There is a Greek myth called The Odyssey in which a man named Ulysses has to find his way home after the long Trojan war. On this journey, he must sail past an island where beautiful women- called Sirens- sing a song so enchanting that anyone within earshot of them is rendered helpless against their lure. Sailors are so entranced by the beautiful voices of these temptresses that they steer their ships toward them, directly into a cove of jagged rocks.
Essentially, no one who hears the Siren’s song lives to tell the tale.
Everyone knows about the Sirens- it’s not a secret that these women are out on this island luring men to their death. Ulysses knows about the Sirens, and he’s interested. But Ulysses is on a mission to get back home, and he’s focused. So what is he to do?
It’s pretty common to find yourself in a situation where you’re tempted by something but you really need to focus on this important other thing.
Let’s say you’re working on a proposal and an email from your favorite clothing store pops up. The subject line reads “Hurry 50% off- Today only!”
This is a pretty common scenario and in it, we can find all of the elements of Ulysses dilemma: we are interested in something tempting that we know- up front- will likely end badly for us (or for our wallets at least) and we have other really important things to get done. What should we do?
The Ulysses Method
Ulysses is pretty brilliant. I recommend you read The Oddesy but fair warning it’s an epic tale of a decade long journey so, it’s not a quick read. He recognized that human beings are flawed creatures in that what they say they want to do and what they actually end up doing are often very different.
Because we all have this tendency to say “I’ll just look at the sale online for 5 minutes” and this habit of shopping on the website for 2 hours, we can sympathize with Ulysses point. What we should also do is take a few pages from Ulysses playbook on how to handle tempting situations.
Ulysses uses a great method for giving in to temptation while remaining in control and ultimately he gets everything he wants in this particular situation.
1. Know Your Enemy
Ulysses knows the Sirens are coming. He knows about their enchanting song, the jagged rocks, the whole bit. It’s not that he charts a course completely away from the Siren’s island, he just takes the time to understand the elements at play in the situation.
You should at the very least be aware of the marketing that is being presented to you. Marketing experts claim that consumers are shown over 4,000 Ads per day. Per day. Just let that sink in. You should recognize advertising when you see it at the very least and if you’re a more enlightened consumer you might go further and deconstruct the Ad a little bit. We all have biases- is an Ad trying to manipulate one of yours? For example: The “Hurry 50% Off- Today Only!” Ad is using our scarcity bias to provoke us to take action.
2. Make a Pact
The second thing Ulysses did was gather up all his men and tell them about his desire to hear the Sirens sing. He said something along the lines of “don’t worry, I’m going to tie myself to the Mast of this boat so I can’t jump overboard or try to take control of the ship, you guys all plug your ears with wax so you can’t hear their song, and don’t let me down for any reason until we’re past the women death trap island.” His men followed the directives and, while Ulysses did go temporarily mad by the sound of the enchanting lure, he did not break free from his restraints and they all passed the island safely.
I am not suggesting that you go into your co-worker's office and ask them to time you while you browse online. Nor am I encouraging anyone to tie anything to any piece of office furniture. What I am advocating is the use of what are referred to as commitment devices because they are a great way to protect your current self from your future emotional, influenceable, self.
Commitment devices can be anything from a simple 10-minute alarm for online browsing time to a more comprehensive solution- like StickK or Beeminder- both of which, along with the many other commitment devices like them, urge you to put something on the line, up front- whether it be money or personal reputation- and challenge you to keep that promise with the threat of loss. If you slip and break the commitment, you lose the money you put up or you lose your spot as #1 on the community leaderboard.
The main takeaway from the Ulysses method is to know yourself and be prepared. When you understand where your weaknesses lie, you are better able to defend yourself against the forces that might try and manipulate them. It’s worth noting that most humans have the same “weaknesses” and that maybe the word weakness is the wrong word to use because it carries a negative connotation with it.
My intention is to say that we humans are (almost) all hardwired to behave in particular ways in given situations and if a person knows about these habits they might try to use them against us in a manipulative fashion.
An example of this is our tendency to reciprocate when given anything. You could be handed a flower by a stranger, a compliment by a co-worker, or chocolate by a used car salesman, and you would feel compelled to give something back to them. Now, even if you know about the reciprocity bias you will likely still feel compelled to give something back to the person on the other side of the transaction- but you might question why they gave you something in the first place.
Just being aware of the forces at play gives you a huge advantage. Being prepared to handle such forces when they are thrust upon you gives you a unique competitive advantage. The two working in tandem is what saved Ulysses and brought him home after over a decade of dodging disaster.