their own intention and hitting ‘snooze’ all the time.


Great topic of discussion! This is a common initial reaction.

I have a huge number of thoughts on the pros and cons of outsourcing willpower. Obviously I’m very pro but it’s great to think about potential downsides. I’d love to see your dad’s take on the reactions here!

Actually, let me set aside all my arguments that willpower is not a thing that needs exercising or other reasons that I think your dad’s premises are wrong. If your dad is a strong believer in the concept of self-discipline and has successfully cultivated it for himself without using any psychological tricks then those arguments might not be persuasive to him anyway. Instead, let’s take that position for granted, that self-discipline is critical and constructing elaborate external incentives is cheating. Then you can still use Beeminder productively, like so:

Use the graph to measure and visualize your progress but dial the commitment down to something super easy. Then exercise your self-discipline in staying far above Beeminder’s yellow brick road. If you succeed, wonderful. If not, Beeminder will enforce the bare minimum. After all, if your self-discipline does fail, better to use the crutch and still get some productivity than fall completely on one’s face. You can keep using other, what your dad would consider more wholesome, productivity methods until you find something that makes Beeminder superfluous. Until then, having the data about your progress, and the safety net to prevent total floundering, is super valuable.

I’m curious if that’s persuasive to him. But back to arguing against his core premise, the last paragraph of our Type Bee Personality post analogizes Beeminder to wearing glasses – great if you don’t need them but if you do, just wear the damn things rather than wish you didn’t!

I don’t buy the argument, and I think the testimonials here and elsewhere rebut it too, that using Beeminder atrophies one’s self-discipline. For one, beeminding is a pretty elaborate act of self-discipline. And to whatever extent it does free up willpower, that would just let you redeploy it elsewhere. But, again, I don’t think willpower works like that.

Maybe the strongest anti-Beeminder argument is that if you’re truly incorrigible then you’ll waste a bunch of money for no benefit. We make a big deal out of the want-can-will test to try to avoid that outcome.

PS: Hover over above links for synopses.


Hi, ex-Beeminder user here! @dreev brought me over to say hi because I was talking about this stuff.

I would definitely put myself in the “willpower probably doesn’t work like that” camp, though obviously some people think it does and some people think it doesn’t.

About being truly incorrigible… that might be me. I’m not sure. The implicit statement that anyone who hasn’t otherwise managed to show the strength of their willpower will also fail at Beeminder is an empirical one. I get the impression that, once you filter for people who think the Beeminder concept sounds promising, a lot of people actually find it works out ok. Beeminder HQ would have the numbers for that, though I don’t know if they publish them.

Obviously, though, it’s not going to be for everyone. Entering Beeminder is not “wasting money for no benefit”; it’s a risk. There’s always a chance that you might lose a bunch of money before you really feel any benefit from it. The Beeminder staff seem to show every indication of not wanting this to happen to people, and actually providing a service that will help people. That’s why @dreev has been chatting to me just now, even though I likely won’t be a customer again.

The way I failed is one in which the Beeminder system is not quite set up to handle. My productivity seems to naturally tend to go in cycles - right now I’m on one of the upswings, gradually getting done all the things that need to be done and slightly more energetic and so on. But when I’m on one of the downward swings, I start off by losing the self-awareness that I might be on one of the downward swings, and then by the time I’ve really noticed whatever systems I have have fallen apart and I’m sort of back to square one.

Beeminder gives you the chance to cancel everything if you give a week’s notice (or did back when I was playing, I assume this still works the same way). So if I was better at anticipating - and being honest with myself - then I could have prepared for a crash like that by canceling all my goals.

That still wouldn’t be particularly great though. Obviously the point is to try to stop the crashes from happening, especially when there isn’t any obvious factor that might be causing them other than my own psychology. Somehow the Beeminder stings weren’t enough to help with that for me. Maybe I’m less motivated by smallish amounts of money disappearing? (And way too cowardly to try dialing up the punishment if it didn’t seem to be working). Or maybe I have a sort of self-destructive streak that appears whenever I feel cornered? Or maybe the Beeminder effect only has a certain strength, and whatever causes my up/down cycles happened to beat it?


The strongest example (I can think of) for your father’s side would be fit soldiers, who turn to fat after their service is done. (because there is no external discipline enforced, anymore)

Not sure, how common that really is, though. Or maybe, that’s just mostly headcases (PTSD and such).
I’d assume, that the military shapes the character in a long term positive way and that at least parts of the discipline become internalized and a part of an ex-soldiers character (‘Once a marine, always a marine.’), though the military experience is a lot more than just discipline.

But then doing things consistently in a disciplined manner to a degree, which might only be possible to you with the help of Beeminder, is also more than just ‘discipline’, but might result in a much more virtuous lifestyle in general and to quote Aristotle ‘We are, what we repeatedly do.’.

@philip People don’t outsource their self-discipline to an alarm clock. You can’t ‘self-discipline’ yourself to wake up at a certain time reliably.

@adamwolf Driving a bus is not only about comfort, but also about saving time. This sounds like you’re trying to paint his dad’s position being against tool-use. Or tool-use being inconsistent with developing discipline, which I don’t see at all. If you just mean circumstances, where enduring a bit of discomfort is not costing you anything and has some muscular/health benefits, I think it’s fair to assume, that the father is indeed one of the rare specimens, whom Mr. Money Mustache wouldn’t punch in the face.

@deepmockito[quote=“deepmockito, post:8, topic:2957”]
The implicit statement that anyone who hasn’t otherwise managed to show the strength of their willpower will also fail at Beeminder is an empirical one.

I don’t see that implicit statement there at all. I think the statement is, that if you are only disciplined through an external force, you miss out on valuable character growth and/or become soft and weak, because you are reliant on someone/something else telling you what to do, instead of learning to do the right thing always and independent of context.

Oh, I didn’t see, that you were referring to dreev. Bad reading comprehension on my part. Sorry.

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@David oh yeah sorry, that was responding to @dreev’s point about “Maybe the strongest anti-Beeminder argument is that if you’re truly incorrigible then you’ll waste a bunch of money for no benefit.”, not the OP. That particular comment didn’t seem to be about character growth even if the other things in the thread are. Apologies if I was moving too far off the original topic.

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I know this thread is old, but I still think about it a lot. And I came to a Eureka! moment recently.

Actually, what happened was I finally realized that some concepts that were common to Beeminder users (certain blog post topics, the very nature of a Beeminder goal) directly answered the question I initially expressed in this thread.

My Initial thought:
Is Beeminder good for your own self-discipline if it essentially out-sources that willpower? If your motivation to do something is driven by either the threat of paying or the stress of having to catch up on a goal you got behind on, then are you really being disciplined to do it? Or are you just short-circuiting it? Is that an honest way to improve yourself?

My Recent Response to this:
A Beeminder goal, by definition, is billed as a way to keep yourself accountable short-term for long-term goals you have. This idea of accountability recently hit by like a ton of bricks. I use Beeminder because long-term, I want to do something, but I know that short-term, I find excuses not to do it because something else is too important (or distracting). Beeminder is meant to keep you accountable on a day to day basis for that long-term goal.

In other words, it’s a way to close the gap between your long-term intentions and your in-the-moment motivation to make them move in the same direction. (Also known as akrasia!)

So in a sense, yes, you are “out-sourcing willpower”, but that’s what accountability is. And that’s not bad at all. That’s dealing with human nature as it is. We’re fixing a deeply destructive natural part of us and making it work for our long-term good.

This may be already obvious to you guys, but for some reason, it just clicked for me given my initial thought as I expressed above.


I would liken this to the “work smarter not harder”-crowd.

Personally, I have long searched for the “trick to just learn smarter” and I have yet to find it decades later. Depending who makes up the statistic, “showing up is XX% of the game”. Yet all the study forums are full of people that give you advice how to study smarter. Same goes for work there’s a whole cult around “work smarter not harder”. But I’d argue, even if you work smart, anyone who works smart and hard will still outrun you.

So even if you have tremendous will-power and subscribe to the “willpower is a muscle”-type, why not “willpower hard AND smart”?
In the end, you still have to show up and do the thing, so instead of taking the implicit consequences of “not having the willpower” you are adding an explicit consequence. Not sure a 5$ consequence would make a difference if it was purely about willpower.

I know many people that procrastinated on finishing their studies (not enough willpower?) but had the grit to get up every morning to work out (enough willpower?). That opportunity is much higher than anything j habe payed in total to beeminder. If it was just about “tricking willpower with money”, no one would take more than 3 years to finish university.

There’s so much more about beeminder, as in being explicit about goals and commitment. And also betting on yourself. No amount of punishment can really make you pay for something youeeeeaaaally don’t feel like doing. So beeminder in the end is the “work smarter” version, where you still have to show up and do the thing. And if you want to be successful in the arbitrary thing you want to do, you better put in the hours too and work hard.


One thing I like to tell people who are sceptical about Beeminder is “I don’t have to use it forever. Just until I learned enough about myself to no longer need it”.
Whether this will or will not eventually happen is in a different book altogether of course. I’m looking at you, lifetime premium plan!


That’s a fascinating article, thanks for sharing. The concerns about “Digital Willpower World” are very significant, but the new approaches to willpower do seem to make sense.

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I think my rational has been that the world is going to manipulate me regardless of what I do (product designers are all about manipulation; that is, influencing user behavior to move their metrics) so I might as well use the same principles to move myself in the direction I actually want to go and that’s actually healthy for me.