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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ulysses Contracts

by Seattle Jon (bio)

Ulysses and the Sirens by Otto Greiner, 1902

I think we've all heard the story of the Greek hero Odysseus (English: Ulysses) and the Sirens. Brave and curious Odysseus wants to hear the famous songs of the Sirens, but aware that, when the time comes, he will be unable to resist the Sirens' beautiful songs (which are really a deathtrap), Odysseus advises his men to secure him firmly to the ship's mast. That way, he can listen to the song without being lured to his untimely death.

I recently heard this story retold on NPR's RadioLab (Episode: Help!). The show's creators told the story of Zelda Gamson, who'd tried for decades to stop smoking. Part of her wanted to quit, but another part just didn't want to let go. They asked the question, "How do you win a tug-of-war with yourself?"

Spoiler: Zelda quits smoking. But how did she win the tug-of-war? She cut a deal with herself. She told a friend that if she ever smoked again she would give $5,000 to the Ku Klux Klan. Say what?! Well, Zelda thought the KKK so unbelievably "heinous" that the thought of them having her money was more powerful than the urge to smoke. And she quit cold turkey.

According to neurologists, we are many "people" on the inside, different parts of our brains that fight and argue and don't always agree with one another. The trick is none of these different people exist simultaneously. And for many of us, the person in charge - the one in the moment who wants things now – is the stronger one. You just need to think about shopping and food to know this is true.

But, if you can pit your short-term desires not against your long-term plans but against an immediate feeling of dislike or disgust, you essentially trick the person who wants it now and make the tug-of-war more evenly matched. Zelda, for example, changed her personal tug-of-war from smoking now vs. longer and healthier life later (smoking always won) to smoking now vs. paying the KKK 5K now, and that was enough to do the trick.

This approach is called the Ulysses Contract and is a combination of insight, foresight, and ingenuity. What contracts have you made or will you make with your future self?

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