Stickk to it

Stickk is a web-based motivational tool that describes itself as an online “Commitment Store.” One of its founders, Yale Economics Professor Dean Karlan, developed the system.

Users sign contracts to achieve goals: losing weight, quitting smoking, exercising more, for example. Karlan and his cofounders claim their site is based upon sound psychological principles; in particular, two well-known principles of behavioral economics: 1) people don’t always do what they say that they want to do and 2) incentives work.

Stickk has been available since 2007 and as of this writing Stickk’s website boasts:

  • $11,523,156 on the line (more on what that means in a moment)
  • 174,020 commitments created
  • 300,659 workouts completed
  • 2,502,250 cigarettes not smoked

This is not a website that provides motivation via vague exhortations to be a better person. Stickk is quite concrete in its methods and its goals.

How It Works

Say that you want to lose twenty-five pounds in time for the Hawaiian-themed office Christmas party where everyone wears leis and swimsuits. Go to the Stickk website, create an account, and enter your goal, e.g., weigh 175 pounds by December 20.

Every week you report your weight (or whatever your goal is—the best one I saw listed was “Have no more John sex”) and Stickk tells you if your week’s loss keeps you on track for your final goal. If you’re trying to lose twenty-five pounds over twenty-five weeks, and you lose a pound that week, you have reached your week’s goal.

But Wait There’s More!

So far this is just a normal performance-tracking website. But there are two optional features designed to make it more effective:

First, you can designate a referee. Every week this person confirms your progress in order to prevent cheating.

Second, you can put money on the line. Let’s say you wager $250. Divide this over the number of weeks that your goal is in play. Every week that you fail to lose a pound, you forfeit ten dollars: $250/25 weeks = $10 (they deduct it automatically from your credit card). Again, a referee can improve effectiveness by keeping you honest.

Where Does the Money Go?

Here is Stickk’s mean little trick: you choose an “anti-charity,” a group whose work you strongly disapprove of. When you lose, they get it.

This small but devious bonus feature makes the punishment that much more burdensome. Did that pizza binge this weekend result in your donating $25 to the Organization for Experimentation on Unwanted Puppies? Better luck next time.

But, Does It Work?

I have used Stickk twice, each time to lose about twenty-five pounds. Both times I used a wager tied to an anti-charity, and never you mind which.

The first time, it worked. The second time, it did not. From the ashes of my failure, here are observations which might improve Stickk and give you a better chance of succeeding. But first, a bit about behavioral psychology to provide some context.

Punishment Versus Reward

Psychologists have long studied the dynamics of punishment versus reward in motivating behavior.

Punishment is defined as any action which decreases a behavior. Zapping a rat with an electric shock when it goes in to a particular corner of its cage is punishment. Over time (and pretty fast; rats are smart) it will no longer demonstrate the behavior of going into that part of the cage.

Reward is defined as any action which increases a behavior. Giving a rat a yummy treat when it goes into a certain (hopefully different) part of its cage is a reward. Over time, it will tend to demonstrate the behavior of going into that part of the cage.

You and I are no different.

Yes, But How Much?

Is it more effective to punish someone when they do wrong or reward them when they do right? Should you reward someone every time they do well, or just some of the time? Exactly how harsh or how rewarding should the punishment be? Should the punishment or reward be the same every time, or should it get worse, or better?

The answer: it depends.

Some people respond better to punishment. It kicks up some contrarian spirit in them that says, when you say that they can’t do something, “Oh yeah?” We’ll call these people “punishies.”

Other people respond better to reward. We’ll call them “rewardies” as a balanced counterpoint.

My discovery: in the short term I respond better to punishment. In the long term I respond better to reward. If I am told something bad is going to happen, I will do all I can to keep it from happening. Once it happens, if it keeps happening, I simply feel frustrated—nothing I can do is going to change it.

Reward, in the long run, keeps me in an optimistic mood, which motivates me. So let’s call me a “rewardie.” I am more energized and more compliant when optimistic. Hitting me over the head with a rolled-up newspaper once or twice works, but after three or four times it becomes demoralizing.

With this background in mind, let’s discuss…

Three Ways to Improve Stickk

1) Safe Word. Once you commit you are locked in for the duration. Commitments have no safe word. In general, this is good. But if honest effort results in failure, you should be allowed to regroup.

Stickk doesn’t allow this.

2) Flexibility. The wagering system should be more flexible. For example, while you might be willing to wager $10 a week to get to your goal, if, after three or four weeks you have lost each time, then your commitment plan may need adjusting.

There’s no way to limit your total losses. If you have committed to $10 a week, your total loss could be $250, more than you are willing to wager. If you wager, say, a dollar a week, while your total loss won’t exceed $25, losing a dollar a week is probably not effective enough motivation. Stickk should have a way to have high penalties up front which diminish if they demonstrate ineffectiveness.

3) Feedback Loop. There’s no feedback loop. Let’s say your goal is to run a little farther than last week. All you can do is wager that you will run an extra five miles, for example, each week.

But you might want to increase the amount you run based upon your progress and how you feel. You don’t want to boost your goal by too low an amount, as it is not enough of a challenge, but you don’t want to increase it by too high, setting yourself an unrealistic goal. Stickk doesn’t allow this sort of dynamic feedback.

Rewardies Require a Kindler, Gentler Approach

It’s tough using punishment as a behavior change tool for rewardies.

If you, a rewardie, are just lazy and need something to kick you in the ass from time to time, punishment can be effective. You’re tired and you’d rather eat that ice cream cone than run five miles. But then you think, “If I do this, I’m going to lose twenty-five bucks to the Society for Stepping on Kittens,” and you forgo the ice cream and go jog.

But—if you are a rewardie and you earnestly attempt your goal each week and fail, then punishment is not effecting the change you want. You are futilely beating yourself over the head and further demoralizing yourself.

This is the cycle of failure and guilt that leads so many of us to fail in their life goals. A couple of bad weeks of weight gain despite caloric restriction and you feel that “if I’m going to keep gaining weight I might as well keep gaining weight while eating lots of ice cream.”

Stickk needs to allow one to regroup, so that a legitimate failure—one where you are putting in full effort and still getting no result—doesn’t end up as a demoralizing and counterproductive experience.

Take Control

Another way to improve your Stickk experience: make your goal something you have direct control over.

Let’s take losing weight as an example again, because, let’s face it, that’s why you’re reading this.

No matter how assiduous one is in one’s weight goals, there are times when from week to week one’s weight might still go up. You don’t have direct control over this. What you do have control over is what you eat, how much you eat, and how much you exercise.

Keep goals focused on tangibles that are directly under your control. Pledge that you will run five miles a day. If it is at the end of the day and you haven’t run, you’re making a conscious choice of whether to do so. Your weight will take care of itself.

Stick, Would I Recommend It?

Yes, with caveats. If you are well motivated by punishment and get angrier and more defiant and more energized the more you get slapped back, Stickk will probably work.

However, if you, like me, are more motivated by reward and after a few punishments feel like giving up, Stickk would be better if its creators added a dynamic component to allow us to assess progress and adjust accordingly.

If you are going to use Stickk, choose a goal that’s directly under your control.

Want to get a full eight hours of sleep? That’s not directly under your control. You shouldn’t be penalized for not falling asleep or not staying asleep, but the things that might help you get a better night’s sleep—a quiet room, exercising during the day, or starting to wind down after 8 PM—are things you can control and which should be in your commitment plan.

If you are doing those things and not reaching your goal, then revisit your plan and change your choices.

My suggested changes to Stickk mean that now you are rewarded for doing what you thought would work, rather than being punished for doing what you thought would work but didn’t work. If what you thought would work doesn’t work, you should be able to try something else. This is called learning.

In this new try-before-you-buy model of Stickk, you can feel optimistic that you have done what you set out to do, even if you failed. Optimism, at least for rewardies like us, is very motivating: each small victory is a progress-conducive jolt to the pleasure center, and those small victories, chained together, win the War.