• Reflective Resources

U is for Ulysses pact and commitment devices

The Greek epic poem, “The Odyssey” tells the story of how ship’s captain Ulysses (Greek name, Odysseus) when travelling home after the Trojan war wanted to hear the enchanting songs sung by the beautiful women called sirens who sat on the rocks but the goddess Circe had told him that any sailor who heard this song would be so spellbound by its enchanting qualities that they would direct their ship towards the source of the song and crash it into the rocks and die so he was to avoid the area at all costs.


Although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought, Ulysses’s curiosity was so strong, that he devised a plan so that he could hear the enchanting song without putting the ship into danger. He ordered his sailors to strap him to the mast and they were given strict instructions not to untie him no matter what and to keep their swords upon him and to attack him if he should break free of his bonds until they were safely beyond the reach of the siren’s song. The sailors themselves had to put wax into their ears so they couldn’t hear either. (Ulysses’s plan succeeded).


So was born what is known as the Ulysses pact. The pact is a technique that is used to allow us to make a choice in the present that ‘binds us’ like Ulysses and restricts future freedoms in an effort to achieve an outcome. This is usually done by means of a structured system of external constraints or incentives (punishments or rewards) . It is designed to protect you from immediate gratification that might be bad for you in the long term and is looking toward your future self.


Sometimes others impose such a Ulysses pact on us. An example from the past is when Victor Hugo faced an impossible deadline from his publisher in 1830 because he had frittered away his time and was no where near completing his promised book In response Hugo asked his assistant to lock his clothes away so that he couldn’t go out and and this helped him to focus his attention and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ was published 2 weeks earlier than the deadline set.


The term that psychologists use for a Ulysses pact is a commitment device. It is basically a choice that you make in the present that controls your actions in the future.


Whether it is a one-off action like Ulysses or about making a permanent change through developing a better habit, sometimes our will power needs a little assistance. Our will power can be limited, so it is sometimes good to have some tricks up our sleeve in order to restrict our freedom if we’re to act in our own best interests. That’s why the Ulysses contract is a useful tool because it gives you a way to strong-arm your will power into making the best long term choice.


“Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard” James Clear


When we set goals for ourselves it's often not that our goals are physically impossible that is keeping us from achieving them, it's that we lack the self-discipline to stick to them. Resisting temptation and immediate gratification is hard. We may want to lose weight to be healthier in the future, for example, but that chocolate that is here now is SO nice.


"To abstain from the enjoyment which is in our power,

or to seek distant rather than immediate results,

are among the most painful exertions

of the human will." Nassau William Senior


We are in an unequal battle between the present self and the future self and unless we have spent time developing our self-discipline then it is often the ‘present self’ that will win. The present self is experiencing all the reasons why you should do something that might not really be the best choice for you now i.e. you can see the chocolate in front of you, you use your memory to remind yourself of how nice it was to eat a piece of chocolate beforehand, you then visualise and imagine how that chocolate is going to taste and the heightened feelings and sensations of enjoyment and pleasure that you will experience when you eat it, you undo the wrapper, you lift it towards your mouth…. Get the idea? After all we are encouraged to be fully living in the present moment….;-)


The problem is that our future self seems very far away so the present self can trounce all over its intentions and goals. This is why making a Ulysses pact and using commitment devices can be helpful in levelling up the playing field between the two.


I say ‘can’ because there is a school of thought that suggests that if you use these techniques then it is just a reminder that you have no self-discipline without having a pact in place so that whenever you are in a new situation where you don't have a commitment device in place you have no safety net and therefore you are more likely to go ahead and do something that your future self will not thank you for. The other argument used against commitment devices is that you can always talk your way out of them using all sorts of excuses to justify your actions. “I can’t NOT eat chocolate today because ….it’s my birthday, my blood sugars are low, it would appear rude not to accept…..”


Willpower is a muscle, not a skill and we all have the ability to create habits and routines that are helpful rather than those that hinder us. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. If we are honest with ourselves though, we can admit that we do not always operate out at our best because we are not machines we are imperfectly perfect humans so in that respect, although I think that it is important to work on our own personal self-discipline, being realistic, it can’t help to have other things in place to encourage or motivate us to maintain our ideal paths.


A Ulysses pact is a way to bind oneself into following a plan of action that one might not feel like doing in the moment, but which we know is good for oneself in the long run. It acknowledges our human weakness and creates a constraint (we tie ourselves to the mast like Ulysses). We can make a pact with ourselves, or sometimes others impose restraints. The pact can be aided by using accountability (telling others about your plans or posting your progress publicly) or consequences (punishments or rewards. “If I do this then I will….”) to make it more difficult to slip or change our minds when we’re faced with temptation.


“Commitment devices have 2 basic features. First, people voluntarily elect to use them. This means people must be self-aware enough about the gap between their current goals and their likely future behaviours to recognize the value of taking steps to limit their future choices and actions. Many people are unaware of this gap and therefore fail to use commitment devices. Second, commitment devices associate consequences with people’s failures to achieve their goals” Commitment Devices Using Initiatives to Change Behaviour


When we are motivated, it is relatively easy starting new habits.


“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going”. Jim Rohn


The Ulysses pact takes advantage of the good intentions we have in the present to help us maintain our intentions by putting in place incentives so we don’t waiver and thereby drastically improving our chances of success, staying consistent and resisting future temptation. Because of its simplicity, the Ulysses pact can be equally as effective in eliminating unhealthy habits as it is in building better habits.


The term Ulysses pact or Ulysses contract can also be used with reference to advance directives (living wills). It is often put in place when there is a risk that someone’s health (mental or physical) will decline and there is a question as to whether a person will be able to make the best decisions for themselves. When this is the case the responsibility is handed over to someone that they deem competent and trust to make the best decisions for them or to medical professionals.


There is some controversy over whether a decision made by a person in one state of health should be considered binding upon that person when they are in a markedly different, usually worse (though sometimes better state of health e.g. when in remission) and of course the same question should be asked if there is a change because of unforeseen circumstances or if things come to light that affect the impartiality of the person entrusted or the professionals’ decisions.


No one is exempt from the human weakness; a Ulysses pact can serve as a useful tool to help us get to where we want to, but as with everything there needs to be balance and a sense of responsibility. We cannot dissolve ourselves of the responsibility of our actions, if we are to live full lives we still need to do everything in our power to fully live in the present and develop our own self-discipline, will -power etc The more we use our willpower the stronger it becomes, the more resilient we become and the greater the positive effect it will have on everything in your life and your future.



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