A common issue with long-term goal-setting is the lack of short-term payoff. When faced with instant gratification against future gains, the temptation to cave in to the “now” can be irresistible. A surprising source of inspiration comes from Greek mythology and the story of Ulysses.

Ulysses was making his journey home after the fall of Troy and had to sail his ship past the isolated island of the Sirens, dangerous and beautiful creatures, who lured sailors with their seductive and enchanting music to shipwreck on the rocky coast or plunge to their death. The dilemma faced by Ulysses was that he wanted to hear the Siren song, but also wanted to survive. He came up with a plan that anticipated his future inability to resist temptation. Ulysses instructed the crew to tie him securely to the boat’s mast and to put wax in their own ears. That way, the sailors would not be drawn to the Sirens or hear Ulysses pleading to be set free. Ulysses was able to hear the music without being destroyed by it. He successfully led himself through temptation and continued the voyage to Ithaca.

Advance planning assured Ulysses of meeting his goal. This scheme has become known as a “Ulysses contract” or “Ulysses pact.” It is a freely made decision to bind oneself in the future. The deal is struck during a rational period in anticipation of a less rational one with knowledge of temptations that can derail best intentions.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman was featured in an episode of Radiolab called “Help” that explored the battle of “you versus you” and told stories of individuals who created their own successful versions of the Ulysses contract. One such person was Zelda Gamson, a smoker since the 1960s who made a deal with a friend that if she ever smoked another cigarette, $5,000 would be donated to the Ku Klux Klan, the most abhorrent and unacceptable outcome she could conjure.

My version of the Siren song is passing by the Cinnabon counter at the train station. Even as I write this, my mouth is watering at the thought of the smell, the taste, the gooey texture of the icing on these world-famous cinnamon rolls. Since I don’t have a crew to tie me down, I use an entrance to the train station that is a bit out of the way, but does not pass right by the counter and I am able to avoid the temptation.

We all make promises to ourselves that are difficult to keep, but matter to us right now. This is the time of year many people make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking, save money, or eliminate self-destructive behaviors. Ulysses is only one example we can take from the arts. In the movie “Say Anything,” party-goers handed their car keys to a person appointed “key master” to ensure they will resist the temptation to drive home drunk. Comedian and sleepwalker Mike Birbiglia tells the story in “Sleepwalk With Me” of how he learned to avoid causing personal injuries and property damage by zipping himself into a sleeping bag—a decision made while conscious and rational to avoid negative consequences that occurred when he was unconscious and irrational. If your spending is out of control, you may consider cutting up your credit cards or diverting a portion of your paycheck directly into a retirement plan so the money is never in your hands and there would be consequences for early withdrawal. A client of mine was trying to quit smoking marijuana. He told everyone except for one person—his supplier, who was also his closest friend. Omitting that person protected his source and enabled him to resume. Once he told his friend, he was bound to his decision.

A variation on the Ulysses contract is to create deterrence. A law partner who cursed a lot wanted to change that habit. He told everyone in the office about his goal and set up a swear jar where he had to put a dollar in for every curse word. It wasn’t just the money that made him accountable, it was the public embarrassment of being unable to curb his habit, change his behavior and live up to a commitment.

What is your Siren call? What would you like to do, starting now, and how can you secure a long-term goal against short-term temptations? Here are some suggestions for making it happen:

  • Decide what you want and why. How will your life improve if you follow through?
  • Write it down. There is great power in writing down your intentions. Journaling is often a key component in coaching because of how surprisingly influential it is. A client of mine who was on a weight-loss program wrote down everything she ate. Just knowing she would have to write it down was a formidable deterrent and increased her ability to resist temptation.
  • List and evaluate reasons that have consistently stood in the way and how you can preempt them.
  • Make a deal that includes consequences and countermeasures. Many of the examples above involve enlisting the help of others. In some instances, simply telling people of your intention can improve the probability of success because we are more likely to break promises to ourselves than to others. Ulysses enlisted help and so can you. What can you do today that will bind yourself to the outcome you want in the future? With whom can you form an alliance to stay on track?

Don’t underestimate what you can do over time. Anything that really matters to you is worth creating a plan for success and the plan must include accountability. The Ulysses contract is one method that compromises or even disables the option to deviate. He anticipated obstacles and recruited support to realize his goal and so can you. Happy New Year! Please post comments and let me know your creative strategies for reaching your goals.


Reprinted with permission from the January 16, 2014 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2013 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com.

Written by Dena Lefkowitz for “The Legal Intelligencer,” America’s oldest daily journal for lawyers.