What about after Beeminder?

Recently, a friend asked me this question: what about after Beeminder? While I am quite confident that Beeminder will be around for a good long while, I could not give a good answer to my friend on his hypothetical question.

In essence, I think he was asking whether I was simply using Beeminder as a crutch for the time being, which would rob me of the experience of building sustainable self-discipline that will be useful when there are no other devices/systems to keep me disciplined. If Beeminder and other similar tools ceased to exist tomorrow, what would you do? Are we using Beeminder because we acknowledge that a world without Beeminder would be much worse than a world with Beeminder due to things that are inherently part of being a human being?

I think this question, on a philosophical level, is asking whether Beeminder truly makes us better people or not. If we are inherently flawed on certain dimensions with no hope for redemption, then Beeminder is an acceptable crutch to help us succeed beyond our normal capacities. However, if it turns out to be better for us in the long run to build self-discipline outside of things like Beeminder, then Beeminder is hurting us in the long run.

[For reference, this is somewhat related to a previous post I made on “outsourcing self-discipline” several years ago.]


That’s like asking “what about after tools?”

Beeminder is just a tool - a commitment contract. People have used them for a long time - marriage and monasteries are both forms of commitment contracts. If, God forbid, Beeminder stops working, other tools will replace it.

Humans have limitations, and tools can help us overcome those limitations - but I wouldn’t say that makes us “intrinsically flawed.” Are we flawed because we don’t have hammers on our body and we have to forge them in order to drive a nail?


Framing the question this way seems to ignore accomplishments, too!
If you use Beeminder to prep to run a marathon, and you run a
marathon, and then Beeminder goes away… you still ran a marathon. I
still lost a bunch of weight, changed my life three or four times
around, studied a bunch, painted a bunch…


It looks like people in the previous thread and this one have given some really smart answers, not sure how much I can add but here goes:

Let’s draw on the use of technology to improve memory as a parallel here. A pervasive notion is that we don’t need facts in our long-term memory because the presence of Google means any knowledge we need is one click away (e.g. these arguments here and here. Here the claim is that we can “outsource” our memory and effectively function in the world.

However, it turns out that there aren’t actually any benefits to trying to outsource memory like this. Long-term memory is an unlimited resource that we draw from for all cognition.

Looking things up on Google imposes a cognitive cost – it takes up some of that precious space in working memory. We need those facts in long-term memory, not out in the cloud. Imagine trying to read a novel and having to look up every third word in the dictionary, or online. It’s clearly going to be much harder for you to extract meaning (or indeed enjoyment!) from that process compared to someone who has the knowledge of all those words stored in long-term memory. Daisy Christodoulou, 7 Myths About Education (2014)

As such, what we don’t want to do is outsource our memory to technology; rather, we want to use technology to enhance it. Technologies like Anki and Quizlet are examples of reliable ways to improve cognition through the boost in long-term memory they provide.

Beeminder isn’t like Google in this analogy; it’s not “outsourcing” your self-discipline per se. Self-discipline or self-control is loosely defined as covering a broad range of factors:

  • ability to inhibit the automatic response to a situation and do something else
  • ability to control one’s emotions
  • ability to plan and control behaviour
  • ability to control attention and other cognitive processes

To say that we’re using Beeminder as a crutch is somewhat misleading. After all, Beeminder doesn’t do the work for us. We do a lot of work in breaking our aspirations down into measurable goals and adjusting our behaviours to match well-structured and consistent routines and rules set by our goals. The presence of these factors (well-structured and consistent behavioural rules and routine) in households are associated with better self-regulation outcomes for children in later life.

With lots of practice conceptualising our goals as specific and measurable and then conforming our lives and behaviours to them, I think our best bet is to assume Beeminder is enhancing our self-regulation rather than outsourcing it.


You might be interested in this thread (“Beeminder anti-habit-forming”)

My answer: beeminder is useful, habits are useful, they can both help you, and each other.