Have You Ever Made a Ulysses Contract with Yourself?

Once again, I have Dan Ariely to thank for the idea for today’s post.

One of the questions posed to Dan in today’s Wall Street Journal was the following:

Dear Dan,

Our 14-year-old son has a hard time getting up in the morning. He sets an alarm clock, but he always presses the snooze button and goes back to sleep. We don’t want to get in the habit of waking him ourselves, because we want him to take responsibility for getting to school on time. What can we do to help him get out of bed? —Ruth

Teenagers need a lot of sleep, but for all of us, waking up early requires a substantial amount of willpower. One way to deal with this kind of challenge is to make an agreement with our future self—what is known as a “Ulysses contract.” … In your son’s case, a Ulysses contract could involve putting his alarm clock in the bathroom. That way he will have to get out of bed to turn it off, and by the time he’s in the bathroom, he will be awake and ready to brush his teeth.

I’ve never heard the phrase, “Ulysses contract”, but I am familiar with the idea. Here’s where it gets its name from:

The term refers to the pact that Ulysses made with his men as they approached the Siren. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men’s ears so that they could not hear, and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances, and to keep their swords upon him and to attack him if he should break free of his bonds. Upon hearing the Sirens’ song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death.

According to Psychology Today, both carrot and stick can work.

In my case, a carrot tack might be, “If I get my 30-minute workout in this morning, I get a reward — say, an Acai Bowl for breakfast or watching reruns of King of Queens when I get home from work. Think of the task as a competition between your present and future selves. Then handicap it in favor of the future self by vividly imagining the payoff if — no, when — you come through.

But there seems to be much more collective creative interest in the stick.

For me, it might be something along the lines of: “If I don’t publish a blog post today, then I have to donate $100 to the NRA or visit an alligator sanctuary (now you know what motivates me to post every day…).

This latter technique is so effective that a couple of behavioral economists from the Yale School of Management have created a free online app around it – StickK.

What all these measures boil down to is this: anticipating noncompliance and taking measures to prevent it.

Another way to raise the stakes is simply to go public with the commitment. Post to Facebook about it. Tell someone you’re going to do it. Now you’re accountable.

That’s how this blog got started; I committed to a 30-day write-and-run challenge, and created my own website, and would post my blogs every day to Facebook. Knowing that I had made my commitment public provided a strong incentive to complete the challenge (and to then keep going).

I think a key to making it work is to follow through with the carrot os stick. A few years ago I began training to do a marathon on my rowing machine. I told myself that if I broke three hours, I would then join a local rowing club. Unfortuantely, I fell a little bit short, and even though people told me it would be OK to join, I felt I hadn’t earned it, so I did not join.

But sometimes it works the way you want.

I set a weight loss goal for myself a few months ago, and I was not making much progress. I then made a Ulysses contract: if I lose the weight, I’ll treat myself to breakfast at The Tasty, a vegan diner in Philly that has great vegan pancakes and waffles.

That seemed to do the trick; a few weeks later I hit the goal, and later that day I headed to the diner with my wife and son for a delicious vegan breakfast.

So I’m a fan of such contracts, and I’m happy that Dan Ariely seems to be as well. I’m just not sure I would ever go as far as Ulysses…

*photo from FineArtAmerica

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