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A Quick History of the New Year’s Resolution

Are you making a New Year’s resolution this year? It’s quite likely you are, as surveys conducted in recent years show that something like 40 percent of Americans make one annually. And what are they resolving?

Last year’s Marist study, the annual gold standard of New Year’s resolutionology, showed that their number one goal was—good news, fellow citizens!—”being a better person,” beating out the evergreen weight loss for the top spot.

The American public’s endearing, if slightly loopy, resolve to be better people may lack specificity, or what the project managers in your life would call “deliverables,” but it does harken back somewhat to the original spirit of New Year’s Resolution making.

While most New Year’s resolutions of today are, like our modern society more broadly, typically individualistic and self-interested, the custom has more often been about affirming transcendent or pro-social values.

“ While most New Year’s resolutions of today are typically individualistic, the custom has more often been about affirming transcendent or pro-social values.—EVAN MCELRAVY Planned in Babylon

New Year’s resolutions have played an intermittent role in the development of Western Civilization. They appear first...

How to Make Reading Central to Your Personal Growth in the Coming Year

One New Year’s resolution I frequently hear from people is that they want to read more books. Makes sense if you consider reading a key component of personal growth and development.

Ray Edwards recently wrote about his reading goals here at MH&Co. He planned to read fifty-two books in a year. Instead, he read seventy-six! Edwards said he invests in reading because it helps him learn new ideas, upgrade his thinking, and improve his leadership. But seventy-six books! Who’s got time for that?

My fifty-book challenge

I read a lot and have done so since my teens. But even fifty-two books in a year would have seemed like a stretch to me—until a decade ago.

I was an editor at a publishing house and on the phone with one of my authors. I mentioned being on a fiction bender and offhandedly gave the number of novels I’d read during my spree. He was encouraging but unimpressed. Fifty books a year was the norm for him. At my then-current pace, the best I could hope for was a sum in the low thirties.

The next year I started keeping record of every book I finished. As a writer and editor, I’m in and out of far more books than I actually read cover to cover. I wanted to know how many I had actually completed. After twelve months, I finished thirty-five.

How on...

Why They Don’t Work and What You Should Do Instead

Millions of Americans admit to making New Year’s resolutions. Most of us can stick it out a few weeks, but fewer than half are still going after six months. Less than 10 percent are ultimately successful. In this episode, we’re going to explore five reasons resolutions commonly fail—and what you can do to finally gain ground in the upcoming year.

My New Book Can Set You up for Success in 2018

If you are late to the game in making your New Year’s resolutions, I have an idea for you: Don’t do it. New Year’s resolutions may be as old as the Babylonian empire, but that doesn’t mean they are very effective. Millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions every year, but research says most of us are wildly unsuccessful.

Many of us only stick it out for a while. A quarter bomb in the first week. A third don’t make it past the first month. Fewer than half are still plugging away after six months. Fewer than 10 percent of us are actually successful.

Why it matters

Some industries, such as fitness centers, count on our failure and build that into their business models. But this is about much more than numbers. It’s about people’s dreams. Here were the top-ten resolutions people set for 2017, according to Statistic Brain:

  • Lose weight and eat better
  • Make better financial decisions
  • Quit smoking
  • Do more exciting things
  • Spend more time with friends and family
  • Work out more
  • Learn something new on my own
  • Do good deeds for others
  • Find the love of my life
  • Find a better job

Our resolutions concern our health, wealth, relationships, and personal development. In other words, they’re about the things that matter most to us.

One New Year's Resolution That Probably Saved My Life

Studies show that most New Year’s resolutions flop a month or less after we make them. Gyms all over the country are banking on it. They have far less capacity than the year-round passes they sell to strivers who begin the year intent on changing their shape, but who give up after a few weeks of bobbling barbells and chasing treadmills.

And yet, I still believe in New Year’s resolutions because one of them likely saved my life.

Trapped in DC

This was back in 2009. I had moved to Washington, DC, seven years prior and had worked for several magazines and think tanks. I was good at what I did, but it wasn’t enough.

As a kid, the thing I had most wanted to be was an adult. It seemed the best way to do that was through a monomaniacal pursuit of “adult” things. So I fastened onto politics and policy, found something to say, and went to our nation’s capital to help say these things to the folks in power.

It was a bad fit, almost from the start. The weather in and around DC is awful, and the social scene is saturated with booze and regret. Ambitious people go there to make...

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Research Shows Free, Abundant Giving Is the Secret to Marital Bliss

When Roger Hodgson crooned to his anonymous paramour back in 1977, “Give a little bit of your love to me,” so he might “give a little bit of my life for you,” the Supertramp frontman presumably didn’t have academic research in mind.

But Hodgson’s next beseeching couplet—“There’s so much that we need to share/So send a smile and show you care”—might have intuited a conclusion social scientists have only recently begun to transform into a testable, verifiable hypothesis: Generosity improves marriage.

Enter the work of University of Virginia Professor W. Bradford Wilcox, author of numerous books on the subject of marriage. He serves as a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and is the director of the National Marriage Project, a one-stop shop for in-depth, cutting-edge research on holy matrimony. Wilcox has devoted a considerable portion of his life and career to determining what makes married people tick.

Generosity is key

In 2011, as part of the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, Wilcox headed up a survey of 1,630 married couples designed to home in on a single factor in after-the-nuptials happiness: marital generosity. In a 2013 article for the Journal of Marriage and Family, Wilcox and coauthor Jeffrey Dew define this generosity as “giving good things to [one’s spouse] freely and abundantly,” including “regularly engaging in small acts of...

Generosity Is a Business Strategy, and Almost Everyone Gets It Wrong

It’s likely that your company logo is sitting in the bottom of some landfill. Likely, that is, if you’re among the majority of business leaders who try to woo clients, prospects, and employees with self-promotional gifts.

You know the kind I’m talking about: food baskets, towels, T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, and poorly made laptop bags. And for the more progressive companies out there: ear buds, cell phone projection keyboards, wine bags, flasks, and inflatable paddle boards.

I’m not accusing these well-intentioned (yet misinformed) givers of being cheap. Heck, we all have a few old company T-shirts sitting in the bottom of the drawer. But the mentality of “slap a logo on it and call it good” misses the mark by a good mile and a half.

Business leaders—why gift at all?

The journey to great gift marketing—as a business leader or company—often starts with the budget. “Is this something we can fit in? How little can we get away with? Should we do the same thing as last year?” I get it. We have to be good managers of our limited resources. But budget-driven gifting is usually treated as a to-do item. Whereas skillful gift marketing is a limitless opportunity to open doors, build (or amend) relational bridges, and retain your industry’s top talent.

Don’t Let the Dismal Science Steal Christmas

Exchange and gift-giving have been a part of everyday human behavior since the dawn of mankind. So, it should be no surprise that these activities are also part of holiday celebrations—such as Christmas, Hanukkah, and Eid Al-Adha.

Many of us remember the excitement of wondering what presents Santa Claus—or, as we discovered later, our parents or grandparents—had stowed away under the tree for us. Many of us also remember the disappointment that came with receiving a gift that wasn’t what we wanted or even something we would never have chosen for ourselves.

I often recall the fantastic scene from A Christmas Story in which young Ralphie Parker is cajoled into trying on the pink rabbit suit his Aunt Clara made for him. Ralphie’s father says he “looks like a deranged Easter Bunny.” We’ve all been there or somewhere close, judging by the unworn ties hanging in our closets or the expired gift certificates gathering dust at the bottom of the sock drawer.

The economic costs of disappointing gifts don’t just include the lost value from unwanted gifts, but also the time and frustration of handling returns—on top of the original disappointment. Your friend or relative either doesn’t know you as well as they think or didn’t take the time to figure it out. Stress and hurt feelings are actual costs—they’re just hard to quantify.

Economists have a term for the...

Pettiness Poisons Modern Life—Here’s What We Can Do About It

Pettiness is a word that is on the way out. Google Books shows its usage down sharply since the middle of the 1960s, and many people have a hard time getting a handle on it today. That’s a shame because it’s an important term. It may be impossible to understand much of our recent public discourse—or an enduring holiday classic—without it.

Take Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. What was Ebenezer Scrooge’s main character flaw, or besetting sin? Was he greedy, miserly, envious, spiteful, misanthropic? Above all, he was petty. It’s the morally-loaded counterpart to small. You can hear its echo in petite, which is closer to the original French loan word.

In the opening scene of the story, the sole living proprietor of Scrooge and Marley doesn’t allow more than one lump of coal to warm his poor, shivering clerk’s work area. He also frequently insults and threatens to fire his employee, and holds his near-poverty over his head.

Scrooge answers his visiting nephew’s “Merry Christmas! God save you!” with what in 1843 must have been a shocking “Bah! Humbug!” (This would be “Bah! BS!” or worse in modern American English. The word means nonsense, but it’s a bit rougher.) He mocks love as a reason for his relation’s marriage. He refuses to come see his own kin for dinner. Having established—and then some!—that he despises Christmas, the man then refuses to...

We all know intuitively that generosity is right. But it turns out that generosity also provides some very tangible rewards for the giver. In this episode of the Lead to Win podcast, we uncover three benefits of generosity that span all of your most important relationships both at work and at home.

(And How to Overcome Them)

We all like feeling happy and settled. But those pleasant feelings can plateau your growth. Big goals are bound to stir up less pleasant emotions. Namely, fear, doubt, and uncertainty. In this episode, you’ll learn to see those feelings as the welcome committee to your best performance—and pick up some valuable tips to beat them.

How to Beat the Hidden Danger of Loss Aversion

Why is it so hard to hail a taxi in New York City when it’s raining? That’s when you most want a cab. It’s when available drivers can rack up fare after fare without little time wasted waiting for new business. Yet it’s also the time when cabs are the most scarce.

The problem is so bad that Uber and other ride-sharing services have invented “surge pricing” for rainy weather, and some taxi companies have followed suit. If you want to get more drivers on the road you have to pay two or three times as much money, even when demand is already at its highest.

How does that make sense?

The high cost of small goals

Why do taxi drivers have to be bribed to do their jobs at a time when their earning potential is already at its greatest? And what does that have to do with your reluctance to set challenging goals as we look forward to a new year?

The key to the puzzle is something called loss aversion. Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel-winning psychologist. As he explains in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “We are driven more strongly to avoid losses than to achieve gains.”

Taxi drivers can do extremely well when it...

How to Balance Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards for Your Personal and Professional Goals

The end of the year is always an interesting time. In addition to all the family togetherness, delicious food, and gift exchange, one of the most prominent parts of the holiday season is setting sights on how the next year is going to be better. In essence, it’s “goal setting season.”

The harsh reality of New Year’s resolutions is that most end in failure. Last year, only about 9 percent of people actually felt they were successful in reaching their goals. So what is the secret to attaining goals (and staying there)?

Truth be told, whether the goals are personal or professional, it all comes down to motivation. There are two distinct types to consider: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation relates to behavior driven by internal rewards. In other words, activities can be performed for the sake of inherent satisfaction. Extrinsic motivation is driven by external demand or tangible rewards. For example, extrinsic motivation to hit a sales quota can be rooted in commissions or bonuses.

One of the common threads in many failures is the misplacement of motivation. Or, making these types of motivations mutually exclusive. So as the new year approaches, let’s discuss...

The Triple Power of Trust, Preparation, and Mindful Engagement

At twelve years old, when most girls her age were learning algebra and crushing on the members of NSYNC, Samantha Larson was preparing to conquer a fear that few adults would face: climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. By eighteen, Larson had also successfully climbed each of the Seven Summits, ascending to the tallest peak on each continent and, at the time, becoming the youngest person to achieve the feat.

The first time Larson felt real fear was at the bottom of Kilimanjaro, when she and her father (who completed all of the climbs with her) met a gentleman who had gotten sick because of the change in altitude and couldn’t make it to the summit. He warned them that they, too, would probably struggle. But instead of backing out, Larson committed to pressing forward.

“Fear is such a personal thing, but in a lot of situations, fear is just a reaction of the human brain, which is wired to convince us that what we may want to do is a bad idea,” says Larson. “When we face fear, we have to ask ourselves how badly we want that thing that we’re afraid of, and how can we...

How Barack Obama and Sheryl Sandberg Beat the Imposter Syndrome

It’s natural to feel like an imposter sometimes. But don’t dwell on your self-doubt. Instead, the solution is to recognize your feelings as a healthy part of your professional and personal development, realize that other successful people feel the same way, understand that you already have the strengths needed, and use this fear as a tool for making even greater strides in your progression in life.

I know. Easier said than done, right? There are those times when you feel like you’re faking it, even as you succeed in launching a new business or project. Mark Zuckerberg felt that a few years after launching Facebook, when others were telling him to sell the business to other firms instead of sticking to his plan to keep the social media giant independent. “I wondered if I was just wrong, an imposter, a twenty-two-year-old kid who had no idea how the world worked,” he admitted.

Then there are those soul-crushing moments of adversity that make you wonder whether you will ever achieve your purpose. Former President Barack Obama felt that way in 2000 when he “got whupped” in his effort to defeat incumbent Congressman Bobby Rush. At that point, the future president thought “for me to run and lose that bad… maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do.”

How to Keep Track of the 10 Domains that Make up Your Life

One key for designing the future we desire is self awareness. A study study by Cornell University and Green Peak Partners found it was the single greatest predictor of success among executives. That goes for most of us.

Our lives have many domains. Consider your spirituality, psychological and physical health, family, friends, and work. It doesn’t stop there. As Michael says, it’s helpful to see our lives as consisting of ten interrelated domains: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, physical, marital, parental, social, financial, vocational, and avocational.

Struggling to keep track?

A critical insight is that these domains are interrelated. Each one affects all the others. Take work. Job stress can drain our physical and emotional energy, tax our closest relationships, devour our margin for recovery, and more. It’s the same with our physical health and our families. How many people have you seen riding high until an ailment or a divorce brought everything to a screeching halt?

The trouble is visibility. True self awareness means we know how we’re doing in all ten domains. Easier said than done, right? It’s challenging to maintain focus on one area while keeping an eye on all the others. It’s like a game of existential Whac-A-Mole.

A few of us don’t even try. We pursue whatever comes easiest and forget the rest. But I bet most of us want much more out of life. We just...

‘Either get busy living or get busy dying.’

“You have Parkinson’s Disease,” said the doctor. It was September 22, 2011—the day before my 46th birthday. While not usually fatal, Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease. This means it inevitably worsens over time. There is no cure. I was suddenly facing the prospect of limited mobility as my future unfolded.

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne says to his pal Red as they sit in the prison yard, “It comes down to one simple decision. Either get busy living or get busy dying.” My life had taken an unexpected and unpleasant turn, but it was not over.

I decided to get busy living.

Do you value your values?

An advantage of contracting a disease like Parkinson’s is that it clarifies one’s perspective and focus. For instance, I realized that I wasn’t really “valuing my values,” because I had been spending my time doing other things. The things I called “priorities” were merely wishful thinking. Real priorities demand our attention. If I say it’s a priority to read a certain number and kind of books, but I never do it, I deceive myself.

What causes us to behave in this way? Why am I able to spend countless hours staring into the gaping, blue-lit void of my iPhone screen, but seemingly powerless to pick up Hemingway?

Before my diagnosis, I had claimed that certain goals were important to me—but I was not demonstrating this with my time, energy,...

The drift happens when we succumb to the current of life, like a boat carried along by the water. It’s a passive approach to life. We let the year happen to us instead of causing the results. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this episode, we’re going to establish that you really can design your year—and talk about how.