In the future we’re all wonderful people; unfortunately we live in the present.
The idea that tomorrow we will wake up at 6am, go to the gym, make a healthful breakfast, choose herbal tea over a caramel macchiato and make it to work on time is flawed. The hard truth to admit is: if we didn’t do these things today, we probably won’t do them tomorrow. This is because we don’t wake up magically as a different person tomorrow. Tomorrow we’re the same as we are today.
So what can we do about this? How can we ever change?
When faced with a temptation, i.e. those leftover donuts on the counter at three in the afternoon, we can’t rely on willpower alone. While managing blood sugar levels can play a big part in the ability to make rational food choices, when faced with a temptation our rational mind often gives way to our emotional desires. In order to combat this, today (rational) me must take action to influence tomorrow (emotional) me to do the thing I want me to do. It’s like that movie with Denzel Washington where he sends himself a note from the future to do this thing in order to prevent the other terrible thing from happening (what movie is that?). While we don’t have access to a time machine, we can still take this kind of preventive action every day in order to save us from ourselves.
Philosophers call these types of strategies Ulysses contracts after the myth of Ulysses ordering his sailors to disregard his commands as they sailed past the sirens. While Ulysses wanted to hear the song of the sirens, he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He had his sailors fill their own ears with wax and tie him to the mast to prevent him from jumping overboard to his certain death thus ensuring he and the entire crew would make it through the temptation alive. Ulysses contracts are freely made decisions that bind us in the future.
How can you use Ulysses Contracts to reach your health goals?
Think of all the temptations and events that derail you from your well-intended health goals. These may be things like not waking up early enough in the morning, that bakery next to your office with the pastries you can’t resist, birthday cake at your kid’s friend’s birthday parties, or the convenience of the pizza parlor next door to your apartment. Once you’ve identified your triggers, work backward to develop a strategy that will allow you to bypass the trigger in the first place. It’s much easier to avoid temptation than it is to resist it through sheer willpower.
Ways to trick yourself into doing what you want:
- Make your lunch the night before. If you’ve just finished a balanced dinner your rational mind should be in control. Take the time to pack your lunch for work the next day in the evening rather than relying on the good intention that you will wake up early and use that time to pack yourself lunch. Even if you normally eat lunch at home, take a few moments as you’re cleaning up after your dinner to consider what you’ll prepare for yourself the next day; then stick to this plan when tomorrow comes.
- Clean out your kitchen. Get all those trigger foods out of your house. Don’t use the excuse that they’re for your kids or they’re only for baking and you won’t eat them. I know many people who have confessed to scavenging in the cupboards in the middle of the night and bingeing on bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips. If it’s there, it will get eaten.
- Buy smaller servings of “treat” foods. It’s fine to indulge now and then, but you don’t want those sugary foods hanging around your house overstaying their welcome. When you purchase these items, buy the smallest size so you’re sure to consume the entire thing and not have any leftovers. If you have leftovers, get rid of them immediately. I know this is often more expensive per unit, but your health is far more valuable than being able to consume more sugar for less money.
- If there’s a tempting stop along your route, plan to take a different street so you won’t be tempted. If taking a different route isn’t possible, consider carpooling with someone, or scheduling a phone call during your drive so you won’t be able to stop. Use this strategy if you work in an office that provides snacks. Stop by the kitchen when you first arrive and select your mid-morning or afternoon snack items. Use your fresh, rational mind to choose a healthy snack rather than your low blood sugar, emotional mind when you’re hungry in the afternoon. Avoid the snack room for the rest of the day.
- Put your money where your mouth is. If you have a specific goal, say to stop drinking soda, give a sum of money to a friend that you only get back if you’ve abstained from drinking soda for one month, three months, or even one year. If you don’t succeed, tell your friend to keep the money or donate it to a charity that you hate.
- Pay in advance. If you’re working with a trainer or nutrition coach, purchase a block of appointments in advance and schedule all your appointments up front. This way you’ll be more invested and less likely to quit.
- Delay gratification. If there’s a certain item you’re thinking of purchasing, hold off on purchasing the item until you reach a health benchmark or goal. Use this item as a reward and don’t buy it if you aren’t successful.
- Have someone hold you accountable. Accountability is a huge part of my work as a nutrition consultant. Every week clients tell me that they were able to make rational food choices simply because they knew they had an appointment scheduled with me and they wanted to be able to give a good report. While I never judge my clients for making poor decisions and find failures to be helpful in developing better strategies, having someone look over your food choices can definitely help keep the rational mind in control.
Image: “Ulysses and the Sirens” by Herbert James Draper, 1864-1920