The Ulysses Strategy of Behaviour Change

In The Odyssey, Ulysses returning from the Trojan war, wanted to hear the beautiful singing of the sea Sirens. However, according to legend, 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 death.

He wanted to hear their singing but he didn’t think: “I’m a hero, I can resist this if I want to, it’s just a matter of willpower and motivation.”

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

Ulysses instead devised a plan. He instructed his men to tie him to the mast, telling them to ignore whatever he may say while under the sway of the Siren’s song. He stuffs their ears with beeswax to prevent their listening, and then is tied down tightly to the mast. When the sirens sing their irresistible song Ulysses fights to follow them to a certain death – but he can’t.

He made the behaviour he didn’t want, killing himself and his crew, physically impossible to do. Through this strategy, he was able to do what he wanted while minimising the risk of failure.

Too often when we try and change a behaviour, we focus on building motivation or rely on willpower. If we just want it enough, if we connect it to some higher purpose, or one of our core values then we’ll be able to resist. Or we try other strategies. We enlist the support of others to support us. We track and share our progress. We focus on building skills and knowledge. We incentivise ourselves if we don’t do it, or put in place penalties if we do.

These are all great strategies to support behaviour change – but sometimes we simply need to put in place a Ulysses Strategy. We need to make the behaviour impossible, or very difficult to physically do.

I can’t spend hours surfing the internet at night, if my computer is at work. It’s much more difficult to eat sweets and ‘bad’ foods after dinner, if there are none of those in the house. I can’t buy cigarettes if I don’t have my wallet or cash with me. It’s much more difficult to buy things I don’t need, and can’t afford, if I have removed the eBay app from my phone and blocked its website on my computer.

Always start with thinking about how you make the behaviour you don’t want impossible, or very difficult to physically do. Everyone of us wants to be an ancient Greek hero, right?

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