Why You Need a Ulysses Strategy

Neil StraussNeil, New Years

Too many people I’ve met this week are telling me something like this:

Me: So what are your resolutions this year?

Them: I’m not making any this year.

Me: Why not?

Them: Well, I would just make the same resolutions I made last year. And it’s depressing to know I didn’t do them.

Others making resolutions confessed that deep down, they didn’t think they’d be able to keep them, but it felt good to make them.

And it struck me as sad: Because giving up, whatever form it takes, is sad.

My attitude is: If something is not working, don’t give up.

Just change your strategy. 


So this year, instead of making resolutions together, let’s discuss why most people don’t stick to them and others don’t like them.

This doesn’t pertain just to New Year’s Resolutions, but any similar commitment you make to yourself.

It’s because: At every moment, when you are trying to improve yourself, there is a war taking place in your brain.

Let’s say that your resolution is to improve your health, perhaps by doing something physical every day or eating healthier.

Or maybe you’re a Game reader and you want to approach more.

Or perhaps you just read The Truth, and you want to tuck away a certain amount of money every week so you can do some deep work on yourself at the end of the year.

Making that resolution plunges your brain into an almost daily battle: Between a short-term reward and a long-term reward. 

And the odds are stacked against your resolution–because your brain is 100 percent certain that you will receive the short-term reward:

*That ice cream is going to taste good.

*Lying in bed is going to be easier than going to the gym.

*Spending that money is going to be easier and more fun than saving it.

*Not approaching is going to be safer than approaching.

The long-term rewards—a healthier body, a better physique, a new potential partner, a happier life—are uncertain.

You may eat healthy or work out for three months, then stop and all that time invested will be wasted.

Or you may end up having to spend the money you save on something else.

Or you might get rejected when you approach, so why even bother?

Thus, it often seems easier to go for the sure thing, rather than take a risk for an uncertain outcome.

You probably know about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.

Researchers told children that if they could refrain from indulging in a smaller reward (such as eating a marshmallow or another snack) for up to twenty minutes, then they would be given an even bigger reward (two marshmallows or a more preferable snack).

In follow-up studies decades later, the children who were able to delay gratification for a bigger reward generally had a higher quality of life, a lower BMI, and tested better.

It’s interesting, because I remember as a child that whenever I got candy, I’d never eat it all at once. I’d ration it to myself over a period of time so that it lasted until the next period at which I could get more candy. 

Maybe that’s where the discipline and perseverance to become a writer, or to master the seemingly impossible skills in my books, came from. 

You may have a similar story.

And so you and I may want to think of ourselves as people who would pass the Marshmallow Test.

And maybe we would: With marshmallows.

But resolutions, by their very nature, are designed to improve things we are already bad at doing. The things we have poor impulse control over.

So imagine instead of marshmallows, you’re being tested on something that is your strongest temptation in the world. And imagine that you can’t even be certain that you’ll even get the reward for resisting that temptation.

What if the researcher said, “I will give you $100 every week for a year. If you don’t spend any of it, maybe I will give you $10,000″?

Perhaps for a little while, we’ll be able to hold out on the basis of hope. But then two months later, when new model of phone with incredible features comes out, we may want to upgrade.

And we’ll have $800 just sitting in our pocket. So we’ll likely think: “Fuck it. I’d rather definitely have that new phone now, then maybe have some more money later.”

And that is what resolutions can be like.

It is also what life is like: Nothing is certain.

There’s no guarantee that if you work hard, you will be rewarded.

There’s no guarantee that if you start dating someone, they won’t cheat on you or break your heart.

There’s no guarantee that if you stop eating junk food or drinking every weekend or smoking the cigarettes you enjoy, you won’t die in a car crash next month anyway.

You are not in control. 

But you can improve your odds.

So most Resolutions are a gamble: sacrificing a sure thing right now for an unsure thing later on.

That is why our brain has serious trouble sticking to them over time.

The Resolutions that aren’t gambles, such as “Be Less Stressed” (one of the top ten most commonly broken resolutions according to Time magazine), are either too vague to measure or/and the opposite behavior has been cemented into our personalities for decades.

So why bother?

Because the gamble or the unsure outcome—a longer, healthier life or an incredible romantic/sexual partner or happiness and confidence—so massively outweighs the short-term reward that it’s worth taking a calculated risk.

And because you CAN do it.

Even with these odds stacked against you.

All you need is a Ulysses Strategy.

Before I explain that, there’s something else some of you also need: It’s common wisdom, often espoused on this list: Your Resolutions need to be specific and measurable.

For example, instead of resolving to “eat healthier,” make a list of exactly what foods you resolve not to eat this year. Instead of resolving to “approach more,” commit to approaching seven new people every week.

Now that you have a resolution that can be audited, it’s time to apply a Ulysses Strategy.

In The Odyssey, Ulysses (or Odysseus), wanted to hear the beautiful singing of the sea Sirens. However, all men who heard the singing of the Sirens became so bewitched by it that they would wreck their ship on nearby rocks or leap out of the boat to their doom.

So he didn’t think: “I’m a hero and a king. I can resist this if I set my mind to it.”

And he didn’t think: “It’s impossible to hear the song of the Sirens without getting destroyed, so I’m not going to even attempt it.”

He planned for failure: “I will die if I try to just use my resolve or will power. I need to make sure that no matter what happens or how weak I get, it’s impossible for me to harm myself or this ship.”

So he instructed his crew to lash him to the mast, stuff their ears with wax so they couldn’t hear the Siren song, and then not release him no matter what happened.

Through this strategy, he was able to get the outcome he wanted with only a very small risk of failure.

The takeaway: Prepare for the worst. Assume that there’s a good possibility that you will fail. That you won’t stick to your resolution.

Because at some point along the way, you are likely to hear your own version of a Siren song. You will get too tempted or too busy or too distracted or too weak or too lazy. You will get caught up in the moment—and you will take the short-term reward at the expense of your own life.

And that’s okay. You’re not perfect.

This is one case where it’s okay to underestimate your own abilities.

What you have to do instead is devise a Ulysses strategy:

Create a system to protect you from your lower self.

Make it nearly impossible to fail by putting strategic safeguards in place.

Here’s an example that doesn’t involve rope:

As I’m writing this, I know that I’m likely to get distracted by something on the Internet. So I use the program Freedom to block my computer’s access to the Internet.

With this program, there’s no possible way to get online.

Of course, there’s a possibility I could use my phone to go online. So I gave Ingrid my phone.

And I asked her, like Ulysses to his crew, not to give it back to me until I was done, no matter what I said or how much I pleaded.

Similarly, if you resolve not to eat junk food, tell someone you’re living with to throw out all sodas and snacks as soon as they see them in the house, no questions asked. 

If you want to go to the gym, make an arrangement with a friend who is already successful at going to the gym. Pledge to go to the gym with them every day at a certain hour. Give them some money or personal possessions that they can keep or throw out every time you miss a workout that you’re in town for.

If all else fails, my friend Maneesh Sethi created something called the Pavlok:

It’s wristband that gives you a very uncomfortable electric shock every time you need negative reinforcement. So if your resolution is to be less stressed or stop complaining, tell friends to press the zap button on your Pavlok or Pavlok app every time you break your resolution.

If you want to make ten approaches a week, join an online forum. Tell a moderator to cancel your account or delete your posts if you don’t post a report of your approaches every week. 

If you’re saving money for an intensive or a house, put them in an account or fund that you can’t withdraw money from until a certain date. Perhaps you can even earmark part of your paycheck to be directly deposited to this account. 

Remove all room for error.

Resolutions are a set up to fail ONLY if we are relying on will power or intention in situations where those resources are the weakest.

So set your Resolutions up to succeed. Create a Ulysses Strategy.

Tie your worst self to the mast so that your best self can be set free.