Last month, I wrote a couple articles on akrasia, or the phenomenon of acting against one’s own better judgment. First, I introduced the concept and described a bit of research surrounding it. Then, I discussed 8 reasons a Primal eater might suffer from food-related akrasia, including cravings, nutritional deficiencies, and mismatched Paleolithic genes trying to navigate a modern food environment.
Today, I’m restarting the discussion with a list of novel tools and techniques to help in the fight against fitness-and-health-related akrasia. As I mentioned in the first post, akrasia is universal, transcending culture and age and dietary persuasion. Whether we like it or not, we don’t always do what we know we should – myself included – so this post is for all of us.
Here are twelve online tools that will give you that little nudge you need to stay on track and do what’s best for yourself:
Aherk is a goal-oriented self-blackmailing service. To use it, you set a goal – anything from basic productivity stuff like “finish your paper” to more health-oriented goals like “stay Primal on St. Paddy’s day” – with a deadline, then upload an embarrassing, potentially compromising photo of yourself to the Aherk servers. After the deadline, your Facebook friends will vote to decide whether you’ve accomplished your goal. If the vote goes against you, the picture will be published for all your friends to see (and laugh at). Though it’s still in beta, Aherk seems promising. I like the unique blackmail angle (though people already seem willing to post compromising photos to their Facebook accounts), but I wonder how effective it will really be.
With StickK, users interested in accomplishing a goal formally make a commitment to reach that goal by a certain date and put some of their own money on the line to be forfeited if the commitment is not fulfilled. You set the goal, lay out the stakes of your commitment (how much money, if any, will you put on the line, and where will the money go if you fail?), choose a “referee” to track your progress, keep you honest and report your progress to StickK, and choose other StickK users as supporters to cheer you on. Choose a goal template or create your own from scratch. Goals can be ongoing commitments requiring constant check-ins, or one-time things where you either succeed or fail.
Beeminder is like “StickK.com for data nerds.” You can use it to track anything with a numerical value, so it’s ideal for fitness-related pursuits. With Beeminder, you can track your maximum amount of pushups/pullups/burpees, grams of dietary polyunsaturated fat intake, days gone without a “cheat” meal, or days in which you walked at least one mile. It’s completely up to you, because Beeminder is highly adaptable to your situation and your goals. Based on your final goal, Beeminder will give you weekly goals – estimates of where you should be at certain dates in order to reach your ultimate goal – and plot your data points on constantly-updated graphs, complete with a “yellow-brick road” that, if followed, will get you to your goal. If you stray from the yellow-brick road, however, you will be forced to pony up real cash to keep things rolling. Provided you hit your goals, the money is yours, but if you don’t, the money is lost.
For GymPact, users make a Pact – a commitment to go to the gym X number of days per week (minimum once per week). Then, when you go to the gym (or pool, or martial arts studio, or yoga center, etc.), you check in using your iPhone which allows the GymPact team to verify that you have worked out. Any gym (other than home or office gyms) is eligible. You lose $5 for missed workouts (to be paid out in part to other users who have fulfilled their Pacts) and get cash rewards for fulfilling your Pact. Most commitment tools that involve real money motivate users only with the threat of losing their money. With GymPact, you stand to both lose money and earn money. I think this sounds pretty cool. You’re not going to get rich off this ($0.50-$0.75 per workout, on average), but you will make a little scratch in addition to garnering the awesome benefits of maintaining a regular workout schedule.
Most of these tools thus far have employed the threat of losing money as motivation. Health Rally takes a slightly different tack: they use the promise of tangible rewards, as well as the support of your peers along the way, to promote successful attainment of set goals. To begin, you set a goal with an end date, then choose the reward that would motivate you to complete the goal. Your friends and family join your Health Rally network, chime in with supportive comments, and can even offer monetary rewards to motivate. Users can start Health Rallies for themselves or for friends and family – kind of a positive intervention of sorts.
This service allows users to set 10-week weight loss goals that must be attained on pain of lost money. You choose a goal weight, put up your money (minimum $100), consent to weekly weigh-ins (verified by taking photos of your feet on the scale) at set times, and have “accountability friends” (friends who track your progress and receive emails from the Lose It or Lose It team to ensure you’re following through). If you miss a weigh-in, you lose 5% of your pledged money. If you miss a weight target for the week, you lose 5%. I like the verified weigh-ins most of all. A lot of these tools can be cheated (although you’d just be cheating yourself in the long run), but photo verification makes cheating Lose It or Lose It (and yourself) much harder.
We all have bad habits. We all regularly do things we know we shouldn’t be doing at all, let alone all the time. Conversely, we all have good habits that we’d like to work into our daily schedule. Potentially habitual behaviors that we aspire to make habits. 21habit acknowledges this and asks you to choose a habit that you’d either like to stop doing or start doing. After putting up $21, you have 21 days to instill (or banish) the habit, and every day you have to log your progress. You forfeit $1 for every missed day and get $1 back for every successful day. Forfeited money goes to charity. Daily progress checks (with immediate positive or negative feedback) should keep you moving toward (and hopefully not away from) your goal.
Next time you want to accomplish something, but you’re a little worried about actually following through and accomplishing it, check out Succeed or Else. You submit your goal and desired date of accomplishment to the team, who reviews your case and responds with two things: a projected fine (the amount of money you’ll have to pay if you don’t complete it) and how you can prove to the team that you actually completed your goal. If you agree to the terms, you send them the money, which they hold until the deadline. If you’re able to prove to them that you completed the goal, you get your money back, plus the accomplishment of hitting your goal.
Fatbet is pretty simple. Make a Fatbet by setting a fat loss goal and placing a wager that you will reach the goal. Convince other people you know to make Fatbets and place wagers, too. If you lose your Fatbet, you must pony up the wager, whether it’s money, donations to charity, personal favors, or buying dinner for the winners. By drawing on mankind’s innate drive to win bets and defeat opponents, Fatbet can help keep you making the right choices on your path to losing weight. This seems like a good choice. It doesn’t necessarily involve money, if that’s not your thing, but it should be effective because everyone likes winning.
Fitocracy is gaming that doesn’t involve Cheeto-stained fingers, pyramids made out of Mountain Dew cans, and couches with butt imprints. It’s a social game that combines elements of Facebook with elements of roleplaying games. You post workout updates, choosing from hundreds of different exercises, and get points depending on weights lifted and exercises performed. Harder exercises get you more points; reverse dumbbell Swiss ball curls won’t get you as many points as deadlifts. Get enough points and you level up (for all to see). You can even create challenges (like “Max burpees in five minutes”) and invite participants. While I don’t use it, several of my workers do, and they report that it’s highly motivational. Of course, these were already pretty active people, but still: Fitocracy has blown up, claiming over 230,000 active users as of January 2012. That’s a lot of people exercising on a regular basis.
Detailed here, Seinfeld’s method of staying productive while avoiding day-crippling bad decisions is decidedly low-tech and is normally used for getting work done or doing chores, rather than reaching health and fitness goals. But that’s okay. It’s easily modified. You set a few goals (like “lift heavy things” or “eat no grains”), set daily minimums for each goal, devise boundaries and strategies for each goal, print out a calendar for each goal, and procure a big red pen. Every time you hit the daily minimum for a given goal, make a big red “X” on the day of the given goal’s calendar. If you miss a daily minimum, you don’t get an X. Strive to get an X on each day of each calendar. Chain them together. Don’t break the chain! I like this one. First, I’m a Seinfeld fan, so I might be biased. Two, it’s simple and it requires the user to interact with real-world objects: pen and paper. On the computer, it’s easy to minimize a window, switch to a different browser, ignore email updates, or just never visit the website that logs your unfulfilled commitments, but a calendar on the wall or your desk stares you in the face. It’s right there in your line of vision, and if you want to avoid it you have to physically remove it. I suppose you could use an online motivational calendar like Streaks, but I wonder if the effect would be the same.
I like this one a lot. A few of the girls in the office have been using something similar. They’ll set the alarm to go off every thirty minutes or so, and use it as motivation to get up and do a set of pushups, pullups, and/or squats, just to keep active throughout the day. If you sit a lot at work (or even if you’re a standup workstation superstar), using a basic alarm clock to keep moving every hour (at least) should keep some of the negative health effects of sitting at bay. You know you shouldn’t be sitting for that long, and the clock is free, so you really have no excuse.
Not everyone needs a dedicated online tool to keep on the straight and narrow, but I’d wager that very few of us are completely rational actors who make nothing but logical decisions each and every day. Even something as simple as the alarm clock method or the Seinfeld method could be useful. The only way to really know is to try it out yourself.
Have you used any of these tools to beat health-related akrasia? I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences. Can you recommend any of your personal favorites that aren’t on this list? I’m sure readers would love to know more. Thanks for reading!