Carrot vs. stick: Can you hack your productivity with punishment?

Some tools let you put your money on the line for productivity. Should you bite?

Sticky notes with reminders on a wall.

Commitment contracts are popular in a niche corner of the internet, and the tools have built up loyal followings of people who find the extra motivation effective.

Photoillustration: Anna Shvets/Pexels; Protocol

Danny Reeves, CEO and co-founder of Beeminder, is used to defending his product.

“When people first hear about it, they’re kind of appalled,” Reeves said. “Making money off of people’s failure is how they view it.”

But it’s a pretty accurate assessment. Beeminder is an online “commitment contract” tool — it lets people put their money on the line for productivity. If you fail to achieve your stated goal, Beeminder gets your money. StickK, another commitment contract tool, lets people pay up to an individual or a charity they either love or hate — and takes a cut of the money that's forfeited.

“You’re essentially blackmailing yourself,” said Breanna Robles, a tech worker who’s been struggling with productivity while working at home. “That can’t be good for your anxiety and your mental health.”

But commitment contracts are popular in a niche corner of the internet, and the tools have built up loyal followings of people — in Beeminder’s case, especially developers — who find the extra motivation effective. But it’s not for everyone; risking your money for productivity just sounds extreme to most people. The method often requires specific, numeric goals that could feed into unhealthy behaviors. StickK offers a version of its service to enterprises, raising the question of what happens when you implement commitment contract psychology in the workplace. The name stickK comes from the carrot vs. stick idea of motivating others (or yourself).

The history of commitment contract tools

Beeminder emerged from incentive games Reeves used to play with his partner while struggling to finish his dissertation on algorithmic game theory. Sometimes he risked his money. The personal incentive schemes turned into a website to help a friend lose weight, and eventually into an actual startup in 2011 funded by money from failed productivity goals.

“There’s this fundamental part of human psychology where we procrastinate,” Reeves said. “Having that immediacy of Beeminder says I have to do this by 5, that can be very valuable for a certain psychology.”

The origin story of stickK also involves academia and bets between friends. It was founded in 2007 by Yale economists Dean Karlan and Ian Ayres with the help of Jordan Goldberg, then a student at the Yale School of Management and now chairman of stickK’s board. Karlan had made a bet with a friend in graduate school to lose 30 pounds or pay the other $10,000. Both Karlan and his friend lost the weight. The success of this wager, plus Karlan’s and Ayres’ research in behavioral economics, led to stickK’s conception. The two put in about $75,000 of their own money and with Goldberg’s help built a beta version of the site. Thousands of people signed up and the founders leveraged that into a series A funding round.

“That was when I said, ‘OK, I guess I’m not going back to business school,’” Goldberg said. “I was fascinated by the research and started reading up on a lot of behavioral economic research and how accountability can boost behavior change.”

Beeminder has stayed relatively small, hovering around 3,000 monthly users who are primarily the “super techy nerd types,” Reeves said. He’s fine keeping it that way, as it has led to a tight-knit community. Its lengthy existence is impressive in itself, considering how long the “graveyard” section is in this ancient-looking blog post of Beeminder’s competitors. Commitment contract tools have waxed and waned over the years. Aherk, a site that posted embarrassing photos on Facebook if you failed to achieve your goal, was a particularly popular one back in the day.

One clear problem: Couldn’t you just lie to get out of paying? Reeves encourages Beeminder users, many of whom are fans of the quantified self movement, to integrate their Fitbits or other tracking hardware that automatically relays data. But his main answer is that the people who sign up for these services just aren’t the type to back out like that.

“There’s that natural incentive to not want to ruin your own data,” Reeves said. “If you ever set the precedent of lying to Beeminder, then it would lose all the power it has over you.”

What are the drawbacks?

One constant, unchanging fact about humanity is that most of the time, we fail. We fail to turn in assignments on time, we fail to go to the gym, we fail to schedule catch-up calls with friends. Failure and procrastination are some of the most predictable aspects of human behavior. It’s the reason Beeminder and stickK are able to exist, and why they’re backed by behavior experts.

The point of the commitment contract is to make the consequences of your failure or success more immediate. You don’t instantly feel the reward while writing a complicated report. That feeling comes later, when it’s submitted. The pain of never exercising often comes decades later. “There’s always costs and benefits with anything you do,” Goldberg said. “This is just making the cost more palpable.”

It will work for a time, said Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. But he doesn’t think it will work forever, particularly if your goal is something you really hate doing. Forcing people to give to an “anti-charity” they hate is an “added layer of pain,” but he doesn’t think it lasts either.

“Eventually, the accumulated pain of doing this thing you really don't want to do will outweigh whatever pain is associated with whatever amount of money you said you're going to part with,” Markman said.

Instead, he advocates for trying to make the process of achieving a goal more pleasurable. That might mean adjusting your environment or adopting a new tool: any kind of hack that makes the journey more enjoyable. This leads to a healthier relationship with productivity, he argues. Motivating yourself with punishment robs you of some of the joy and satisfaction when you finish your task.

“When I am under threat, the emotions I experience are stress, anxiety and fear when I haven’t yet avoided the calamity,” Markman said. “When I do avoid the calamity, I experience relief. Who wakes up and thinks the pinnacle of my emotional existence is relief?”

Tools like Beeminder and stickK also encounter a problem that all tracking apps face: the possibility of feeding into unhealthy and obsessive behaviors. With a commitment contract graph, or any kind of goal-tracking app, you’re not able to see the whole context of your situation. Elizabeth Eikey, assistant professor of public health and design at UC San Diego noted that a completed task on an ideal day versus a horrible day are the same data point within an app. “It just looks like you’re either doing well or you’re doing poorly,” Eikey said. “You internalize that. When you can't put context to it, it just kind of reinforces the things that could be poor for mental health.”

Do commitment contracts work at work?

It’s one thing to enter a commitment contract in your personal life, enlisting a friend who will take your money if you fail. What does this method look like in an office?

Reeves doesn’t think commitment contracts have a place at work. He cited Goodhart’s law, writing that “any metric you try to optimize quickly becomes meaningless because people game the living crap out of it.”

StickK, however, sells its services to businesses all the time. The bulk of its money comes from its enterprise plan. The enterprise plan tends to focus on rewards over consequences and, for obvious reasons, does not make employees fork over their cash. StickK works with employers to create a list of wellness campaigns and assigns a certain number of points for each campaign. For example, an environmental campaign might encourage workers to bike to work or recycle. Points are awarded to employees who take part in the preferred behaviors, which can then be redeemed in a virtual mall with curated prizes (Six Flags tickets, for example).

But Goldberg explained that, depending on the company’s preferences, the reward, or “carrot,” system can be tweaked to appear like the punishment, or “stick.” Let’s say you want employees to get a health risk assessment each year. In the carrot approach, you take $500 off the $3,0000 health care premium for employees who receive the assessment. In the stick approach, you add $500 to the $2,500 health care premium for employees who don’t receive the assessment.

“We can layer in a couple of pieces of loss aversion on the corporate side,” Goldberg said.

StickK also plays with the illusion of progress. “Sounds a little sinister, but basically you're making people feel like they're further along or further behind in a journey towards an outcome,” Goldberg said. For example, instead of making a reward cost 300 points and starting an employee off at 0, set the cost at 500 points and start the employee off at 200.

Elizabeth Tenison, assistant professor in nutrition at Rowan University, ran a health and wellness study for her fellow faculty and staff with the help of stickK. She enrolled participants in a course with five different units (yoga, sleep, nutrition, positive thinking and exercise), and split them into in-person and remote cohorts. Both groups created goals for each unit, and were awarded points through stickK’s website.

“Most people really liked it,” Tenison said. “They loved the rewards, they loved the accountability. It did change the mindset for certain people.”

As part of the study, Tenison asked colleagues how they would feel if Rowan University implemented a similar program for employees. Many said they felt it would be beneficial as a push to improve behavior. Tenison, noting the massive stress brought on by the pandemic, said workplaces should be creative when thinking about employee wellness. “Something like stickK is a fun way to do it,” Tenison said. “I really do believe that it's part of their responsibility to take care of their employees and do the best by them.”

But Tenison thinks it should be voluntary. A mandatory, gamified behavioral program is not necessarily a good look. Employers taking such an active role in employee behaviors may push the boundaries, or sound a bit dystopian, for some. Corporations may be hesitant to advertise their participation in programs like stickK. The default agreement between stickK and its clients “includes language that says we cannot disclose that we are working with them,” Goldberg said. Leaders should be careful about not intervening too much in personal behaviors, University of Chicago social psychologist Ayelet Fishbach said.

“There are ethical issues that need to be considered more specifically; you should consider work-life separation and how much your employer gets into your personal lives,” Fishbach said.

Everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to behavior change. Maybe sacrificing money or an employee rewards program offers the push some need to finally do the thing they’ve been putting off forever, the thing that will feel so good once it’s finished. Maybe both ideas are horrifying to some, like Robles, who sees it as self-blackmail. Regardless, it makes all of us think more deeply about human motivation, and how to be more productive while not making ourselves miserable.

“How do we help people reach the goals that they have but also acknowledge the humanity of people?” Eikey said. “We can’t ignore that.”


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