How to increase your will power? Make a Ulysses pact with yourself

The only thing between you and your better self is your brain. Programmed to maximize short term reward, we often find ourselves struggling between what we want and what we want to want.

DAVID EAGLEMAN: Go back 3,000 years to Ulysses, who fought in the Trojan War and was coming home to his island of Ithaca on his ships with his men, and he realized that he had this amazing opportunity, which is he was going to pass the Island of the Sirens. And he knew that the sirens sang so beautifully and were so seductive that mortal men would crash their ships into the rocks, and they’d all die every time. If you heard the song of the sirens you were going to die. 

He wanted to hear the song of the sirens, so what did he do? The Ulysses of present sound mind made a contract with the future Ulysses. He said, “I know that guy is going to behave badly when he hears the siren’s song.” So what did he do? He lashed himself to the mast, exactly, and he filled his men’s ears with beeswax, and he said, "No matter what I do, keep on rowing." Just ignore everything, keep on going. And that way he got to hear the siren’s song but he didn’t crash in the rocks because he was lashed to the mast. And so this is what is known as a “Ulysses contract”, which is your present self making a contract with your future self. Penning in, constraining the behavior of your future self so that it has to do the right thing given your long-term thinking that you’re doing now. And so when it comes to something like the cookies, the Ulysses contract, it’s more than “I’m going to eat it or not eat it.” It can be something like, “Okay, look, if I eat cookies, I’m going to promise my spouse that I’ll go to the gym tonight.” That’s the kind of way that we can bring these sorts of things into our own life. 

And so I'll give you several examples. I want to say is so what we’ve seen so far is that there’s this great seduction in the now. 

And so if we want to do something where we actually are navigating our future selves in a better way we have to establish these kinds of contracts with ourselves. This is one of the most important sort of life lessons that I’ve got. I mean take something like New Year’s resolutions. Everybody has really good New Year’s resolutions and believes they’re going to do it. And by the end of January for almost everybody these things have fallen away. Why? It’s not because you didn’t mean it in January. It’s because you didn’t set up the structures in your life, the Ulysses contracts to make sure that that went through. It’s not enough to make a promise and a resolution with good intention. You need to understand what’s actually happening so that you can do something about it. 

So what I want to do is suggest actionable steps by which we can actually keep our resolutions to ourselves a little bit longer. 

So the first one is building fences around yourself by minimizing temptation. So, for example, in Alcoholics Anonymous the very first thing they tell you is you’ve got to clear all the alcohol out of your house. Why? It’s because on a festive Friday night or a lonely Sunday night you’re going to go and drink. Even if you think, “No, I’m done. I’m not going to drink but I’m going to keep those in there.” 

With smokers the first thing they’re told in these rehab programs is: don’t hang out with other smokers. With drug addicts who are trying to quit the first thing they’re told in drug rehab programs is: make sure you never carry more than 20 bucks of cash with you. 

Because if you have the cash, no matter what your resolution is, you meet somebody in the alley who offers you drugs and you feel like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got this money anyway,” and so you do it. 

So the issue is not-tempting temptation. 

I was recently on a college campus giving a talk and I met these kids afterwards who during finals week what they do is they swap Facebook passwords with each other and they change those passwords so they can’t log into Facebook when they’re supposed to be studying. And then at the end of finals when it’s all over they give each other’s passwords back. It was very clever and that’s a beautiful sort of Ulysses contract where a week before finals you’re knowing about the temptations that you’re going to give into and you’re doing something to take care of those. By now a lot has been said about the marshmallow test. You guys probably know about this where children are asked you can eat this one marshmallow now or if you wait until I come back you can get two marshmallows. 

People talk about this in terms of the resolution that little kids have and how good they are at resisting temptation and stuff but there’s something that’s often overlooked here which is that one of the most common strategies that kids use was simply covering their eyes. Just clapping their hands over their eyes so they’re not looking at the marshmallow. And it turns out that’s a very effective strategy. And so when we think about minimizing temptations whatever your temptations are in life just think about the ways that you can actually contractually minimize that temptation so it’s not there. Not a fake thing or anything. Oh yeah, if it’s in the back of the cabinet I won’t do it but like actually get rid of the temptation.

The only thing between you and your better self is your brain. Programmed to maximize short term reward, we often find ourselves struggling between what we want in the moment and what we'll gain in the long term if we forgo immediate gratification. As neuroscientist David Eagleman reveals, the ancient wisdom of Ulysses remains useful today as a way to contextualize current scientific research. Before temptation strikes, it pays to have a plan for when it arrives. By making a contract with your future self—as Ulysses did with his crew—you can avoid occasions of indulgence. And when you do give into immediate satisfaction, you can build in supports to keep it from wreaking havoc on your life.


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.