How a pathological procrastinor can lose weight [Anti-akrasia]

by dreeves4 min read18th Apr 200931 comments


Software ToolsAkrasia
Personal Blog

[This post has now been subsumed by the following: Also, the service described below, then known as Kibotzer, is now a real startup called Beeminder, announced here:]

If you are a pathological procrastinator you're pretty screwed when it comes to weight loss.  You have this monumental goal like "lose 20 pounds" but there's no "last minute" that you can put it off until.

I and my partner have thought a lot about akrasia (ie, failure to do what we think we should be doing) and have a tool that tries to apply some anti-akrasia principles.  It's called Kibotzer (for "kibitzing robot") and is currently in private beta.

This is not necessarily the best way to use Kibotzer but if you're a pathological procrastinator and want to just embrace that flaw, Kibotzer can help:  (It's more general than weight-loss but that makes for a nice example.)

1. Pick your goal weight and goal date.

2. Kibotzer creates your "Yellow Brick Road."

3. Place a bet with us that you'll stay on your Road.

   (if you go off your Road for even a single day, you lose.)

4. Procrastinate like hell until you're about to lose the bet.

The change in focus from "weigh 20 pounds less next year" to "be on the yellow brick road tomorrow morning" makes all the difference.  If you're in the wrong "lane" of your Road today then it's crunch time.  You have to be on your road tomorrow morning.  Pull an all-nighter on the treadmill if that's what it takes.

In one sense that mentality's crazy.  Whatever you do in any single 24 hour period makes essentially no difference to your weight next year. But that's the kind of thinking that let you drift away from your ideal weight in the first place.  The whole secret of Kibotzer is to automatically break down your long-term goal into day-to-day guidance.  And then, critically, add a wager to force you to stick to it.

Kibotzer's tagline is "Bring Long-Term Consequences Near!"  (Note that this differs from which adds consequences but can't bring them quite so near!)

We're interested to get the opinions of folks on LessWrong and perhaps some of you would like to be guinea pigs...

I'll put the rest of the details in the form of an FAQ.  Basically, we want to make sure we never cheat anyone out of money so we have safeguards we've worked out based on previous bets.


1. "What if I have a random up-day because I'm retaining water or something?"

The Yellow Brick Road adjusts its width so you shouldn't ever lose because of a random up-day.  We want to set unbending rules where each day matters, because that's what's motivating (no "I'll catch up later" where you dig yourself in a hole) but you should never lose on a technicality.


2. "What if I forget to reply to the bot or get too busy?"

If you stop replying to the bot you automatically get your money back. We only want your money if we're providing something so valuable that you want to interact with it continually.


3. "My goal is a year away; will you just hold my money that whole time?"

Whenever we're holding on to your money we pay a fair interest rate on it.


4. "It seems a little unforgiving; everyone makes mistakes..."

The Yellow Brick Road itself allows for a nice margin of error but to further ensure that you don't lose because of one or two mistakes, there's a "three-strikes" policy:  You can drive off your Road twice and the road will then be reset from where you currently are, targeting the same goal weight and goal date.  Only on the third time do you actually lose the bet.


5. "Do I still win if I go off the road once but end up reaching my goal in time?"

The short answer is that you lose if you go off at *any* time (modulo the three-strikes policy).  *But* the brilliance of Kibotzer is that it *knows* about random fluctuation, water retention, and hormonal cycles: the road is wide enough that you will never lose on a technicality.  What that roughly means is that you have to mostly stay in the right lane of your yellow brick road and reserve the left lane as your safety buffer for random (or monthly) up-days.

Recall Kibotzer's goal: "bring long-term consequences near".  In other words, the fact that you lose the game if you go off *tomorrow* is by design.  It's very hard to, for example, forgo that piece of pie merely because it will make it harder to weigh 20 pounds less 10 months from now.  Please!  One piece of pie won't make the difference and there's plenty of time to catch up!  Each individual piece of pie is *totally worth it*.  Same with each workout you really don't feel like doing right now.  Which of course is how you and everyone else in the country end up 20 pounds away from their ideal.  With Kibotzer that whole dynamic changes: when you're in the wrong lane of your road that one piece of pie could very well make the difference *tomorrow morning* and you're acutely aware of it.  The consequences are immediate.  And of course even better is the flipside of that coin: if you are well into your right lane then it's very very nice to be able to enjoy your hard-earned safety buffer and eat that piece of pie guilt-free!


6. "The graphs and numbers and betting seem a little gimmicky; is there another way to do this?"

Fundamentally it has to involve making a genuine commitment. Like, yes, I'm perfectly capable of staying below X pounds and I can commit to doing that. And then "commit" has to actually be made meaningful. Risking a painful chunk of money is the simplest way to do that.

It's sad but it often doesn't mean much when we verbally commit to something. (Some people are worse about this than others.) So the bet is like an acknowledgment that there's two "me"s: the me right now who definitely wants this to happen and then future-me who is going to thumb their nose and thwart it. You just have to force future-me's hand. Forget the charade that it's the same me -- it isn't. Verbalize the commitment all you want, history proves that future-me has a damn good chance of thumbing their nose at you (after all, how did you end up well over your ideal weight in the first place?). So if current-me is really serious then prove it by making it impossible for future-me to renege. Or, not impossible, just make future-me not *want* to renege. That's the best you can do and all that's needed.


7. "How do I actually place a bet?"

Email me with how much money you might be willing to risk (or indicate this on  I'll reply with the odds (how much you can win).  If that's acceptable, there's a "donate" button at where you can put up the money.  The rest is honor system for now.


8. "I don't understand betting lingo.  What are 'odds'?"  (Probably don't need this one for LessWrong folks but interested to hear your ideas on how to explain this sort of thing to layfolk!)

First, "even odds" means that if you win you double your money.  If I'm betting on something where I'll probably lose then I'll want better odds to compensate, meaning that I'll more than double my money on the off chance that I win.  Higher risk, higher reward.  From your perspective, it's lower risk so you'll have a lower reward if you win.

For example, if you choose to risk $1000 then we'll figure you're highly likely to win so we might offer you odds where you risk the $1000 but only win $50 if you stay on your road (we'll also factor in how steep your Road is).  If you're sufficiently sure you can stay on your Road then that's a free $50 for you. (Of course the real advantage is the motivation it provides and the fact that you end up at the end of your Yellow Brick Road!)