Precommitment Is Powerful, or Why You Should Be Like Odysseus

Most of the time, we wield willpower like a holstered gun with the safety off. Temptation rears — an ice cream bar, perhaps — and we whip it out, firing blindly and wasting more than a few bullets in the process. The temptation is beat back, and the ice cream goes uneaten, but the willpower that remains is depleted and less effective in subsequent encounters. And the same thing happens every time we’re faced with a decision. That’s a sloppy way of dealing with the constant stream of temptation the modern world presents.

Consider how Odysseus handled the ultimate temptation in Greek mythology. As legend had it, any man who sailed past the island of Anthemoessa would be drawn toward and broken upon the rocks lining its shores by the irresistible song of the Sirens who resided there. No man could resist, and so Odysseus plugged his men’s ears with beeswax and tied himself to the mast with strict orders that no matter what he said and how much he pleaded, he was not to be untied. He didn’t want to be shipwrecked, but he also didn’t want to miss out on hearing the song. Binding himself to the mast before the call rang out was a basic form of what behavioral psychologists call precommitment.

In the modern world, temptation abounds and beeswax in the ears doesn’t work. Willpower only lasts so long, and powerful forces (food chemists, advertisers) actively seek to sap yours. Research indicates that precommitment — removing a future choice from contention and/or making future commitments to avoid temptation before it strikes — is more reliable than willpower, actively preserves it (for later use when you really need it), and helps everyone, especially the people with impulse control, make better decisions. And it’s this population — the high impulsivity group — that’s most at risk for obesity. They eat the most fast food, too, because that stuff looks good and it’s right there and you’re tired and just this once can’t hurt, can it? But with improved impulse control, the obese are able to lose weight and those who’ve lost weight are able to keep the lost weight off.

Precommitment to healthier choices, then, may be an essential tool in the modern world, and a more reliable one than relying on sheer willpower.

How might this look?

Well, precommitment is most effective when willpower fails, or will fail. To figure out when and how to use precommitment in your own life, simply consider the areas in your life where willpower doesn’t work as well as you’d like.

A few examples:

You sit down for a meal and a restaurant known for its complimentary bread. Don’t wait till those crusty, fragrant, just-from-the-oven slabs of sourdough are on your table within easy reach to refuse them. You’ll probably fail, and the sapping of willpower required to prevent failure will make subsequent resistance to dessert futile. Decline the bread basket from the start, preferably before it even makes an appearance.

You find yourself opting for takeout more and more every night after work because cooking seems like a chore and, by dinner time, your willpower is exhausted. You’re eating good takeout, but it’s still eating into your budget and you don’t get to exercise as much direct control over your food as you’d like. There are a few ways you can handle this using precommitment. You could plan the week’s meals ahead of time and gather the necessary ingredients on the weekend so you’re ready to go each week night. Go a bit further and prep the cooking area, chop the veggies, and mix the spices every morning before work so that you can come home and launch immediately into dinner prep.

You’re a digital nomad, working on your laptop from home, cafes, or any place that’ll have you. It’s a great way to make a living and affords a lot of freedom, but you’ve also got a procrastination problem. Whenever you can, you manage to find something else on the Internet that’s more interesting, or at least less demanding, than the task at hand. If you don’t actually need online access to do the bulk of your work — maybe you’re a writer or content creator — find a place to work that doesn’t have Internet, like a park, a beautiful hiking trail (I actually know a guy who frequently uses his laptop out in the woods), some hipster cafe that’s opted not to feature wifi to foster more face-to-face interpersonal communication, or even your backyard or office with the wifi turned off. If you do need online access for your work, use a program like Self Control to restrict access to tempting websites.

Some people thrive on spontaneous workouts. If they feel like working their legs, they’ll find the time to sneak in some squats and Romanian deadlifts. They’ll take a quick detour over to the park at lunch to do some pullup and pushup supersets. Maybe they’ll even sprint back to the office. Their innate drive to move and train is high enough that precommitting to a workout isn’t just unnecessary, it’s stifling. Most people are not this way (just look at the rates of sedentism) and will benefit from precommitting to an exercise schedule. Say you’re about to perform some sprint intervals on the stationary bike. You could hop on without any plans and just “go till you feel like stopping” (something I actually do from time to time when I only have a few minutes available), or you could precommit. In the bowels of an intense interval workout, your willpower will be seriously tested and sapped, and going in without that precommitment to a set amount of work is going to leave you open to premature cancellation. Some work is better than none, but deciding at the start to do 10 rounds will make you more likely to endure the pain and finish the full 10.

You can’t handle everything this way, obviously. Temptation’s just too unpredictable and omnipresent. And even if it were possible to use precommitment to overcome every temptation that might arise, that kind of micromanagement of everyday life would drive a person mad. That’s no way to live.

The Primal Blueprint is the ultimate framework for precommitment. By hewing to a set of principles — avoid/limit grains, seed oils, refined sugar; eat colorful plants and healthy animals — you stop, or at least slow, temptation in its tracks. It never has a grasp on you because you’ve already committed to the Primal way of eating. And because we don’t have the luxury of plugging our ears to block out the temptations offered by the modern world, our best bet is to make like Odysseus and secure ourselves to a healthy way of eating and, most importantly, analyzing food and behavior decisions.

To me, the case for intelligent and targeted usage of precommitment is clear. The world is crazy out there. It’s unpredictable. And sometimes you’re going to need willpower to overcome obstacles. Why not precommit to abstaining from, avoiding, or limiting the temptations we know about so that when spontaneous situations erupt, our willpower is readily available?

I’m interested to hear how everyone out there uses precommitment to handle temptation, even if they don’t call it that. What’s worked? What hasn’t? What kinds of temptations have you used precommitment to overcome? Let me know down below, and thanks for reading!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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40 thoughts on “Precommitment Is Powerful, or Why You Should Be Like Odysseus”

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  1. I’m always wary of my former sugar addict self resurfacing. I occasionally cook with coconut sugar, but if I had free access to it, I’d be eating spoonfuls daily.

    Therefore, I ask my husband to hide it somewhere else in the house. He brings it out only when I ask for it (specific baking tasks – maybe once a month).

    I feel a bit embarrassed about having to do this, but it works for me.

    1. I do the same thing. I can’t have things like chips around, even healthier choices like sweet potato, etc, so I have my husband hide them for me and bring them out when I ask. Only problem is he’s not a great hider so sometimes I find them. 🙂

    2. Don’t be embarrassed! If it works for you, that’s awesome.

      Personally, I’m the same with my money. If it’s in my bank account, I spend it. So when I get paid I transfer all except a small amount for my spending to the joint account with my fiancé.

      Some people may say “you should learn to be better with money”, but to me, that’s the equivalent of saying to someone with an overeating problem “just don’t eat the cake”. I say, don’t have the cake in your fridge!

      If the outcome is good, don’t judge the process 🙂

    3. I spend some time thinking about my workout before I go in. It helps quit a bit. Do I squat and dead lift on the same day? I can spit those up on different days. What about dips and push ups. If I split them up it creates variety and options in my workouts.

  2. This is exactly why I’m so successful when I’m doing a Whole30 and not so successful with “everything in moderation.” When the answer is no before the question is even asked, it’s so easy to stick to my guns! The same is true with my workouts. When I stick to a schedule, it is easy to show up!

    Lately I’ve been pretty successful precommitting to my workouts, but I really need to do a better job planning ahead for tempting foods.

    1. “This is exactly why I’m so successful when I’m doing a Whole30 and not so successful with “everything in moderation.” ”

      I agree! Moderation does not work for me. If I have one bit of chocolate, I’ll have the whole block. Two glasses of wine on a night out turns into a bottle. A slice of nice cheese at a party turns into ‘lots of cheese and okay some crackers, make that 15 crackers, why not add some hummus on their, I’ve already gone this far, bugger it, let me at the cupcakes’.

      Then that always spirals into disordered eating patterns for days/weeks. So for me, abstaining is best. (And telling myself/others “I don’t eat that” as opposed to “I can’t eat that” is a big help for me.)

      And don’t get me wrong, I love my food, and I’m not obsessed with ‘clean eating’ – but indulgences like wine, cheese and chocolate need to be a ‘very rarely’ things for me, and only when I’m in a really stable, consistent mindset.

      1. Me too! Complete abstinence is the only way for me to stay on track and eat well. Someone I know told me “it’s not that I can’t eat that, I just don’t eat that” turns it around to a strength instead of a weakness. And it’s so much easier to tell others ?

      2. This is hard for me, because sometimes moderation works, and sometimes it doesn’t – and it depends entirely on my stress level.

        I don’t want to give up wine or chocolate or bread. It helps me to set “rules” for it – this works *most* of the time.

        But when I’m under a lot of stress, it’s just not good to have them around.

        So I use (sometimes silly) rules like:
        wine – not in the house. I try to not keep it in the house, because then I will drink it. OF course, I’m a wine club member. But that means I take the bottles of wine to parties.
        chocolate – just say no
        bread – special occasions only

        So lately, this means that on Sunday night, which is our neighborhood potluck (every week), I take wine, sometimes bread, sometimes dessert. That one meal is it for the week (max two meals if there is another special occasion). It also means that I can only have these things when I’m not at home.

  3. Excellent article. I panic when I go out to dinner at Friends homes. I do not want to insult the host if they have gone to a lot of trouble to prepare a special dessert.
    Although I do not have acid reflux , I tell them I do so I won’t be tempted.
    Sometimes a little white lie works best.

    1. Personally, I’d rather just be honest and tell the host or hostess thanks, but I prefer to avoid sweets. If I don’t feel like singling myself out at a gathering or making a big deal about being Paleo, I will graciously accept a very small portion of whatever it is, take a couple of bites, and then leave the rest on the plate. This is what the 80/20 rule is for.

      1. Honesty is nice, but if you are one of those people who cannot just “take a couple bites,” then the white lit is the way to go.

  4. Great article! I’ve been Primal for one year and three months now and have had nothing but great success having lost 45 lbs and kept it off effortlessly for that entire time. Recently however, I’ve been struggling with stopping at the local Starbucks for an iced coffee, black, every single day and often times more than once a day. It’s expensive and unhealthy. I know that but I CAN’T STOP! This article kind of showed me a new way to manage that bad habit by simply avoiding the issue before it takes over once again. How about taking a new route to work for a while until I get over the need to stop and waste my money on something that should only be a once in a while treat? Also, I have two awesome coffee makers so not using those is a waste too. I’ll begin stocking them so that I am tempted to indulge at home, where it’s more controllable rather than out at the local coffee shop where it costs me so much more and I don’t even know what is in my drink. Thank you for the advice and the good read this morning! It’s just what I needed.

  5. This is article spoke directly to me. After finding out I was severely gluten intolerant, saying no to anything containing gluten has been a breeze because I have already made the decision that it is a non-negotiable food for me. @Amber I have the same success with the Whole30. When I am 100% compliant for a period of time it is easier than trying to navigate 80/20, the 20% quickly can become 30, 40, 50%… It is a slippery slope! This is why I always shoot for 100% but know that perfection is ok not to attain.

  6. Good post. I guess this is the way I deal with temptation. My family thinks I have such great self control but really it’s not that at all but a plan in my head before I encounter the temptation. As I read the article I realized that I am a planner-ahead-er…. Go out for dinner? I’m thinking of the menu where we are going and what will work for me before we even leave the house. Tired and bored with making food at home? I will try to think of what I have that IS interesting and tasty and start to think about how that will be to make that, what I will do first, flavors I will use, pretty soon the desire for that food will just take me the rest of the way so when I get home I’m on a mission to make that food before I sit down.
    When I’m tired I’m more apt to just sit and have some sort of snack, primal of course, but I have a family that must eat dinner so I just have to have a plan.

  7. My thought is that if I don’t buy it I can’t eat it.. I book my exercise class one week ahead, and generally that works out well.

  8. Great post! Thanks again, Mark, for helping “pre-commit” once again.

    I really needed to be reminded that it works better than trying to “wing it” with on the spot willpower. I’m one of those high impulse kind of people, I guess. Thanks to everyone here for all the great ideas to help fight the “omnipresent” temptations.

  9. Very true for me that the more something is available the tougher it is to avoid – the internet comes to mind first! I’m not distracted once I’m writing, but if I’m not totally engaged in something I find myself constantly “checking” and it drives me nuts!

  10. Your posts just get awesome(er). Keep up the great insights.

    My initial goal to get health was I was tired of being hungry all the time. I had no quality of life and no real freedom. Even before I knew the science I linked this to fast foods, pasta, bread, potatoes, and processed foods.

    So I started cutting those out. I had a few days of heck. Classic carb burner, no machinery to burn fat, then it rapidly got better. After a month, life just keeps getting better and better.

    I tell people now a few days of heck for a lifetime of freedom and heaven, well worth it.

    Primal food choices will radically reduce impulse towards bad food choices, at least it did for me and my wife. Much easier to be in control when hunger in control and you are a fat burner.

    1. “Your posts just get awesome(er). Keep up the great insights.”

      Totally agree. I’m loving the shift from food (which I now have down-pat) into the mindset/psychology stuff.

      We often know WHAT to do… it’s HOW to put it into practice – even being educated and knowing what we know – that counts. MDA helps with that brilliantly.

  11. I should have said after a month, virtually all carvings gone then kept getting better and better. Now two years plus, keep getting healthier, stronger, leaner. Just turned 50 and have never been stronger and more mentally fit. Same for wife. I get to re-live my 20s (health wise) in my 50s.

    Long term on Primal? Just gets easier, and we discover new, yummy food preparations every week.

  12. For me the pre-commitment works for alcohol. After having periods of abstinence, then allowing a few glasses of wine for a while, on and off over a decade or so, two years ago I thought, enough, too easy for one to become three and it just makes me feel awful. So I gave up all alcohol with Chinese new year in 2013. I’m back to being a non drinker. Whenever I’ve been tempted, or others try to push me into, ‘just a small glass’, ‘a sip won’t hurt’, I say no, because even a sip means I’ll no longer be a non-drinker and I’ll have to start the clock all over again.

    Now I need to apply it to some food items which I seem to have lost a sense of proportion with!

  13. I totally get this! My own precommitment method is to NOT BUY foods that I do not want to be eating on a regular basis. If there are candy bars, or ice cream in my house, I am going to give in eventually and eat them. I make it so that I must actively go out looking for these things to eat them. It almost never happens that way.

  14. Precommitment is a behavioral strategy for resisting temptations. It’s even been demonstrated in pigeons. But some of the examples people have provided here can also be seen as instances of other behavioral strategies. For example, it’s easier to resist a temptation if you break the chain of behaviors leading to it early on, when the temptation is still distant, as opposed to later, when the temptation is imminent. And it often helps to establish a “bright boundary” between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, such as no alcohol whatsoever. In fact, it’s quite possible that a major difference between successful and unsuccessful dieters is that the latter rely too much on “willpower” while the former make use of various behavioral strategies, although they might not recognize them as such.

  15. It’s great to read this explanation of why and how primal works for me. The framework means I don’t have to keep making decisions, the work is all done. It also helps that I am no longer at the whim of blood-sugar-dip hunger pangs that took away any notion of self-control.

  16. I do this with the C2 rower. The preset workouts encourage a commitment to finish.

  17. Precommitment only goes so far. A small phrase in your third paragraph says it all “…and you’re tired.” Oft times we consume that cookie or piece of cake because of something that happened hours earlier. Fatigue, from a poor night of sleep, or failure to recover from a physically or mentally demanding situation. Grok was meant to rest when nature called. I question why my willpower is weak, examine the hours that lead up to the potentially offending situation. Knowing thyself, as well as a philosophical framework lead to optimal compliance. Thanks Mark for the thought provoking columns.

  18. Currently reading a book called “The Willpower Instinct” and it says that we only have a limited supply of it and as we use it up during the day, our supply is drained and we become more susceptible. Maybe helps to explain why precommitment could be used throughout the day and why it seems that at least in my case as the day goes on,my resolve is less.

    What it also says is that meditation helps to increase willpower as well as deep breathing and uneven counts for in and out that we’re not used to…changing the way we operate our brain and our brain operates us.

  19. The notion that willpower is a limited resource that is easily depleted has been oversold and is contradicted by more recent research by Jobs and Dweck. In fact, whether or not you believe that willpower is a limited resource seems to be a critical factor in determining how easily you become “depleted.” William James’ old model that we in fact have lots of energy but just can’t get to it is probably more correct. The trick then becomes how to access that energy. Precommitment would be one such strategy. Bet someone a thousand dollars that you will hold to your diet or exercise every day for a week and lack of willpower is no longer an issue regardless of how fatigued you are.

  20. I find it easier to follow a Primal lifestyle when I precommit to a set of rules, while taking into account trigger foods/behaviours. For instance, I found it extremely easy to give up gluten when I allowed myself to eat rice and home-made popcorn; I don’t even have these foods all that often – maybe once every 2-4 weeks – but knowing I can eat them if I want to makes a big difference. I also found it extremely difficult to cut out cheese when I realized I was overconsuming it, but precommiting to eating no more than a set quantity every day (I even precut the cheese into servings!) did the trick for me. These were my sticking points, but after getting my head around them (and it really was a mental/psychological thing), everything else just fell into place and felt effortless.

  21. Yes, very crucial to permanently exile the bad non-primal foods from one’s pantry/menu. No temptation, no failure. But maybe just as important to always stock the quick fixes for when your body says, “Feed me! Now!’ Canned tuna or smoked oysters, bowl of soup, handful of nuts, quick smoothie….all can bring a quick a return to self-control. The now bygone habit of serving a small cup of soup (primal type ), at the beginning of a meal, can play a role too.. Slows down the ravenous feeling. (“Oh, that’s right, I’m civilized!”) And soup is so easily stored in the fridge. Great way to get more veggies too (minestrone, borscht). Also a good idea to eat a small (primal) snack before going out to a party. Working with your body, so it doesn’t ultimately rebel.

  22. I wonder who’d win a triathlon, Odysseus or Beowulf. I guess Grendel is primal, even if he eats Danish for dinner.

  23. To me it’s become clear recently. Just listen to your body. If you’ve been on a healthy primal diet long enough, that is – one that ensures adequate nutrition for you and your lifestyle – then you already KNOW deep down that you’re better off not straying from the diet – because your body is what is truly you, not your mind. It or when you do deviate, it’s simply because you’re not listening to your body.

  24. Yeah, well said and well named. I’ve been doing something for years I call “disciplined inattention” which helps me stay out of the hands of advertisers. I decide ahead of time that I’m just not going to look at or listen to any ad ever if I can help it. Also, I never look at violence. It would be much harder to do this on a case-by-case basis. To give you an idea how it works, I heard a little bit of the World Trade Towers falling on the radio on that day, and I went into inattentive mode and I went seven years without seeing a photo or a video of the event! And then it was only because I tripped and fell into a newspaper on the sidewalk. Inattentive indeed!

  25. I am not a morning person. I never have been. But when I considered beginning CrossFit, I knew I would have to commit to a 6 am class. If I didn’t, I would set myself up for failure. I work in the restaurant industry, and the schedule can be unpredictable. I knew that I could not guarantee that I would be able to get away from work in the evenings in time to make it to class. It’s also entirely too easy after a tough shift to pass on the gym and just go home.

    Precommitment works!

  26. Precommitment sounds great, in theory but doesn’t seem to work as well as it used to for me. I can always find a way around it somehow.