Ulysses, King of Ithaca, and hero of the Trojan War, was on a protracted sea voyage after the war to go back to his home island of Ithaca. He had a rare opportunity ahead, in that his ship would pass the island where the beautiful Sirens sang melodies so luring that no one had been able to avoid their magnetic pull. When they lured the sailors and their ships toward them, their ships were dashed on the rocks, drowning all aboard.

Ulysses knew that, like everyone else, when he heard the music he would be unable to resist it. But he created a present plan to deal with his future self. In his present rational state, he ordered his men to lash him to the mast of the ship and not untie him no matter how much he begged or pleaded. He then had them fill their ears with beeswax so they would not be seduced by the voices of the Sirens. He made it clear to them that they were not to release him until the ship was well past the Sirens, nor were they to take the beeswax out until then.

We are each free to make a Ulysses Contract, to create a plan for a future self, a pre-commitment. Someone breaking an alcohol addiction ensures that they are not exposed to alcohol. Someone saves for the future by having an automatic checking account withdrawal the first day of the month to be placed in a retirement fund—a good one-time decision. People in the old-fashioned Christmas clubs regularly deposited a fixed amount each month for their December selves.

Another example of a Ulysses Contract to proactively commit to a future self is to pay a deposit of $100 with a promise that you will lose 10 pounds by the promised time. When you do, you get all the money back. If you don’t lose the weight by that time, you lose the money. Perhaps a charity gain, or worse, your good friend keeps it. As people get closer to the date when they can win back their money, their present emotional selves will care more and more about the past self that made a future commitment.

Ulysses Contracts are made in medicine when someone signs an Advanced Medical Directive to pull the plug in the event of a coma.

Research has shown (Emily Pronin, Princeton) that we save more for the future when we can envision our future selves. Computer-enhanced aging studies (Stanford Research Team) found that assisting the visualization of a future self can impact saving, exercise, and weight loss.

What contract will you make with your future self?

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