Want to know the secret to breaking bad habits or making new healthier ones stick?
As a PhD in stress physiology and evolution and human behavior, I’ve dedicated my professional career to helping people rewire their thinking to better serve them. Often that means I’m in the business of breaking bad habits and helping people instill new, healthier ones.
When it comes to forming new habits, what we know is that willpower just isn’t enough. There is a lot of scientific research that shows our willpower actually decreases throughout the day so that workout we PROMISE we’re going to get to, we simply CAN’T fathom after spending all day avoiding all the other temptations of office baked goods and distractions from work. In order to make ourselves behave the way we consciously WANT to, we have to make a decision NOW in the present that binds us in the future – because as great as we think our future self will be, she always seems to find that little excuse to slip out of her new habit. This bind or pact with yourself is what’s referred to as a Ulysses contract. The name is based on the Greek myth of Ulysses (or Odysseus) who desperately wanted to hear the song of the sirens -a creature of famed beauty and voices so pure and lovely they would lure sailors to their deaths. But Ulysses had a plan. He had his crew tie him to the mast of the ship and had them swear to him that no matter how much he begged, no matter WHAT he said, that they were not allowed to untie him. He then had all the men fill their ears with wax so that they could not hear the song of the sirens. Even as they sailed by and Ulysses BEGGED his men to untie him so that he could go to the sirens, his pleas fell, quite literally on deaf ears. Ulysses and his crew survived because he had made a pact that ensured his future self upon hearing the song of the sirens, would not make a terrible decision.
So how can we use a Ulysses contract to help our own behaviors? One of my favorite commitment tactics has been turned into a free app called STICKK where if you don’t stick with your commitments the app will donate your money in your name to a charity you hate. Pretty motivating! Here are a couple of other ways to utilize a Ulysses contract in your life:
- Unplug your TV, hide your remote or otherwise increase the friction of simply plopping down on the couch and tuning out
- Write a friend a check for $100 and have them looking for you to miss a workout, smoke a cigarette, or eat that extra donut so that they can cash it if you break your commitment
- Write a teaser post of all the things you’re going to accomplish each week and commit to posting each of the accomplishments on social media.
What will your Ulysses contract entail?