The final piece of the puzzle for greater self-discipline and sticking to your guns is to change your thoughts. Thoughts, of course, lead to behavior, and behavior is what we want to change in the end. In this chapter, we talk about three specific ways to change the way that you think about taking action versus lying on the couch.
First, we come to the Ulysses pact, or as I would call it, coerced compliance. It’s the act of burning your bridges and not allowing yourself to make a detrimental choice in the heat of the moment or out of a lack of self-awareness. When you find that you have no choice, and you must actually sit with your thoughts and work through things, that’s just what you’ll do. There is no easier path of least resistance, and there is no escape. If you can smartly plan and make this choice beforehand using commitment devices such as the Ulysses pact, then you no longer have to exercise self-discipline per se.
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As you’ve probably noticed, it’s not quite what you do when it comes to improving your productivity, but why and how you do it. No matter which approach you try, keep in mind that you’re in charge, and frequently stop to ask whether a technique is working for you. However you keep your to-do list or schedule, keep a record of how many hours you actually do a day, how you feel doing them, and how much time you spend procrastinating. Drop those ideas that aren’t working and double down on those that are. Simple—but it does require time and focus.
Let’s finish with a few more handy psychological tips and tricks to increase your self-discipline and kill your procrastination habit once and for all. Remember, none of it is gospel—you’ll only know if a method has any merit if you take the time to practically apply it in your own life. What’s important is that you test it out in the real world and make adjustments as necessary.
One useful trick is what’s called the Ulysses pact. First, a little story about Ulysses to set the context. In Homer’s epic Odyssey, Ulysses and his men sail past the notorious sirens, whose beauty and enchanting singing lure men to come closer and kill themselves on the dangerous rocks. It’s a metaphor we can all appreciate: the siren song of our most alluring distractions can feel so strong at times we find ourselves behaving completely irrationally and steering off course to our doom.
Ulysses, however, understands that this will happen and decides to take action while he is still thinking rationally. On advice of the witch Circe, he tells his men to wear wax earplugs and asks them to tie him tightly to the mast of the ship so that he can hear the song without being physically drawn in (granted, this part is a little cheeky). The sailors manage to resist the pull of the sirens and sail safely by.
From this story, you can probably guess what a “Ulysses pact” might be. We already know that under certain conditions, we don’t behave rationally. When a temptation is strong enough, we can’t realistically rely on our free will. All our noble commitments and goals fly out the window if a distraction is powerful enough. So don’t plan to resist a powerful temptation in the moment—instead, plan ahead and make it so that it’s simply impossible to succumb to a tempting distraction, no effort required. Harriet Standing and Rob Lawlor at Leeds university discussed in 2019 how this approach can even help with psychiatric patient care, self-harm, addiction, and things like ADHD.
Essentially, you use your rationality and willpower in one moment to bootstrap you through another more challenging moment. By locking yourself into a behavior you set up when you’re cognitively and emotionally strong, you avoid a slip later. You don’t have to beat yourself up for being a fallible human sometimes who gives in to temptation—simply realize that the possibility is there and act accordingly. Many procrastination and productivity tips focus on building up your strength of will, but why give yourself all that work to do when you can avoid it altogether?
The trick to making this approach really work for you is to create a system (i.e., your own wax earplugs and ropes to tie you to the mast) that will well and truly keep you away from the distraction. The siren song is tempting! An example is to install an app in your Internet browser that blocks you from visiting certain sites. While you are feeling strong, rational, and committed, you set the app to only allow access for a limited period during each day, after you’ve already done your more important tasks. Thinking ahead, you choose an app that cannot, under any circumstances, be undone. You install the app on all your devices in your home and choose one that cannot be cleverly switched off one way or another. And just like that, the monumental temptation is taken off your plate.
This trick can be used to avoid temptations of all kinds. If you notice that you procrastinate because of ample (technological) distractions, take a moment to think of a system to keep yourself from those distractions when you’re feeling in a more in-control mood. Set up your work PC so that it isn’t online and you can work in peace without checking mail or browsing endlessly. Give the Wi-Fi password to someone else. Keep games at a friend’s house or store your phone in another room overnight so you’re not tempted to fiddle with it when you should be sleeping. If you notice that your siren songs are emotional in nature, you may even find it helpful to write yourself a letter in a calm, rational state of mind for you to read later if you get drawn into spirals of negative thinking or pessimism.
One way to take this pact a step further is to set up a system of incentives and hold yourself accountable to them. So, if you were going to spend some time playing video games after work but didn’t manage to complete what you were supposed to, deny yourself the right to play games until you’ve finished your work. Another trick you can use is to tell other people about things you plan on doing or achieving. We are often more afraid of disappointing others than we are of disappointing ourselves. So, if you tell a close friend that you want to lose weight by starting to go to the gym, they might disapprove if you didn’t bother and just stayed home instead. Initially it may take some effort to hold yourself accountable, but once you see that it works and ensures you get more stuff done, you’re more likely to do it in the future.
Use this technique to not only avoid temptations, but to encourage better habits in the process. A good use of this approach is in getting yourself to eat better. Go grocery shopping when you’ve already eaten; being full and satisfied will help you resist the siren song of junk food a little better. If you know that the most tempting and unhealthy treats are in the center aisles of the store, commit to only ever shopping on the perimeter where the fresh and unprocessed foods are. Or even better, shop online and get a standard weekly order that takes the choice out of your hands completely. Meal delivery services do the same and will portion your meals and help you avoid going into supermarkets at all.
There are countless ways to use this trick; it all depends on your unique triggers, weaknesses, and reasons for procrastination or other bad habits. A person may find that they have a nasty habit of overeating after dinnertime each evening. They already know how futile it is to try and bravely resist the cookies and candy, night after night. It wears down on their mental reserves and makes them feel bad every time they fail. So they don’t bother finding clever ways to resist—they just institute a rule to never have cookies and candy in the house, period. This single decision will remove the need for the near-constant effort of willpower they’d otherwise have to exercise over and over again if these snacks were available.
This is a subtle switch from the behavior we’re trying to reduce to the state of mind that causes us to do those behaviors. The fact is that willpower is not limitless and that our ability to continually delay gratification and make the better choice takes effort and energy. This wears down over the course of a day, so you’re more likely to make a poor decision if you’re already tired. Have you ever told yourself, “What the hell, I deserve this,” and indulged at the end of a particularly hard day? It’s because, cognitively, you’ve already “spent” your willpower for the day and it’s hopeless to expect that you’d summon it from nowhere to resist the temptation. Instead, give the decision to yourself at your strongest so you can benefit when you’re at your weakest.
Consider someone who knows they should be more sociable and cultivate friendships but is lazy and a little socially anxious. Knowing that they tend to flake on social commitments a few hours in advance, they deliberately set up a situation where a friend will come and pick them up and they’ll travel together. With the obligation and accountability that comes with this, the person finds they resist the temptation to be lazy and stay home. Granted, they might not like it in the moment, but they’re probably glad they had the foresight to push themselves anyway.
Similarly, if you avoid the gym and procrastinate going, get an accountability buddy and set up systems that are difficult to wriggle out of. Tell your friend you’ll pay them $50 for every workout you miss. Leave something you need for work at the gym lockers so you have to go in before work. Book an appointment with a trainer that you’d feel awkward about canceling.
The important thing is to really understand what your temptations are, how they work, and when they happen so you can step in appropriately. You don’t need to pile on guilt when you mess up—bad feelings won’t help you one bit when it comes to doing it right. Accept that some temptations are strong, and don’t put pressure on yourself to quit things cold turkey or achieve miracles overnight. With some compassion and foresight, you can engineer your day to leverage your more clear, conscious, and inspired moments to get you through your more difficult ones.
The Ulysses pact is just one of many tricks you could use, some of them we’ve already encountered, and others you might not yet be aware of, such as Kaizen or special techniques for impulse control.
Show notes and/or episode transcripts are available at https://bit.ly/self-growth-home
Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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