Odysseus, Precommitment, and the Siren Song


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Homer wrote of Odysseus and the Sirens, who’s beautiful song lured countless sailors to shipwreck on the rocky island of Anthemoessa. Odysseus knew that he must pass the Sirens before he would be reunited with his home land, so he took action to protect the lives of his sailors and himself.

Odysseus plugged all of his sailors’ ears with beeswax and ordered them to tie him to the mast. The Sirens would make order and beg the sailors to let him go, but he gave strict orders: No matter what he said, the sailors, under no circumstances, could untie his binds.

Odysseus understood that his personality would change when he was subjected to temptation. That his willpower would wane. That, without some sort of preventative device, he would lose all control and give in to temptation.

The ship drifted towards the feared chasm. The sailors patiently waited.

Without notice, the sailors recognized a sudden calm. They ensured their ears were plugged and tied Odysseus to the mast–just as they came within earshot of the island.

“‘Come here,’ the Sirens sang, ‘renowned Odysseus, honour to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song- and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.’ (quoted from here)

This was the enchanting song of temptation, that which had caused many a sailor to perish. But Odysseus had used a technique that Daniel Akst calls precommittment—one of the most effective devices for behavioral and habit change.

For as Odysseus knew that his willpower would fail as he approached temptation, he also knew that capitulation would mean his demise. Instead, he decided to take action to protect his future self from, well, himself by creating a system that made failure impossible.

The song of the Siren’s isn’t so much more tempting than the call of the buzzing phone, or the dinging email notification, or the delicious Coca-cola. And the few times that we, as modern citizens, try to protect ourselves from indulging, we say something like, “I shouldn’t eat that, so I won’t anymore.” And then, when we find ourselves approaching the temptation, we buckle and yield and find ourselves only strengthening the neural path of bad habit.

How many times have you heard your friend painfully say, “I’m never drinking again,” only to find him wobbling home from the bar the next day?

Odysseus, however, knew that there is a way to protect against one’s temporally-separated future self. He precommitted to an action, while in his sane state, in a manner that was impossible to cancel. Even though his future self would want to escape, he made compliance absolutely obligatory.

We today are subjected to previously nonexistent levels of temptation. Never before have humans had so much free time and so many different companies vying for our attention. And succeeding.

“When Billy has to farm to survive, Billy will be in the field—not playing ®Farmville™©.” Click to Tweet

Today, we have to protect ourselves from ourselves. As Odysseus recognized that he would become a different person when subjected to temptation, we must recognize the same in ourselves. And take action to protect ourselves.

Precommitment means irreversibly setting up ourselves to resist failure. Consider this: you want to start waking up at 7am. Rather than setting an alarm and repeatedly hitting the snooze button, what if you hired someone to, every day, wake you up at 7am? And what if he would only be paid if he managed to wake you up? And you gave him permission to use your bucket and refrigerator?

Or what if you precommited to finish an assignment by a specific date by giving $1000 to your friend? The condition, of course, being that you only got your $1000 back if you hand him the paper on time.

If you are finding yourself unable to make a change, repeatedly falling into old patterns and criticizing yourself—it’s time to consider your method of commitment. It’s time to think about engineering an irrevocable promise that will drive you to change.

In the past year, I’ve tested this theory of precommitment in three distinct experiments. I’ve tweaked and tested the variables, and found a specific combo that works fantastically for me—and has allowed me to be more productive and effective in the past twelve months than in all the years that preceded it. I want to share these experiments with you, in the hope that you can use them to improve your life in the way you want.

For now, I want you to think about the temptations that surround you, daily. Ask yourself, what action do you want to take? And how can you hack a system that will FORCE you to succeed?

Even if your future self will hate yourself for having created this indestructible obstacle, your future future self will thank you. For As Odysseus successfully navigated past the Sirens, his screams and cries unanswered, Odysseus yelled and belittled his sailors. But when his ship drifted out of earshot, when he became the first ever survivor of the Siren song, it was only he himself that he had to thank.

P.S. In my next post, I’ll tell you about one of my habit-building experiments. I’ll show you how I used a precommitment device to complete two of my most successful projects of all time.

In my next post, you’ll learn why I hired a girl on Craigslist to slap me in the face.


Ilya R November 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Maneesh, do you know about a website called ?

You pledge money for a set goal, say weight loss or running a specific # of miles a week, you set a time limit by when you want to accomplish that goal, and if you fail to accomplish your goal in time, you pay the company money. The whole thing is very interactive and you log your progress daily, so, if your goal was to run 70 miles a week, you would log 10 miles a day to stay on track in order to meet your goal. Check it out!

P.S I dont work there, I just use it and really like it.


Jonas Hjalmar Blom October 17, 2012 at 4:20 am here’s another one who has enhanced the story of Odysseus, this tme for explaining the subject of behavioral economics.


Chris Reynolds October 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm

I LOVE this story. I have been working with my own habits for 6 years or so and a personal commitment is the best way to go. But I have never hear it laid out like this story, I like it a lot. Eager to hear your stories over the past year. :):) Keep it up bro, Cheers from Peru


Nishant October 11, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Man…someone calling me at 7 am to wake up. I freaking love it.

I can start with that as an experiment. 1000 bucks is a bit much. But yes I love this precommitment concept, it’s like forcing us to be back in school again, finish that essay or get an F.

long time reader, 1st time poster. keep it up man!


Gypsi October 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I can’t wait for your next post. This one has me thinking of who I could pay to get myself to get my assignments and readings done on time.


Anouar October 3, 2012 at 1:54 am

Your writings are getting better by the minute!


Roger October 2, 2012 at 4:18 pm

This could not be more timely. Thank you Maneesh. Really, commitment has been on my mind for weeks now, driving me insane as it try to figure out what opportunity to move forward on. I’ve been availing commitment since March when I ended my lease, quit my job, and basically became a hobo. Sure, I say I’m a professional hackathonner who programs something new and exciting every week, but half a year later I’m incredibly stressed and I try to figure out whose couch I’ll be sleeping on each night, if it’s worth buying food, etc.

My laptop (my ThinkPad, my most valuable possession) got ran over by a car two days ago. I was so depressed. Yesterday my friend forced me to sign a contract saying I would contact a recruiter and apply to YC by the weekend. Because he saw the need to commit to moving forward. Really, this post is awesome and timely.

(By the way, did you get my email with more Regus photos? I emailed a week or so ago.)


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