In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Ulysses and his men must sail past the Sirens, beautiful women who sing such enchanting songs that any man who hears their voice will become so captivated that they cease to act rationally and will do nothing but sit and listen to the sirens’ song and eventually die.
The dilemma Ulysses faces is that he desperately wants to experience the beauty of the sirens’ song but also avoid their enchantment.
Fortunately, the witch Circe advises him to plug his mens’ ears with wax and instruct them to bind him to the mast of his ship, only releasing him once they’ve sailed past the sirens’ island.
Because of the wax earplugs, his men will be immune to the enchanting song of the sirens, allowing them to sail past the island successfully. And because he’s been bound to the mast of his ship, Ulysses will get to do what no man before him had ever managed—to hear the beautiful sirens’ song and live to tell the tale.
As a psychologist and former student of literature, it’s fascinating to see how one of the great moments in the western literary canon became the inspiration for one of the great techniques in psychology and behavioral science: The Ulysses Pact.
How The Ulysses Pact Works
Also known as a commitment device, The Ulysses Pact is a technique from behavioral psychology that allows us to make a choice in the present that binds us to or “lock us in” to an action or decision in the future, usually by means of a structured system of external constraints or incentives.
A common example of a Ulysses Pact in regular life is setting up automatic bill pay or investment contributions.
We all know how easy it can be to forget to pay a bill among the endless todos of daily life. Or how tempting it can be to spend that extra commission money from this month’s paycheck on a new iPhone instead of putting it into a savings account.
Still, at our best, we know that paying our bills on time and saving for retirement are important, meaningful goals. And so, during times of calm rationality, we spend a few minutes of tedious work and set up an automated system to pay our bills and invest a little each month.
Psychologically, the Ulysses Pact works by acknowledging that human beings are often less than completely rational. Instead of bemoaning this fact of human nature, or stubbornly trying to willpower our way into good decisions in the face of immediate temptation, the Ulysses Pact exemplifies a more creative and clever approach to doing the right thing.
Instead of hoping for good intentions to withstand the onslaught of immediate temptation, we build a system during times of rationality to ensure that those good intentions persist when our rationality inevitably goes on break.
Grocery Shopping After Dinner: A Ulysses Pact Case Study
The key to successfully implementing the Ulysses Pact and establish a good habit is to get clear about why the habit is hard to establish in the first place. Only then can you design your Ulysses Pact effectively.
The reason Circe was able to give Ulysses such good advice about stuffing his mens’ ears with wax and having them tie him to the mast was because she understood the specifics of how the sirens’ call worked. She knew that the allure and pleasure of hearing the siren’s music were too strong to resist, and therefore, had to be avoided in the first place. If she had advised them to keep their eyes shut, the strategy would have been ineffective because the nature of the obstacle was auditory, not visual.
Suppose you wanted to establish a habit of eating healthier foods. How might we set out creating a Ulysses Pact for this habit?
The key is to ask yourself: What is the biggest obstacle to me eating healthy food on a regular basis? What makes it so hard?
If you’re anything like me, having snacks, sweets, and other unhealthy food in the house is simply too much of a temptation to resist. Sure, maybe I can willpower my way to resist here and there, but on average the cookies on the counter are going to win (and my healthy eating habit is going to lose).
This suggests that the availability of unhealthy foods in my house is a key obstacle to eating well. But how did all that unhealthy food get there? Well, I bought it at the store, of course. But why would I buy unhealthy food if I knew it would lead to unhealthy eating habits?
Like many people, I often went grocery shopping on my way home from work. Which logistically makes a lot of sense. But from a behavioral science perspective, this is probably the worst possible time to go grocery shopping.
Think about what kind of a state we’re in—both biologically and psychologically—at the end of the day on the way home from work—physically tired, perhaps a bit frustrated and irritable, and very likely, pretty hungry.
Unfortunately, all of these aversive states are going to influence our grocery shopping decisions in a way that ’s counter-productive for our healthy eating habit. If you’re starving, frustrated, and exhausted, that microwave pizza is going to look way more attractive than that bag of kale-arugula salad mix.
So, it seems that the real obstacle to eating well at home is how we feel at the grocery store.
Armed with this information, we can set out to design an effective Ulysses Pact. I might, for example, describe to my wife one day after dinner this new insight I’ve had about why I keep buying unhealthy food. Then I might suggest a new strategy, my Ulysses Pact:
For a month, let’s try only grocery shopping in the evenings after dinner. And to make sure I follow through, I’m telling you, honey, about my plan. This way, If I’m tempted to just stop by the store after work because it’s more convenient, I’ll imagine how sheepish I’ll feel having to admit that I couldn’t follow through with this basic goal.
More Examples of the Ulysses Pact in Action
The simplicity of the Ulysses Pact lends it to great flexibility and usefulness when it comes to good decision making and habits. In fact, it’s often just as useful for eliminating bad or unhealthy habits as it is building good ones.
To help give you a sense for how you might take advantage of a Ulysses Pact in your own life, here are some of the more interesting or useful ways I’ve seen it used:
- If you struggle with procrastinating on your work by surfing the web or browsing social media, purchase and install software like SelfControl that allows you to restrict your own access to distracting, time-wasting websites.
- If you’d like to read more in the evenings instead of watching so much Netflix, unplug your TV and store it in a closet or the garage.
- If you want to be more present and engaged with your family in the evenings, leave your computer at the office and put your phone in your sock drawer as soon as you get home from work.
- If you want to stick with an exercise regimen, join the same gym as a friend who already exercises regularly and suggest becoming accountability partners. Even better, write them a check for $100 and tell them that if you miss a workout, they get to cash the check and spend it as they please.
- If you want to stay consistent with your blogging, write a “teaser post” at the end of each week explaining what next week’s post will be about. Now you’ve committed publicly to writing the following week.
- In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear describes how, in order to avoid the temptation of checking social media, he instructs his assistant to change all of his social media log-in credentials at the end of each weekend and only give him the new ones at the beginning of the next weekend.
All You Need to Know
It’s a truism that New Year’s resolutions, fad diets, and any other number of good habits we try to build tend not to last. But it’s not for want of trying.
Most of us are actually quite good at starting new habits. It’s the maintenance that causes problems. And this is where the Ulysses Pact is so helpful.
By taking advantage of good intentions in the present, and creatively building in smart incentives to adhere, we can drastically improve our odds resisting temptation in the future and staying consistent with our habits, goals, and highest aspirations.