Writing Your Own “Ulysses Contract”

How to Keep A Promise To Yourself

Posted Sep 02, 2017

The Sirens and Ulysses, by William Etty
Source: The Sirens and Ulysses, by William Etty

When the physician and author Oliver Sacks was working on his first book, about migraines, he got stuck. A ferocious Writer's Block clamped down. Finally, in desperation, he gave himself an ultimatum: “Oliver, you have ten days to finish this or else you’re going to kill yourself.”

He said it so convincingly he actually kind of believed it. He started writing in terror. He finished in nine days.

It’s amazing what desperate tricks people will reach for to hold themselves accountable. As the “gig economy” becomes, increasingly, the place lot of us hang our hats, we’re going to have to learn to pull a Sacks. To hold a gun to our heads, metaphorically. Because there will be no boss in our doorway shouting “I don’t want it perfect; I want it Tuesday!” It’ll be up to us to find a way.

Creators try everything, from reading their muse the Riot Act (musician Tom Waits), to leaving Post-It-Note reminders of tomorrow’s important meeting with themselves (comic Mike Birbiglia).

Both carrot and stick can work. A carrot tack might be, "If I meet this self-imposed deadline, I get a reward — say, a run or a cookie or a couple episodes of The Knick." The Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg uses “means-to-end logic” as a way to goose our motivation along these lines. Think of the task as a competition between your present and future selves. Then handicap it in favor of the future self by vividly imagining the payoff if — no, when — you come through.

But there seems to be much more collective creative interest in the stick.

For instance: “If I’m up not up tackling this project by 6am tomorrow, a hundred bucks automatically flushes out of my bank account and into my friend Dale’s.” You set up your computer to make the transaction. You can disable the function if you’re at your desk before 6.

Even better: “If I’m not at my desk by 6am, a hundred bucks automatically flushes out of my bank account and into Donald Trump’s.” (Or whatever cause you find distasteful.)

This latter technique is so effective that a couple of behavioral economists from the Yale School of Management have created a free online app around it.

What all these measures boil down to is this: anticipating noncompliance and taking measures to prevent it.

In legal circles it’s known as a “Ulysses Contract.” Like the Greek hero’s strategy as his ship approached the fetching but deadly Sirens, it acknowledges that we’re weak and human and likely to cave. So we create a constraint. We tie ourselves to the mast. We make a deal in advance that can’t be overwritten later, when we’re faced with temptation or are of unsound mind.

Another way to raise the stakes is simply to go public with the commitment. Post to Facebook about it. Tell someone you’re going to do it. Now you’re accountable.

Last year a friend in Manhattan mentioned that he was finally going to clean his office. He’d make a Big Day of it – next Friday. Absolutely.

On Monday I called him up. “How’d the Big Day of office-cleaning go?”

He sheepishly admitted he’d bailed. “We got invited to a party that we heard Prince was going to be playing at,” he said softly. As excuses go, that’s a mighty good one. Although I’m willing to bet that if Sam had really wanted to make good on that office-cleaning promise, he’d have told a lot of people, not just me. The prospect of looking like a flake is a strong deterrent.

The writing coach Barry Michels frequently helps rescue freelance screenwriters from their shame spirals after they’ve failed to deliver a manuscript. The problem, again, is that no one was standing over these folks. No one had actually commissioned this work of genius they were cooking up. So Michels helps his clients create a kind of artificial jeopardy, so that they can get down to business of delivering something the world hasn’t asked for.

Michels tells them: They’re wrong to assume there is no authority figure they’re answerable to. There is one. It’s just not a human being. It is the archetypal Father Time. He is, you might say, the ultimate authority figure. And you are defying him with every minute you waste.

So: Sit in front of your computer for a fixed amount of time each day. Set the bar low at first. Try 10 minutes: a unit of time that, as Michels puts it, “would be sort of embarrassing not to be able to do.” Submit to Father Time. “That submission activates something,” Michels says. “The ego blocks come down.”

You can see that this idea goes a lot deeper than a mere “productivity hack.” We’re facing an almost spiritual headwind, something the great Steven Pressfield calls “resistance.” What’s required to break through the resistance, he says, is nothing less than “an internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls.”

Better draw up a contract for that one.