Use Ulysses Contracts to Make Rational Decisions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thinking in Bets" by Annie Duke. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a Ulysses contract? How can it help you make better decisions?

A Ulysses contract is a commitment you make to yourself. It’s a way to use your rational mind now in an effort to override your irrational mind later, when it’s time to make a decision.

Keep reading to learn about Ulysses contracts.

Ulysses Contracts

You can use what’s known as a “Ulysses contract” to ensure that your past or future self has input into a present-day decision. The term comes from a story from Homer’s Odyssey, when the hero Odysseus (or Ulysses) had his crew tie him up as they passed by the island of the Sirens so that he wouldn’t steer the ship there and doom them all. He knew that the Sirens’ song would affect his ability to think rationally, so he used his past-self to keep his present-self in check. 

Make commitments in advance that will place barriers on your future self, reducing the chance that you’ll make an irrational decision. For example, imagine that you have trouble waking up when your alarm goes off. When you’re half-asleep, you reach over, hit the snooze button, and doze off for a few more minutes. You do this again and again until you have to rush to make it to work on time, which is stressful. 

So you decide to put your alarm on the other side of the room. Now, to turn it off, you have to get out of bed and walk over to it. You could still crawl back into bed afterwards—but, by adding a barrier, you’ve reduced the likelihood of making that choice. You’re forcing yourself to take an extra step before you can get to that bad decision. In other words, you’re giving your deliberative mind a chance to take charge.

The next time you anticipate a future decision, make a Ulysses contract with your future self and see what difference it can make.

Use Ulysses Contracts to Make Rational Decisions

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Here's what you'll find in our full Thinking in Bets summary:

  • How to get better at making good decisions
  • How to work around your biases
  • How to evaluate and learn from your past

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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