With the beginning of each new year, habits seem to be a divisive topic. If you could sum up the New Year’s holiday with a tweet, it might be this one from Buster Benson:

In reality, it’s not just New Year’s resolutions that people are jaded about. With behavior change, there is always a subset of people who are pessimistic and unwilling to try, likely because their own wounds from attempted change are still fresh. Motivation comes and goes like the ocean tide with the different phases in our lives; if your motivation is low now, you can expect it to rise later. And if you’re 110% motivated now, be warned: the waves of motivation don’t last forever.

Here’s what we know: 1) We make a lot of progress when we’re highly motivated. 2) Unfortunately, motivation doesn’t last forever. So what can we do when we are motivated that will help us minimize the demotivation damage later?

Dynamic Inconsistency

Since motivation changes over time, an interesting problem occurs: decisions you make now, might not necessarily be the same decisions you would make later. Here’s a simple example, courtesy of habits blogger Leo Babauta:

If I am faced with chips and pizza, I might be mightily tempted to eat them right now, but I know that later in the day I’ll be sorry I did. I inevitably feel bad after I eat greasy foods, though I always forget that before I eat the food.

This problem of preferences changing over time is actually an economic principle called dynamic inconsistency, or simply time inconsistency. The Wikipedia entry sums it up nicely:

A decision-maker’s preferences change over time, in such a way that a preference, at one point in time, is inconsistent with a preference at another point in time.

Or, in even shorter form, “What you want now may different from what you want later.”

A fairly common misstep in the behavior change process is focusing only on the things that are happening now, but not considering how quickly those things may change. The right approach is to be pro-active rather than re-active. Consider the potential setbacks you’ll face, and make plans to avoid them. Let’s look at an example.

The Ulysses Pact

Odysseus, also known by the Roman name Ulysses, is one of the most well-known heroes of Greek mythology. In book 12 of Homer’s Odyssey, as Ulysses and his men are preparing to set sail for home, he receives special instructions from the goddess Circe. She carefully describes each step of the journey, including the seductive passage by the land of the Sirens. Circe warns Ulysses, “If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.”

In a clear state of mind, before approaching the Sirens, Ulysses makes a plan. Since he’s the curious, adventure-driven type, he determines he must hear the Sirens. But he knows the risk and remembers Circe’s warning, so he instructs the crew members to stuff their ears with wax so they won’t hear the Sirens’ fatal melodies, then bind him to the mast, “with a bond so fast that I cannot possibly break away.” As they sail past the land of Sirens, Ulysses pleads for the crew to release him from the mast, but his well-prepared plan succeeds.

Ulysses strategy in this classic story has become know as the Ulysses Pact, and the principle is simple: Make decisions now that will guarantee your success in the future.

Keep yourself Motivated

In behavioral economics, the Ulysses Pact would be called a “commitment device.” It’s a way to guarantee that you’ll take action, even if you change your mind in the future. A powerful commitment device can virtually guarantee your success with a new habit. How you apply a commitment device depends on what your goals are and how much motivation they require, but here are a few examples for you to consider:

Goal: Eat healthy food.

Commitment Device: Go grocery shopping on a full stomach so you won’t be tempted, and only purchase healthy food. The next day at home, you’ll have no choice but to eat healthy snacks because there won’t be any junk food.

Goal: Run a half marathon.

Commitment Device: Sign up for the race six months in advance. The money you’ve invested motivates you to train, since you won’t want the race fee to go to waste.

Goal: Control your spending habits.

Commitment Device: Only carry cash when you leave the house. It’s a scary feeling…but it will guarantee that you don’t spend any more than the cash you take with you.

Have you used a commitment device to create a good habit? What did you try? How well did it work?


Max Ogles

Hi, I'm Max Ogles. I'm a behavior designer, entrepreneur, and writer focused on psychology, technology, and business. Read My Full Bio