Suppose I've a tough exam tomorrow and I plan to study all day. Knowing that I'm usually great at procrastinating, I ask my family members to keep a tab on me and to do whatever is necessary to bring me back to my books the whole day. And I tell them that they should not fail this duty even if I may, at a later time, ask them to stop doing this.

Or suppose I set up guards to keep me inside my home for the whole day no matter what I may tell them later. So when later that day I change my mind and wish to go outside, these guards will not let me out no matter how hard I try to make them stop doing it.

Is there a specific name for such a situation?

I've tried using self-lock, but that mostly has to do with physical locks that lock automatically. I tried self-restraint, but that means controlling my desires or avoiding falling into temptation, not exactly about setting up external factors to stop me in the future.


Thanks to Mazura, here's a quote from Young Frankenstein that serves as a better example:

No matter what you hear in there, no matter how cruelly I beg you, no matter how terribly I may scream, do not open this door or you will undo everything I have worked for. Do you understand? Do not open this door.

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    How about 'failsafe'? "3. Guaranteed not to fail" (American Heritage). I suppose 'foolproof' is another option.
    – JEL
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 5:19
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    Boxing yourself in. Painting yourself in a corner.
    – Drew
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 5:51
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    @NVZ the word itself does not but maybe the context can? I put certain safeguards into place to prevent blablabla...
    – Dan
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 7:25
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    No matter what you hear in there, no matter how cruelly I beg you, no matter how terribly I may scream, do not open this door or you will undo everything I have worked for. Do you understand? Do not open this door.
    – Mazura
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 19:12
  • 2
    @NVZ No Matter How Much I Beg –TV-tropes
    – Mazura
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 20:38

11 Answers 11


I'd say you're talking about a Ulysses Pact:

a freely made decision that is designed and intended to bind oneself in the future. The term is used in medicine, especially in reference to advance directives (also known as living wills), where there is some controversy over whether a decision made by a person in one state of health should be considered binding upon that person when he or she is in a markedly different, usually worse, state of health.

The term refers to the pact that Ulysses (Greek name "Ὀδυσσεύς", Odysseus) made with his men as they approached the Sirens. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens' song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men's ears so that they could not hear, and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances, and to keep their swords upon him and to attack him if he should break free of his bonds. Upon hearing the Sirens' song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death. ( -- Wikipedia)

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    I really like this and am glad to know that there is a snappy name for the set-up. My only concern with this would be that it may not be commonly enough known to be of practical use if it also has to be explained in the text. though I'll be doing my best to make it more widely known now that I know it!
    – Spagirl
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 10:04
  • Following that link, it seems you can also refer to it as an "advance directive", or sometimes an "advance decision". The advantage is that the words will be easier for an unfamiliar person to interpret. The disadvantage is that a person with a law background may think you mean a "living will". Your best bet is to define whatever term you decide on.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 13:08
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    Based on a literature search, "Ulysses Contract" is prevalent. "Ulysses Pact" is very rare.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 13:10

A 'failsafe' or a 'fail-safe plan' might best describe the situation you outline. The word does not itself denote or connote a reflexive sense, which would have to be supplied by the context of use. Sense 3 of the denotation of the adjective, from American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (fifth edition), applies most directly to what I understand of the meaning you desire:

fail-safe or fail·safe
1. Capable of compensating automatically and safely for a failure, as of a mechanism or power source.
2. Acting to discontinue a military attack on the occurrence of any of various predetermined conditions.
3. Guaranteed not to fail: "There is no fail-safe mechanism guaranteed either to contain or to restore presidential authority" (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.).
A fail-safe mechanism.

(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. S.v. "failsafe." Retrieved April 26 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/failsafe )

'Fool-proof' might be another option, but because you're applying the term to yourself I have reservations about recommending it to you:

fool·proof adj.
1. Designed so as to be impervious to human incompetence, error, or misuse: a foolproof detonator; a foolproof safety lock.
2. Effective; infallible: a foolproof scheme.

(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. S.v. "foolproof." Retrieved April 26 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/foolproof )

Similar, but even more pronounced reservations come with any recommendation of the parallel term 'idiot-proof'. 'Idiot-proof' is used more informally than either 'foolproof' or 'failsafe':

id·i·ot-proof adj. Slang
So easy to use or make that there is very little chance of failure: "idiot-proof recipes that cut corners by making use of packaged foods" (Howie Rumberg).

(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. S.v. "idiot-proof." Retrieved April 26 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/idiot-proof )

Also note that, unlike 'failsafe', neither 'foolproof' nor 'idiot-proof' are used alone as nouns.

  • 1
    BTW, using failsafe to mean "guaranteed not to fail" is a dreadful abuse of the word. A mechanism is failsafe when its failure mode is in the safe direction. For example, the brakes on large vehicles are designed so air-pressure is required to keep them off. If an airhose or cylinder ruptures, the brake automatically applies itself and the vehicle slows or stops. This is "failsafe" because a rupture is exponentially more likely than the pressure remaining high because of a malfunction and stopping a vehicle is far less likely to be dangerous than not-stopping it. Commented May 3, 2016 at 4:36

The closest phrases I could think of for your scenario:

Your family members would be keeping / holding you accountable for your own studying.

You would be taking preventive measures to make sure you don't procrastinate.


Though you may express the concept in many different ways, I'd probably use the term straightjacket in a figurative sense:

  • something that ​severely ​limits ​development or ​activity in a way that is ​damaging:

(Cambridge Dictionary)


Irrevocable, as in "irrevocable directive" or "irrevocable order".

For example from Grass Roots by Stuart Woods

"I'm going to give you an irrevocable order.”

“I would never allow anyone to revoke your orders, sir.”

“I mean irrevocable, even by me. If I should weaken, you must be strong and carry out this assignment, regardless of anything further I have to say about it"

  • Closely similar to that is saying "this order cannot be countermanded, even by me". Commented Apr 30, 2016 at 6:29

When a person is establishing such safeguards, you may say (in a quite formal manner) that:

He is setting up provisional self-protection measures.


"I am binding myself to study all day."

The origin of this phrase is probably related to the story of Ulysses/Odysseus and the Sirens, as related in JHCL's answer. The phrase "I am binding myself to the mast" makes that connection explicit. But the simple version of the phrase (with no mention of masts) is more general and requires no background knowledge of Greek myth in order to be understood. On the other hand it is less explicitly giving an order to other people that they must keep the speaker bound to his or her task, irrespective of any later pleas.


IRREVOCABLE -- I'm even surprised this discussion is going on at such length. The answer here seems clear. In many countries there is a legal instrument called an IRREVOCABLE POWER OF ATTORNEY often given, say, by a property owner to a trusted family member when the owner has to travel afar before consummation of a sale. The holder of the Irrevocable PA has absolute legal right to attend to that sale in any manner s/he sees fit, and holds that power absolutely until the property is sold. Then when it IS sold, (obviously) the power ceases only when the condition that required its execution is gone..

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    +1 Interesting. I think there are some typos in your answer. Do you mind..? :)
    – NVZ
    Commented Apr 30, 2016 at 9:52
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    @NVZ--well, that's embarrassing! Thank you for the heads-up. I fixed the typos.
    – clark
    Commented May 2, 2016 at 6:56

I might use the phrase "self binding," but Wikipedia (quoted above) uses "Ulysses Pact" or "advance directive." I've also heard "burning your ships" as a common figurative phrase referring to Captain Hernán Cortés who scuttled his ships when landing in Mexico to ensure that they could not turn back. This is a little different than "burning one's bridges" because the latter has more to do with one's relationships with others than things one has done to oneself to bind one's own future behavior.

"Backing oneself up against a cliff" was also an early example highlighted in this Radiolab episode on self-binding mechanisms. They use "Ulysses contract" as the official name for this strategy. They cite other examples too, like a pact whereby one person puts up money to a repulsive cause, to be donated if they do the thing they don't want themselves to do.

Another pop-culture example of this is in what Dumbledore says to Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince about the Emerald Potion/Potion of Despair (film clip here).


You're making a pact with them or yourself.

pact, noun –Google

a formal agreement between individuals or parties.

We both went on a diet and made a pact where each of us had to pay the other $5 if we were caught cheating.


You're putting safeguards in place


noun something that serves as a protection or defense or that ensures safety.

Random House

That is why it is necessary to put in safeguards to ensure that the development guidelines are respected by all governments.


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