The Greeks Have a Word for Everything

By / April 22, 2013 /

Can you bribe yourself to change habits?

Why is it hard to commit to healthy habits? Because german chocolate pie is delicious. Because sugar and caffeine are addictive. Because beds are comfortable. Because running makes me sweat. Because TV shows are entertaining. And because we rationalize everything.

For example, I need to exercise, right? I know that it’s better for me to move for 27 minutes than to watch “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.” Yet still … I watch.

WHY IS THAT? Yes, it’s easier to sit than to move. I have plenty of excuses – I was up late working, I had to struggle with the kid over finishing his math homework, I already did some good work today so I need to relax, my running shoes are wet, yadda3. Well, the old Greek guys we studied in college have a word for this kind of procrastination/excuse making: akrasia. It’s a failure of the will. Ouch. I didn’t fail, I just … haven’t succeeded yet. But I will. As soon as “Todd Margaret” is over. Because I know that in the long term, those 27 minutes aren’t going to make a difference. If my goal is to weigh 10 pounds less in six months than I do right now, starting 27 minutes (or 27 hours) later isn’t going to make a difference. I’m sure science will back me up there. But I will start. If I can find a way to stop procrastinating.

One anti-procrastination trick is the concept of self-binding. Make it difficult to execute your unwanted behavior. Lock the remote in a safe in the garage. Tie yourself to the mast when sailing past the sirens. Buy your smokes by the pack instead of the carton. These little things are useful, but you’re not a cat – you can see through these things. At some point, you’ll think, “Man, it is a hassle to go get the remote from the garage. I’ll just leave it here and not watch as much TV.” Yeah. Good luck, pal. This is where some goal-related apps come in.

There’s one called Beeminder that’s been out for a while. It focuses on the little steps it takes to get to your goal, what they call the Yellow Brick Road. They offer day-to-day guidance to keep you moving toward your goal, and you commit to pay them some dough if you stray from the path. Just like a rolled-up newspaper.

Gympact is the same kind of thing, but it adds the positive incentive of paying you when you meet your fitness goal, and it gets the money from people who didn’t meet theirs. I like this model better than Beeminder’s simply because I know a little about psychology and dog/kid training (Note: The views expressed by the author in this article concerning the incredible similarities between dogs and children are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ARO or its subsidiaries.). People and animals respond better to positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement. But I think that using both in some situations the way GymPact does can be really effective.

This is a topic I’m really interested in because I’m self-aware enough to know about my quirks, but I’m also sort of bound to them. I’m also pretty frugal, so I haven’t yet unlocked the wallet to try one of these apps. I am getting some use out of C25K, though. It’s helping me deal with my akrasia simply by being there every time I look at my phone. It bugged me enough yesterday that I ran during the day. You know, when people are around? I had to deal with dogs, smokers, the whole bit. But I did it. And now I’m wondering if I’d do that more often if someone paid me for it. Hmm.

Categories: Apps, Fitness, Goal Setting, Health

3 responses to “The Greeks Have a Word for Everything”

  1. This post is delightful! And thank you so much for the Beeminder plug! Hugely appreciated. Regarding the Beeminder/GymPact comparison, check out our post: We also have more general thoughts on the question of positive vs negative reinforcement:

    • kittyireland says:

      Thanks, Daniel! These are topics we think about a lot around here, and we’ll definitely check out the blog.

  2. […] And for completeness, here’s everything else we know of since January: Mirabai Knight writes about akrasia and Beeminder and what she beeminds, Robin Ryder writes about beeminding your resolutions, Quantified Savagery gives Beeminder and Lift as examples of tools applying the science of behavior change, our esteemed co-founder guest blogs at Productivity in Context, here’s a fancy infographic from Betterment where we’re paired with Lift again, a tiny TechCrunch mention (not to be confused with our big TechCrunch mention in January), Beeminder in Spanish, Beeminder in German, and in Spanish again, Brian Ogilvie blogged about his weight loss plans with Beeminder and is still going strong (not cherry-picked, we promise! nothing in this list has been culled for being a failure story), Jana Beck featured Beeminder in a Quantified Self talk, Allison of The Muse Garden has a wonderful write-up of Quantified Self, featuring Beeminder, an old MetaFilter post that we forgot to include last time includes a nice Beeminder testimonial, our esteemed co-founder (again) gives an interview with Voxus PR, we made the front page of Hacker News again for Gitminder, here’s some praise of Beeminder by Liora Hess (including why we’re better than StickK), Beeminder as an extreme example of Dogfooding Until It Hurts in the Fog Creek blog, a blurb about Beeminder in a list of tools for combatting ADHD, a blurb about how Beeminder understands goal-setting, an awesome writeup of lots of Beeminder goals, a testimonial on Reddit, a post by a mathematician talking about the principles behind Beeminder’s yellow brick road, Muflax’s blog uses a thumbnail of his Beeminder graph as an ETA to next blog post, Beeminder is featured in Fitbit’s app gallery, Ian Ross wrote a review of Beeminder and the war on Akrasia, here’s the actual printed front page of the Wall Street Journal article about us, and, finally, we have a new competitor, Saga, who kindly blogged about us. […]