During active weight loss, patients come into the office for a lot of things: doctoring, evaluation, support, community – but one of the things they crave most at first is accountability. Coming into the office to meet with us on a regular basis provides them with accountability.
Some of our patients keep coming month after month or quarter after quarter for years – and I love it! I love the relationships that I have with these long-term patients. Not surprisingly, these patients typically do great with their long-term maintenance of weight loss – way better than average. I tell all of my new patients that I want them to stick with us for a long while through maintenance, but I know that many won’t. For many people, the time commitment is too much. Some don’t see the value in paying an insurance copay for something that doesn’t look important and sexy on paper.
One of my tasks is to help these patients find accountability to themselves before they leave me. There are various ways to do this, and one of them is by creating Ulysses contracts. I’ve been talking about this concept for years but only recently learned that there was a name for it!
Let me give you a brief history. Ulysses (also known as Odysseus) was a hero in Greek mythology. He was well-known for many things – most importantly for trying to do the right thing and listening to advice from others. As Ulysses is getting ready to head home after the Trojan War, he is warned about the sirens – two monsters living on an island that he and his crew have to pass by. These sirens pretend to be beautiful women with amazing voices – voices that bewitch men and force them to steer their ship to the island, which results in the ships being smashed to pieces on the deadly sharp rocks that surround the island.
I’m not really sure why Ulysses doesn’t just decide to steer his ship far away from the island and avoid temptation altogether, but knowing the potential for disaster, he makes a pact – or a contract – to protect his crew. As they approach the island, Ulysses gives all of his crew members beeswax to put in their ears so that they will be unable to hear the song of the sirens. Ulysses himself wants to hear the famous sirens without steering his ship into the rocks (I know – silly, but he’s the Greek hero and has to overcome more), so he has his men tie him to the mast of the ship, where he can hear the song but will be unable to bring tragedy and death to himself or his crew.
As much as people talk about it, human beings have very little willpower. People that do things that seem really hard to us – like making dramatic improvements in eating habits and weight – don’t simply get blessed with more willpower than other people. They typically have two things in common. One, they have a really big “why” that gets them up every day and drives their behavior. We’ve touched on this before and will revisit it again in the future, but a good “why” makes all the difference in the world. The second thing that successful people do on a regular basis is they create systems and habits that support their intentions – i.e., they make small Ulysses contracts with themselves every day..
We are all human and are likely to cave in the right circumstances. If you bring a box of donuts to my house and stick it on the kitchen counter, I’m going to find myself eating several of them. Donuts are like sirens to me. Becoming a healthy eater hasn’t somehow made me dislike these fried balls of dough covered with sugar – my brain and my mouth will likely always love them. However, I almost never find them sitting on my kitchen counter – because I am the food buyer in my house and I don’t buy them. In fact, I rarely go into QuikTrip because they always have an entire case of the darn things that I have to walk by – and that is incredibly hard for me. Even getting gas at QT is hard for me – I can faintly hear those sirens (donuts) calling me when I’m at the pump, so I typically get my gas somewhere else.
Most of the time, I get my groceries delivered to me. Mainly because I hate grocery shopping and I will gladly tip someone a few dollars to do it for me while I do something else productive. And, equally important is this – having my groceries delivered to me keeps me from impulse buying at the grocery store. Even though I think grocery store donuts are subpar to those I can get at several local donut stores, walking by that display case can trigger a whole internal dialogue about how I deserve one and how one won’t be the end of the world and so forth and so on… It creates internal stress – and I don’t need more of that!
I don’t completely abstain from donuts, but I’ve made Ulysess contracts with myself about them. I’ve made it really difficult to indulge in them – because most of the time I’ve decided to steer clear of them. When there is potential for them to be near me, I’ve deliberately put beeswax in my ears. I’ve made it difficult to actually succumb to the temptation. .
We do things like this in our day to day life all the time – we make similar Ulysses contracts with ourselves. We avoid shopping for a new pair of jeans until the credit card bill is paid off. Knowing it is going to suck us in, we avoid opening that social media app until we are through at work. Most of us need to make more of them when it comes to food and eating if we want to maintain healthy eating habits.
If we know that certain places or smells or people consistently trigger us to make bad decisions, we need to figure out a way to tie ourselves to a mast. We need to stick beeswax in our ears – before we are actually in the situation. If we live with family members that don’t eat healthy – we need to find a way to live with them. If Doritos are like sirens to you, make sure your family members aren’t leaving bags of Doritos in the pantry. Ask them to eat Doritos at work or at school or somewhere that you can’t see them and find something else to put that in the pantry instead. Something that doesn’t bother you. I don’t like pretzels – they are dry and tasteless to me – so having those in my pantry doesn’t bother me a bit. If pretzels sound like sirens to you, don’t choose those – choose Funyuns or sour cream and onion Pringles or something that just doesn’t do it for you.
If the people in your household care about you and want to support you as you improve your health, chances are really good that they will change things. They may not even know that Doritos are sirens to you – unless you tell them! Most of the time, I’m sure they will be happy to exchange one type of junk food for another. And for heaven’s sake, if you are the food buyer and you are deliberately buying these sirens and sticking them in the pantry trying to avoid hearing them, you are deliberately sabotaging yourself and putting yourself in unwinnable situations. Stop immediately. Stop trying to develop this crazy intangible thing called willpower – that just doesn’t exist – and then feeling bad because you can’t harness its magic power. Work on beeswax instead. Sit down and figure out where the sirens are in your life and how you can avoid them. This creates systems in which you are accountable to yourself – not someone else. Which is way more powerful when it comes to lasting change!