The only thing between you and your better self is your brain. Programmed to maximize short term reward, we often find ourselves struggling between what we want in the moment and what we’ll gain in the long term if we forgo immediate gratification. As neuroscientist David Eagleman reveals, the ancient wisdom of Ulysses remains useful today as a way to contextualize current scientific research. Before temptation strikes, it pays to have a plan for when it arrives. By making a contract with your future self—as Ulysses did with his crew—you can avoid occasions of indulgence. And when you do give into immediate satisfaction, you can build in supports to keep it from wreaking havoc on your life.
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Go back 3,000 years to Ulysses, who fought in the Trojan War and was coming home to his island of Ithaca on his ships with his men, and he realized that he had this amazing opportunity, which is he was going to pass the Island of the Sirens. And he knew that the sirens sang so beautifully and were so seductive that mortal men would crash their ships into the rocks, and they’d all die every time. If you heard the song of the sirens you were going to die.
He wanted to hear the song of the sirens, so what did he do? The Ulysses of present sound mind made a contract with the future Ulysses. He said, “I know that guy is going to behave badly when he hears the siren’s song.” So what did he do? He lashed himself to the mast, exactly, and he filled his men’s ears with beeswax, and he said, “No matter what I do, keep on rowing.” Just ignore everything, keep on going. And that way he got to hear the siren’s song but he didn’t crash in the rocks because he was lashed to the mast. And so this is what is known as a “Ulysses contract”, which is your present self making a contract with your future self. Penning in, constraining the behavior of your future self so that it has to do the right thing given your long-term thinking that you’re doing now. And so when it comes to something like the cookies, the Ulysses contract, it’s more than “I’m going to eat it or not eat it.” It can be something like, “Okay, look, if I eat cookies, I’m going to promise my spouse that I’ll go to the gym tonight.” That’s the kind of way that we can bring these sorts of things into our own life.
And so I’ll give you several examples. I want to say is so what we’ve seen so far is that there’s this great seduction in the now.
And so if we want to do something where we actually are navigating our future selves in a better way we have to establish these kinds of contracts with ourselves. This is one of the most important sort of life lessons that I’ve got. I mean take something like New Year’s resolutions. Everybody has really good New Year’s resolutions and believes they’re going to do it. And by the end of January for almost everybody these things have fallen away. Why? It’s not because you didn’t mean it in January. It’s because you didn’t set up the structures in your life, the Ulysses contracts to make sure that that went through. It’s not enough to make a promise and a resolution with good intention. You need to understand what’s actually happening so that you can do something about it.
So what I want to do is suggest actionable steps by which we can actually keep our resolutions to ourselves a little bit longer.
So the first one is building fences around yourself by minimizing temptation. So, for example, in Alcoholics Anonymous the very first thing they tell you is you’ve got to clear all the alcohol out of your house. Why? It’s because on a festive Friday night or a lonely Sunday night you’re going to go and drink. Even if you think, “No, I’m done. I’m not going to drink but I’m going to keep those in there.”
With smokers the first thing they’re told in these rehab programs is: don’t hang out with other smokers. With drug addicts who are trying to quit the first thing they’re told in drug rehab programs is: make sure you never carry more than 20 bucks of cash with you.