People with the opposite problem from the one Beeminder solves

(This came up yesterday when chatting with our friends at RescueTime and I thought it could be interesting to discuss here.)

Beeminder focuses on the problem of hyperbolic discounting – basically procrastination and impulsiveness. There exist people who suffer the opposite problem: in the extreme case, an OCD-like focus on the future at the expense of the present. Like saving for retirement to the point of living in self-imposed poverty or focusing on career to the point of precluding human relationships.

Are you or anyone you know like that?

I’m so everything-looks-like-a-nail that my reaction to those examples is “just beemind your human relationships!” or “just beemind spending more money!” but the question is whether there are people for whom Beeminder is just fundamentally the wrong tool. People who need to be more present-focused rather than more future-focused. If so, what’s the solution for such people?


Meditation! (Beemind it?)


dreev asked me to post this from an email conversation. These are my thoughts as a lay person with some practical experience helping myself and others make long term changes. Would be interesting to hear a psychologist weigh in.

My guess is that we’re naturally inclined to hyperbolic discounting. Which means that in the case someone is overly future focused, there’s some incredibly powerful belief system that is overriding that. Not to be dramatic, but I imagine it to be similar to our biological drive to survive contrasted with the knowledge that people willingly go to their death when they see themselves as martyrs / kamikazes, etc.

Shortly after I’d graduated I asked a friend of mine who was an investment banker how in the world he had such a crazy work ethic. This was a guy who folded his underwear in his drawers. He graduated with a 4.0. In a known easy class there was a test that I studied 4 hours for and skipped all the classes and got a 97, he studied for 2 days and got a 100. He was the definition of overwhelming force and bring an elephant gun to a rabbit hunt. Everything was so regimented with him.

When I asked him that question, he answered pretty quickly that he watched his parents struggle and use cardboard boxes as furniture and that he was determined to not deal with the same thing. Basically, he’d had a significant emotional event at a young age, and used it to make a key decision that had driven his life since then. The combination of a S.E.E. and key decision is pretty common among people whose behavior diverges significantly from a norm (stolen from Tony Robbins and matches my experience back when I was an executive coach). I’ve noticed that these beliefs often turn up as statements like “life is, I am, people are.” Sure enough, he’s massively successful now, has bought his parents a house, and takes them on vacations. Perhaps it was a confluence of something biological with him, as well as what essentially amounted to a giant pledge amount constantly hanging over his head.

If someone who truly had issues with this came to me for help, my first goal would be to elicit their beliefs and values. I’d figure out why this makes sense to them and how their model of the world hangs together. What beliefs make it all internally consistent? Then I’d test some new beliefs to see their reaction to it. If changing it would actually make them happy, perhaps I’d give them an experience where they violated their old beliefs yet things worked out incredibly well for them.

I think the key difference is that instead of working against a persistent cognitive bias, I’d just be helping them tinker with their model of the world. And of course, while beeminder is a tool in the toolkit, I use the same type of tinkering on myself to try to make it more effective.


Appreciate your (much more thoughtful) reply, willinvent. :slight_smile:

Thinking about what could help reshape some of these values (or the expressions thereof), here are a few that came to mind:

  • Therapy/life coaching
  • Some sort of mindfulness practice that brings a different kind of awareness to light
  • Like above, but journaling
  • Near death experience
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I think the other neat high level idea here is that human behavior is a bit like predicting financial markets. The press may say “hey X is happening therefore the price of Y is going to fall!” Similarly we may say “hey, I put my gym clothes next to my bed so I’m more likely to go for a run” The reality is that there are probably 50+ things factoring into whether the price will rise/fall (or you’ll make it to the gym). You’d have to weight all those factors by their importance and sum them to find their cumulative effect and have any idea what’s going to happen – for the price of some asset or for your behavior!

If 50 things are too hard to keep track of, (they are for me) then the immediate question becomes: “is there a simpler list that captures most of the variability?” Say our activation energy for taking some action is 100 “points.” I think the genius of beeminder is that it can balloon itself to create as many additional points as you need to get over your activation energy and take action. A $5 pledge may be worth 10 points, and a $100 pledge may be worth 70, etc.

Cognitive biases like hyperbolic discounting in many scenarios may be a drag of a few or 10’s of points.

In my opinion, beliefs have the capability to be worth 1000 points alone. Nothing comes close. If you ever talk to someone who is good at something and you ask them why it’s easy and they just blink at you like they don’t even understand the question (because they can’t comprehend a world where their attitude isn’t self evident) that’s the power of a good set of beliefs (good at least in that scenario, very possibly ruinous in another context of their life).

It’s what I’m sure my friend has. And it’s what a lot of people pick up by mistake whenever something truly significant happens to them. (and as a corollary if you can manufacture significant events then you can probably also change yourself in a more deliberate manner).

The problem is that too often we treat them as fixed because we don’t know how to change them effectively so we end up with a ton of beliefs that have arguably been largely formed by chance. And while there are some easy ways to move the needle, most require effort and deliberate planning and time.

Given the payoff and the energy it takes, maybe the real question is whether I should be beeminding “Change beliefs?” :slight_smile:


I think it’s important to consider that some of these people may exhibit this extremely forward-thinking problem where they can’t focus on the present in only some aspects of their life. It likely just so happens that these aspects are the ones that are most visible to the outside observer.

I’ll use myself as an example. To most people, I appear to be some kind of machine-like high achiever. I’m a jack of all trades, and I seem to be very good at everything I do. I’m graduating from college (I live in Canada, so by that I mean a 3-year diploma; Americans might call this “community college”) in a couple of weeks, and will be going to university in the fall to upgrade my diploma to an Honours B.Sc. I’m at the top of my class, with a 4.53 cumulative GPA. This is on a 5-point scale, and I looked it up and I think this is the equivalent to a 3.8 on a 4-point scale, but it depends on who you ask. At the university I’m going to for my undergrad, my 4.53 is equivalent to a 4.0.

I’m graduating from a biotechnology program, which is not only not easy, but it’s arguably one of the hardest programs at my entire college. While I was in college, I was also a peer mentor for two years, an ambassador for the school at things like open houses and orientation for two years, a member of the student emergency response team last year, and heavily involved with the drama club. Last year I was the president of the drama club, and I both acted in and directed our year-end play, as a first-time director, while I was taking six classes, dealing with my other extracurricular activities, and attending to my other responsibilities as president. In short, it was a lot.

Most people are amazed that I did all that and can’t believe that a single person could be talented in and dedicated to all of these things. So I seem like the type of person with the opposite problem from the one Beeminder solves. But am I?

I would argue that I’m on both sides of the spectrum. There are a lot of goals I have that I’m very akratic about and put off because I have these long-term goals of academic and personal excellence. Some of these goals, though, are also long-term goals. For instance, I’ve always been overweight, and even though getting fit and healthy is a long-term thing and something I’ve always wanted to do, I delay it because in the moment it’s never as important as the short-term consequences of whatever delicious dessert is sitting in front of me. There are other examples in other areas of my life as well, of long-term things I want to accomplish but delay because of whatever is happening in the moment.

Adding to the psychology aspect of this discussion, I will note that I previously attended university a few years ago, but dropped out before the end of my first year because I was so depressed I could barely leave my dorm room. When I came to college a year and a half later, that experience was at the forefront of my mind, and I was determined not to fail, because I knew that if I failed in college, I wouldn’t get another chance at post-secondary education. So having had that sort of experience at a crucial juncture in my life may have pushed me in this direction, like willinvent’s banker friend.

Another thing I think is worth mentioning is that I wasn’t using Beeminder for most of my time in college, either. I largely got all of these things done with hard work and sheer force of will. I am using Beeminder now, but my focus at the moment is mostly to create a series of goals relating to physical and mental wellness, because doing all of this hard work is stressful, and I don’t spend enough time taking care of myself. So as far as achieving academic success, being involved in extracurricular activities, and creating a full life for myself, I’m fine on my own. But staying healthy, both now and in the long term? That’s what I need Beeminder for.


Beautifully said! And you’ve convinced me that it’s probably silly to talk about two types of people – it’s the combination of person and goal. I.e., a person can be non-akratic, or even opposite-of-akratic (even to an unhealthy extreme, not that that applies to your academics and extracurriculars) about some things and still very much akratic about other things.


I totally agree with what sara was saying as well. While I would struggle to pull off what she did, there are other things in my life that are difficult for others that are a breeze for me. Reflecting on that I think is a set of beliefs as well as a mixture of identity (I see these things as core to who I am) and somewhat related good old pleasure/pain…I constantly reap internal and external benefits for succeeding in this area and conversely it would seriously bug me if I let it slip.

That said, I still beemind some of them and it helps time to time. But I had a track record of success for years before I ever stumbled on this service.

The cognitive dissonance of “you claim to believe that conditioning the right beliefs solves a large number of problems” yet “you haven’t systematized engaging in this process by beeminding it” totally got to me. …So now I’m beeminding it just to get my own inner voice off my back so I can feel aligned with who I tell myself I am. :slight_smile:


There’s a book called “Goals Suck” where the author has the opposite problem - for instance, he talks about how he used to love skiing but he ruined it by making it a goal and being so extreme and OCD that it stopped being fun. So he went to the opposite extreme and now believes that, well, all goals suck and you should just do what you feel like and enjoy.

I could not relate to the book at all. I don’t think it’s about the task - there is no task that I feel that way about, and there is no task where the author of that book feels how we do. There really are two distinct types of people here.


This reminds me. There’s a page about this, including research footnotes, in The Willpower Instinct.


Here’s another possible example of overdoing goals:

Check, last year summed up pretty accurate.

Stop being so OCD. It starts with being aware of what makes you happy (or something other positive), e.g. listen to some good music! Have dinner with close friends for no functional reason but to enjoy the dinner (with wine?)