Sticking with Habits (the hard way)

I am not affiliated in any way with any product or service mentioned in the article.

The problem

If you’re anything like me, you’re not very good at sticking with habits. You tell yourself that you should “walk more”, “exercise more”, or “read more”, only to then relapse after a couple of days (or weeks, if you’re good). I can safely say, for instance, that throughout the entirety of 2017 I have exercised for maybe 6 or 7 hours, in total, and that’s being generous. Why would I do it, after all? My monkey brain cannot see past the short-term goal of “get a rush of sugar from this pudding” to the long-term goal of “be a healthier person”. That’s normal.

The solution

This is where commitment devices kick in. A commitment device is essentially something that is external to you, independent from you, which forces you to stick with things. It sounds weird but bear with me.

If you think about it, most of your goal-setting is context-dependent. When you’re in bed about to sleep, for instance, that’s usually when you come up with the grandest of plans for your life. This happens because at that moment, there is nothing you can do about your goals, hence you are able to think about what an “ideal you” would do. When you are up and running, though, it takes a lot of willpower to actually go through with your plan. That’s because you can actually do something about your plans, and who wants to do stuff? So how about something which takes your great bed plans and actually tries to turn them into reality without your puny, awoken self getting in the way? Commitment devices.

Alright, I think I’ve convinced you on why you should use one. Now let me show you one: beeminder.

I won’t go into the details of how it works, since their website it quite self-explanatory, but essentially you open it up, you set your goals, and it will start tracking you for whatever habit you’ve put in. I have a couple of habits in there myself, you can check them out here if you want. Now, beeminder is incredibly fair. It gives you a lot of leeway, you can tell it when you go on vacation, but the gist of it is that if you consistently fail to stick with your habits, you will be charged actual money. The first time you slip you’re charged 0$, just to scare you off, then it goes up, until it reaches an upper ceiling of your choice. Mine is 10$ because that’s enough to coerce me into doing my habits, but you can set it to be quite high if you want it to.

I know, it sounds crazy. Why on earth would I give money to some random strangers if I fail to keep up with my habits? Because that’s the most effective way to keep you doing them. Many people wonder why the money does not instead go to charity. That would defeat the purpose, since you would not feel as bad slipping off. The entire point is that you have the constant threat of your money being burned away were your short-term you to ever take control of things. It sounds terrifying. But it works. The results are there. Last year, I could not exercise for more than three days in a row: now I have an uninterrupted streak dating back from January 2nd. When you just set up a goal, you have a week in which you can delete it immediately. After that deadline, if you wish to delete a goal, it will be deleted only one week later. This is to avoid your short-term brain into trying to come up with excuses to not do the thing today.

Of course, you’ll hate it. You’ll wish you hadn’t started it. Yet while short-term, blind you will be bumping their fists on the table, long-term you will be eternally grateful.

Welcome to Beeminder.