Got Problems with Self-Control? Ulysses Might Help.

By Anthony Gold

Why is it that we often have such a difficult time with self-control?  Perhaps we want to lose weight but we keep eating more than we should.  Or we say we want to exercise more or practice a new skill, but we get so easily waylaid onto something more “desirable” including doing nothing.

We all know that self-control is essential for achieving goals, yet we succumb to the impulses of temporary thrills, lethargy, or distraction.  Is there any hope for lasting success?  Legends from Greek mythology applied to current behavioral patterns suggest the answer is yes.

But first, a brief detour into the nature of impulse control – with the help of Lindt chocolates.

Picture yourself in a large audience.  The host offers every audience member half a box of Lindt’s luxury Swiss chocolates – for free.  You can already imagine the delicious confectionery in your mouth – the hard chocolate shell with the smooth chocolate filling.  Or maybe a black currant with almond slivers.  Such wonderful treats are about to delight your taste buds.  But just before the boxes are about to be handed out, the host announces that you can skip the half-box today and a full box will be sent to your house a week later.  What do you choose?

If you are like 99% of the population, you go for the chocolate now.  How could you possibly pass it up?

But what if this experiment was structured a bit differently?  You are still an audience member, but now the host has a different offer.  In 52 weeks, a half a box of Lindt chocolates will be sent to your house.  Or, you can instead choose to receive a full box in 53 weeks.  Which do you choose?

Not surprisingly, the pendulum swings to the other extreme.  Nearly everyone chooses to receive the full box of chocolates in 53 weeks.  In this case, waiting one week for an extra half-box is a simple decision.  Why is that?

Because in the future we are better people – or so we believe.  We will exercise more, eat better, procrastinate less, be more patient, make better decisions for ourselves, and so on.

Consider the case of when you go to bed at night and you are the kind of person who will wake up at 6 AM to go to the gym for an early morning exercise.  Then at 6 AM when the clocks starts buzzing, you are no longer that same person.  You are now the kind of person who hits the snooze button and sleeps until the last possible minute.

With regard to impulse control, we treat the present and the future totally differently.  Such is the brilliant insight of behavioral psychologists like Dan Ariely who study why this is so.  And one fascinating area of research is how we can prevent ourselves from being tempted to do something our “future” selves don’t want to do (such as hitting the snooze button or eating the fast food or skipping the Course in Miracles daily lesson).  Enter our friend Ulysses.

Ulysses was the king of Ithaca in Homer’s epic Greek poem Odyssey.  The poem relates Ulysses’ ten-year voyage home after the Trojan War.  During the journey, his ship traveled near the land of the Sirens – those beautiful, yet dangerous nymphs who lured sailors with their enchanting music and voices to crash on the rocks and die.  And Ulysses developed a plan to avoid the peril.

He required all his crew members stuff wax in their ears while he had himself bound and tied to the mast (so he could still hear the enthralling sounds but not be able to do anything about it).  And this Ulysses pact worked – they skirted the land and continued on their passage.

And Ulysses pacts can be great ways to prevent ourselves from various temptations.  For instance, back to our future self that really wants to wake up at 6 AM to exercise.  A gifted engineer at MIT developed an alarm clock known as Clocky that has wheels.  When the alarm goes off, the clock starts running – literally – away from the night stand.  The two wheels allow the clock to run off in random directions requiring its owner to chase after it in order to get the alarm to turn off.  But the time you’ve turned off Clocky, you are wide awake.

Too much hassle for you?  Then consider another clock that is tied in to your bank account.  Each time you hit the snooze button, not only is money deducted from your account, but it is donated to an organization you despise.  The choice between hitting snooze and waking up becomes much, much easier.

With any worthwhile goal be it exercising more, eating better, or practicing a particular spiritual discipline – it is unreasonable to expect that temptation won’t enter to hinder (or stop) progress.  Rather, we would be wise to understand that temptation will always be there.  Better, instead, to have a plan for dealing with the temptation so that our “6 AM” selves can progress along the path envisioned by our well-intentioned nighttime self.

In A Course in Miracles, we read that temptation is nothing more than choosing the ego thought system instead of peace.  It comes from within, and is completely voluntary.

What is temptation but a wish to make the wrong decision on what you would learn, and have an outcome that you do not want?  (T-31.I.11)

And once we understand how and why temptation works, we can develop effective Ulysses pacts with ourselves to achieve much greater peace and faster progress along our chosen path.

Join us in Monday’s class where we will explore these concepts from the perspective of A Course in Miracles. I look forward to seeing you then – with Lindt chocolate.

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