Bullish: Screw New Year’s Resolutions – Try Designing Your Career


When I was eight years old, I made a New Year’s resolution. Having observed my mother cleaning rust off of a bicycle with Coca-Cola, I decided that maybe Coca-Cola no longer qualified as something suitable for consumption by humans.

When my dad got home from work, I mentioned the Coke thing to him, and he said, “Oh yeah, in the Navy, we use Coca-Cola to clean toilets.” So, I haven’t had a soda since the eighties.

Obviously, my amazing fortitude has made all my dreams come true!

And that’s the thing – most people’s New Year’s Resolutions are related to small habits, and especially to things we won’t do. (No cake! More calf raises! No espresso after 8pm! No vodka before 2pm!) They’re very often related to being virtuous.

I sometimes have to explain the word “virtue” to non-native speakers in my various classes. “It means doing the right thing regularly,” I’ll say – but you wouldn’t use it to describe, say, saving a child from a burning building. You use it to describe going to church. You use it to describe not drinking, smoking, swearing, or fucking. It’s mostly about women. Eh.

Allow me to draw on my high school AP European History class when I refer us instead to the Renaissance ideal of virtù, as described on this art history site:

The architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti used the Italian word “virtù” for “those excelling gifts which God gave to the to the soul of man, greatest and preeminent above all other earthly animals.” A man of virtù in Renaissance Italian, coming from the Latin virtus and having its root in the Latin word vir or man, was a man with active intellectual power to command any situation, to do as he intended, like an architect producing a building according to plan; by contrast with someone at the mercy of fortuna, of chance or luck, of the accidents of fortuitous circumstance, unforeseen and hence out of control. The man of virtù, the virtuoso, aims at reasoned and examined control alike of his own thoughts, intentions, and actions and also of his surroundings.

Nice, right? Gentlewomen can have this too.

(Note: Machiavelli had a rather more dastardly take on virtù. See more Machiavellianism in Bullish: Is It Better to Rule Through Love or Fear?)

So, rather than making New Year’s Resolutions, I suggest Lifestyle Design – or Career Design – for the new year.

But you should probably start now. While January 1st is a fine time to decide to throw out all the cookies from your cabinets and only eat kale, designing a better lifestyle is going to take some advance planning. (On a dietary front, see this week’s Bullish Life: Gentlewomen Don’t Crash Diet.)

I started by making a wishlist. In a tiny notebook with birds on it, because I’m old-school like that.

Here’s my lifestyle design wishlist:

NO SCREENS two days a week. By which I mean I do not want to even see a computer or iPhone. I watch TV or movies less than three hours per month, so I didn’t think to include those until just now. But I really do not want to look at screens seven days a week. I want to look at our nation’s waterways and architecture, and at cappuccinos and books and naked men.

NO SUBWAY two days a week. I once dated a guy who literally never took the subway. He wasn’t rich, but he was French, which maybe had something to do with it. He lived near his job (in Manhattan), took cabs to the East Village a lot, and simply refused to go to Brooklyn. A little extreme, but I am of the opinion that a day off isn’t a day off if you have to go underground with the rats and see more ABORTION ALTERNATIVES and DR. ZIZMOR ads. (My apologies to our many non-NYC readers for that brief outburst; I once drove a car and also understand your commuting pain.)

Exercise three days per week. I can do this in my building, so you wouldn’t think it would be that big a deal, but, seriously, ladyhood is a big performance, and once you get disheveled, it takes forever to re-sheveled.

Batch a 12-hour-a-week gig I have into two six-hour shifts on two days per week, instead of letting piddly little stuff creep into every damn day. This should allow me to complete longer projects during that time, providing more value to the company as well as more satisfaction to me as a result of having completed large, standalone projects. (More here about the value of getting your name on something.)

Maintain a schedule that allows me to date men with normal jobs.
(To wildly overgeneralize, people do all kinds of crazy shit in their twenties, but by the time you are 33 and the men you date are roundabout 40, the ones who have normal jobs generally make better partners than the ones who are still hoping their bands take off. Obviously, there are exceptions, so no need to defend your lovely guy/Gene Simmons in the comments.)

Dedicate serious time to learning things and reading books. I have more ability to afford books than time to read them. I’m a fast reader, but if a book costs like $14 and takes 12 hours to read, surely, the time dwarfs the cost, and the cost is insignificant if you get but one good idea. For instance, the thing above about batching tasks? 4-Hour Workweek. Tim Ferriss is a bit of a douche, but I am more than happy to have paid $14 for the book that also convinced me to decamp to Buenos Aires for a month in 2008. I currently own over fifty new books I have purchased as a way of putting them on my to-do list; this to-do list is currently making an artful Jenga tower on my coffee table. Some of these books are related to things I should teach myself to improve my job skills (since I work in education), some will make their way into these columns, and some are related to future entrepreneurial pursuits, which brings me to…

Dedicate serious time to starting companies.

Oh, and make 25% more money. (See Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business.) I’ve been increasing my income by about 30% per year for about seven years by using these principles.

Next, I took out a calendar. I actually printed a calendar page from iCal, so I could scribble on it and then throw it away and do a new one if I want, but again, I’m old-school, and since I hate looking at screens, it would be counterintuitive to use one to plan not to use one.

I quickly discovered that weeks have only seven days, and that while “no screens,” “no subways,” “exercise,” and “read all those books and teach yourself game theory” are imminently compatible, I’m not sure that they leave enough time left for making more money or starting companies.

I’m also aware, though, that most people take two days per week during which they do very little, or only pleasurable things, and that this is called a “weekend.” So, a weekend during which I do math and exercise is, by any normal standard, completely acceptable, although still quite a luxury for an entrepreneur.

You can play god(dess) with your future if you think about it now! Or, at least make these kinds of choices deliberately. Maybe I’ll only get one day a week with no screens. Maybe I’ll institute a “no screens after 9pm” rule. What do I want more – more machine-free elegance, or more money? (See Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE.)

If you’d like to take the challenge and design your career for the upcoming year, here are some suggestions.

If you’re an employee, spin your suggestions and ask WAY in advance.

If you are beholden to a micromanaging boss, my wishlist above may have made you laugh bitterly. I am sorry to hear this, and hope to help in some small way. Obviously, you have much less freedom to design your career within an office.

Harvard Business Review recently ran this post in which the writer suggested, you know, napping at your desk. Because your boss will obviously understand that all the latest research shows that napping is awesome for productivity. (It’s also true that neckties restrict blood flow to the brain, being barefoot stimulates blood flow to the brain, and wearing an “I smoke fat blunts” t-shirt makes you more creative, but good luck with that.)

A nap-friendly, barefoot office might be too much to ask, but in general, it is much easier to get the things you want if you ask in advance – way, way in advance. See Bullish: Extreme Advance Planning for Very Smart Women for more on this topic.

For instance, if what you want is to work out mid-day and also take a long lunch – oh, what a luxury for an employee, and yet a totally reasonable way to refresh oneself for afternoon productivity – you might say, “I have realized that I would work better if I came in an hour earlier every morning and then took a longer break in the middle of the day, so I can come back from the gym with more energy and keep up peak productivity until 6.”

This suggestion – which obviously should be spun as a benefit to the company and a testament to your dedication in coming in early and staying until an appropriate hour – has a much greater chance of success if you ask now, for January, as you will then look like someone who possesses forethought, plans intelligently, and is not suffering from holiday-related burnout.

And if it seems that the things you want will never be compatible with your 9-to-5, at least a session of serious advance planning will make that clear. Why just drag along from day to day, lamenting what you don’t have, when you could outright declare your current situation unacceptable, and plan from there?

It’s when things are bad – but not so bad that breaking away is the only choice – that people stay stuck and unhappy for years, or lifetimes.

Don’t know what you want?

I talked in previous columns about defining your values – see Bullish: Maybe You’re Not Actually a Lazy Procrastinator and Bullish Life: How to Make Better Decisions. You might also enjoy the recent Bullish: Cultivating a Career When You Have Too Many Choices.

It turns out, my values include living elegantly, which to me includes having very clean hardwood floors and precisely folded white hand towels (like a hotel!) These things need some time reserved for them.

Staring at a blank calendar page and then writing “exercise” or “creative writing class” or “study for the GRE” or “make a weeks’ worth of healthy meals” on it twelve times is an excellent way to gauge your real feelings about these things (and thus help to define your values).

Never vow to just do “more” of something; at least sketch it on the page, and you’ll see what has to go, or how much of your valuable lifeblood it’ll really cost you. (See this column about time management.)

It’s also totally fine if your big plans are scheduled for February, or May, or September. The point of designing is that you can make it however you damn well please.

Do it now.

As of January 1st, everyone will be moving slowly, full of cake and alcohol residue. Some of these people will crowd your local gym for a few weeks. Cute.

I’m not categorically against resolutions, but studies show that willpower is a limited resource – you can only resolve to do or refrain from so many things, and you can only keep it up for so long.

Designing a better career is more sustainable, more powerful, and the way to make sure another year doesn’t just “happen” to you, the way most people just let those years wash over them, hit them upside the head, royally screw them over, or merely perpetuate the status quo.

Originally published on The Grindstone.

The Design Your 2015 download is now available in the Bullish Shop.