Ulysses Contracts

Pre-emptively remove distractions that pull you away from your goals.

Whether it be career moves, weight loss, or financial goals, it's way too easy to break the commitments you make to yourself.  And the problem is, those are the commitments that are often most impactful to your long-term success.

This problem happens for the same reason that credit card debt happens: "current you" benefits from your poor decision, but you're deferring payment to "future you."  You feel the pleasure now, but defer the pain until later.  Or, as Jerry Seinfeld once said:

“I never get enough sleep.  I stay up late at night 'cause I'm ‘night guy.’  Night guy wants to stay up late.  ‘What about getting up after five hours of sleep?  Oh, that's morning guy's problem.  That's not my problem.  I'm night guy.  I stay up as late as I want.’  So you get up in the morning, the alarm, you're exhausted, groggy.  Oh, you hate that night guy.  See, night guy always screws morning guy.  There's nothing morning guy can do.”
—Jerry Seinfeld

Some people think sticking to long-term goals is all about willpower, but it's not.  There's more to it than that.  Nobody has infinite willpower.  Given enough temptation, everyone will falter eventually.

So if you're having trouble sticking to long-term goals, the solution is NOT to rely on willpower alone.  The solution is to pre-emptively remove distractions that pull you away from your goals.

There's a name for this: when you make decisions today that bind your behavior tomorrow, it's called a Ulysses contract.  The name comes from the tale of Ulysses, who wanted to hear the Sirens' song but knew it would drive him mad.  So he had his men tie him to the ship's mast, to prevent him from making poor decisions when under the thrall of the Sirens' song.

Sun Tzu also famously talked about "burning the boats" so that, without the option to flee, his soldiers would fight ferociously to the death.  This is another example of a Ulysses contract.

You've probably entered intro a Ulysses contract before.  Some common examples include:

  • Not buying junk food at the grocery store, because it's hard to resist once it's in the pantry at home.
  • Cutting up your credit cards so you can't overspend.
  • Establishing an "accountability buddy" to stick to your fitness goals.

Willpower simply isn't enough.  Everyone's willpower will fail eventually.  Identify the situations that make your willpower weak, and implement Ulysses contracts so those situations never occur.

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