Ulysses Pacts: STOP believing in yourself


Last week, I downloaded a new video game to play.

And 30 minutes later, I uninstalled the game. Not because I didn’t like the game, but specifically because I liked the game too much. The game is called Dave the Diver, where you are a SCUBA Diver/Sushi restaurant owner. You spend each day diving and catching fish, and then each evening serving sushi at the restaurant.

This game pressed every biological button my brain has for “efficiency.”

My brain told me I had to execute each dive as efficiently as possible. Each night at the restaurant meant I needed to receive a 100% customer satisfaction rating.

Of course, nothing would happen if I didn’t.

But this game + my brain equaled a recipe for addictive disaster. After 30 minutes I knew if I didn’t delete it, I would spend every possible minute playing the game, and every minute not playing would be spent thinking about how to get more efficient at the game.

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Because I’m in the middle of writing a secret-book-shaped-project that I can’t talk about… I knew I needed to save Future Steve.

In other words, it was time to channel an ancient strategy for survival:

A “Ulysses Pact.”

What is a Ulysses Pact?

In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses (also known as “Odysseus”) is about to sail past a dangerous island of Sirens who sing beautiful music. This music is so beautiful that anybody who hears it loses all control, and will sail toward the island, crashing their boat on the rocks surrounding the island.

Luckily, our boy Uylsses has been advised by the witch Circe on the only way he and his men can survive. In Madelline Miller’s Circe, she recounts the advice Circe gives the captain:

“[For] the Sirens, there you may use your tricks. Fill your men’s ears with wax, and leave your own free. If you tie yourself to the mast, you may be the first man to ever hear their song and tell the tale.”

As author Corey Doctorow points out in a recent newsletter:

“Ulysses was strong enough to know that he would someday be weak. He expressed his strength by guarding against his weakness.

“When you take some possibility off the table during a moment of strength in recognition of some coming moment of weakness.”

In other words, sometimes giving up on yourself is the most courageous thing you can do. It asks you to accept your weaknesses, and make a strategic pre-planned decision to protect against them.

Ulysses Pacts In My Life

I am a comical disaster trapped in the body of an adult who pretends to be a functioning member of society. I am also my own boss, completely in control of my time. Yikes.

I struggle with impulse control. There are certain experiences that I am just incapable of doing “a little bit.” I also know that once I start an enjoyable activity, it will take over.

Which means it’s practically impossible for me to only do some things “just a little bit” and then say “okay that’s enough for today.”

After all, I know my brain isn’t equipped to handle the life of abundance we’re surrounded with: endless distraction, hedonistic enjoyment, unlimited food, etc.

E.O. Wilson said it best:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.”

Rather than lament my lack of willpower when it comes to addictive technology, I practice acceptance and instead make willpower unnecessary.

Thus, my life is held together with spit, duct tape, and Ulysses Pacts:

  • I have an app on my phone called Opal. It automatically activates at 7AM and blocks certain apps, websites, and all social media for most of the hours of the work day. I still pick up my phone 10-20 times per day and try to open those apps, and then I’m reminded to get back to work.
  • I use a program on my computer called Focus. It automatically activates at 7AM and blocks practically ANYTHING fun or distracting on my computer until the end of the work day.
  • I don’t keep snacks in my house. I love snacks. And once a bag is open, it gets eaten. But when I’m sitting on the couch watching TV (I just finished Fallout and loved it), and I’m craving a snack, there’s no decision to be made. I’m certainly not going to drive to the store.
  • I don’t have any games on my phone. I know that I can’t control any impulses, especially for “gatcha” free games that encourage you to buy gems to level up.
  • I am locked out of each social media app after 15 minutes every day. Social Media has been designed by behavioral scientists, with billions of dollars, to be as addictive as possible. So I don’t try to “use it just a little bit.” I simply don’t let myself use it for any longer than “a little bit” because I’m literally locked out.
  • I don’t play multiplayer games. I have no regulation around “okay I’m done,” so I no longer play multiplayer games. I bet if I played World of Warcraft, you would never get another newsletter from me. Thus, I exclusively play single player games with a story or narrative.
  • I automatically donate to two charities every month: ProPublica investigative journalism and the Nashville Food Kitchen. Both of these decisions were made ONCE, which means I never have to remember to donate, nor am I tempted to spend the money once it hits my account.
  • Whenever I go to the doctor, dermatologist, or dentist, I always schedule my next appointment while I’m there. Because I know I’ll forget to do so months later, or I’ll tell myself I don’t need to go. Future Steve will not want to get his teeth cleaned or get bloodwork done.
  • My workouts are pre-scheduled in my calendar. I would much rather not work out, but I know if I don’t plan for them in my calendar, something else far more fun (but less beneficial) will take their place.

The only reason you get this newsletter every week, and the only reason I get to the gym a few times per week (in addition to winning the genetic and environmental lottery), is because of these Ulysses Pacts.

Here’s how you can use them in your own life.

You-lysses Pacts in Action

Returning to Corey Doctorow:

“Ulysses pacts aren’t perfect, but they are very important. At the very least, creating a Ulysses pact starts with acknowledging that you are fallible. That you can be tempted, and rationalize your way into taking bad action, even when you know better.

Becoming an adult is a process of learning that your strength comes from seeing your weaknesses and protecting yourself and the people who trust you from them.”

Let’s see how we can add some Ulysses Pacts to your life.

To create your own Ulysses Pact: look for opportunities to make a decision TODAY in a moment of strength, to safeguard yourself against an anticipated moment of weakness TOMORROW.

Even better, look for opportunities to make a decision once, and it prevents you from needing to use willpower to repeatedly do the right thing in the future.

A few more examples:

  • Decide to not keep problematic foods in the house once, and you don’t have to spend all night, every night, deciding NOT to eat those foods.
  • Decide to automatically donate to a cause you love once, and you don’t have to remember to not spend that money on something else and donate each month.
  • Delete and/or block social media and time-wasting games on your phone once, and suddenly the decision to read a book or go for a walk rather than mindlessly scroll through TikTok or Instagram becomes much easier.

Remember, acknowledging and creating safeguards against our weaknesses isn’t a sign of giving up or weakness.

It’s a courageous sign of acceptance.

It’s also smart.

What are the Ulysses Pacts you use in your own life? Did this article inspire you to create one for yourself?

Reach out and let me know!

-Steve


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