Turning sticks into carrots

Here’s an idea that’s been independently reinvented a lot, motivated by the desire to avoid negative reinforcement:

You send money to Beeminder up front and pick some coveted item as your reward. If you stay on track Beeminder sends you your reward. If you don’t, Beeminder gives back most-but-not-all of your money.

My personal reaction is that I wouldn’t like trying to turn sticks into carrots like this. I mean, fundamentally it’s the same thing – I’m constructing some machinery whereby I will suffer a financial loss if I don’t stay on track. I can’t really make the carrot contingent on that. How can I prevent myself from buying that carrot despite having lost the money? I’m not willing to lose so much money that I can literally no longer afford the carrot. So it ends up feeling like a gimmick to me. I can tie my future self’s hands but he’s no dummy. I can’t actually trick him.

In other words, without a 3rd-party benefactor it’s still negative reinforcement, whether or not you put a positive spin on it. So I personally like Beeminder’s (and StickK’s) more straightforward version.

PS: We also make this point in our blog post about Lift: http://blog.beeminder.com/lift (from 2012 when Lift launched).

Beeminder already has the biggest carrot build in: you get whatever it is you are working towards - weightloss, learning a foreign language, marrying that girl, getting out of credit card debt. You are presumably working towards that goal because you want it very much and consider the effort to get it worth the work, just not right now.

I think ultimately the conflict between the carrot and stick only exist when somebody else sets our goal for us. A third grader who studies for a test does so because she wants to please her parents, or because they have offered her something - she does not really care about learning whatever the test is about. If you were her parents, you could threaten to ground her if she gets less than an A and it would be all stick.

A beeminder user who wants to learn a foreign language gets the carrot of being able to speak a foreign language, something she likely wants, and the stick of losing five dollars today if she fails (and end up no closer to her goal).


Please explain how you beemind marrying that girl!

If you’re not at the point when you want to ask her to marry you, you can Beemind dates or romantic gestures and crazy adventures until you are at that point. Then, if you want to secretly prepare the most badass and romantic marriage proposal ever, you can get yourself to work on that using a Beeminder that looks like you’re doing something boring like math problems, too.

@dreev in the scenario of allowing yourself to buy the carrot conditional on meeting your goals, I think that people do that with discretionary spending anyway. Certainly a new guitar is a more concrete goal visualization than $300, which helps when I’m thinking about working on my goal or not. If I just buy the guitar, I may have guilt for having spent a lot of money on it. If I “earn” the guitar by meeting the goal, sometime after I have made the decision about it, then I will not feel the guilt, so the value is more than if I had just bought it. If I lose $50 of the $300 by derailing, maybe now I can’t afford to buy the guitar yet, and I won’t buy it…? … I just realized that I’m probably the worst person to talk about motivating myself by buying items.

From an implementation perspective as a web service, it sounds crazily complicated unless you have something where everyone is try to conditionally buy the same thing.


Also, apparently @nick is too modest to link to his book, which includes the story of beeminding romantic gestures to his now-wife:


You can also get a taste for The Motivation Hacker from Nick’s guest post on the Beeminder blog:


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I think part of the reason that this keeps coming up is that people have loss aversion and that this effects how they look at akrasia tools. Losses are more painful than lack of gains, so those types of programs are a lot more appealing. I know folks that do Virgin Healthmiles rather than beeminder, partially because there are prizes they can get with the points. They also tend to fudge their numbers, so take that for what you will.

Ironically this is one of the reasons that I like beeminder. I can bind to my irrationality to be more economically efficient. I’m more motivated by the thought of losing $5 because I didn’t meet my goal of keeping on track learning dexy than promising myself a $5 london fog with coconut milk at the end if I learn it at the end.

But I also think of beeminder of a way to make honor bets with myself rather than a way to engage in operant conditioning. So my usual question when I’m deciding whether to derail is “Do I want to be the type of person who would spend $X so that he doesn’t have to fulfill this commitment?”


My first thought on rewards from Beeminder was imagine if you Beemind your access to a web service.

Your WoW account won’t open if you’re sitting on an eep day. Finish your Coding and then you can kill some orcs.

The other thought is to make the designated money go to a charity. Derail and you lose the money to Beeminder, succeed and it goes to charity, sure you could give to the charity anyway, but this way you can give both your pledge and the additional donation if you so decide.


Another way to do this would be to create a separate Beeminder goal that is a sum of all the hours that you Beemind and whenever you have enough buffer you can consume hours from here for rewarding yourself.
Lets say you have 3 beeminder goals.

  1. Exercise for 1 hr every week
  2. Write for 3 hrs every week
  3. Practice Guitar for 1 hr every week.
    Create a “carrots” goal in Beeminder that is a sum of all the beeminder hrs you put in. So if you exercised for 20 min today and wrote for 1 hr, you enter 1:20 hrs in “carrots”. Now whenever you reward yourself - say to watch TV for 20 min today, you subtract that 20 min (put in -1/3) and so you are left with 1 hr balance for today for use in other carrots like web surfing or whatever. The “carrots” goal could have a zero weekly rate or a very low rate, so that as long you are doing your beeminder goals, you build hrs available for consumption towards rewards.