With each new year comes a spate of New Year’s resolutions, but we’ll often find it hard to stick with them after we’ve made them. Some years, it seems like a miracle if we even still remember them by March.
But if you’ve thought of something that you’d really like to stick to this year, perhaps a little motivation can be found in the resolutions that survived through the ages. At the very least, it’ll be interesting to see what the biggest stars of yesteryear tried to do.
Paul Newman (1998)
Although the Hollywood legend was at the tail end of his career when he made his 1998 resolution, he would also have another 20 years of life in life in him by then.
And as for what kept him feeling so young for so long, his resolution may provide a hint: “I will jump in the river that runs through our backyard every morning. Why? Just to get my heart started.”
An ancient Babylonian (2,300 BC)
The earliest known New Year’s Resolutions came from ancient Babylon and were made during a 12-day spring festival known as Akitu.
Citizens at the time generally resolved to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed, lest they fall out of favor with their gods at the time.
Woody Guthrie (1942 Part 1)
At the age of 30, the pioneering folk singer went on a self-improvement tear and drafted a list of 33 resolutions, which he called “Rulin’s.” And while they’re too numerous to list here, we can tackle some themes of what he hoped to achieve.
Many had to do with his health and hygiene (one was “Wash teeth if any”), but others were professional and saw his resolve to work more and according to a schedule while also writing a song a day.
Woody Guthrie (1942 Part 2)
In his “New Years Rulin’s,” Guthrie also had some touching interpersonal pledges to “learn people better” and love everybody (including his family and his frequent collaborator Pete Seeger) while also staying happy and, in his words, “Keep hoping machine running.”
But as is befitting of the kind of trailblazer Guthrie was, we can also see some grand motivations in his resolutions such as “wake up and fight” and “help win war—beat fascism.”
Being about as famous a poet as they come, it seems fitting that T.S. Eliot’s musings on New Year’s resolutions would be open to interpretation. In this case, it’s up for debate as to whether we can even count this as a resolution in and of itself.
Nonetheless, as he put it, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
We’ve all noticed how hard it is to commit to New Year’s resolution, and based on what the beloved actor pledged to do once upon a time, it seems that wasn’t any less true when he was alive.
That’s why, as he said, he resolved “never to make a resolution which won’t be as important on the eighth of April or the tenth of July as it is on the first of January.”
For the renowned maestro and composer, New Year’s brought a beacon of hope after we all muddled through a rough year. And that sentiment was reflected by a resolution he once made.
In his words, “From New Year’s on, the outlook brightens; good humor lost in a mood of failure returns. I resolve to stop complaining.”
Godfrey Hardy (C. 1930s)
Although the mathematician was considered one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century, there were some things even he couldn’t do. Without meaning to, he made a handy list of them during one year in the 1930s that apparently left him feeling particularly ambitious.
These included being the first person to climb Mount Everest, proving the Riemann Hypothesis, and “be proclaimed the first President of the USSR, Great Britain, and Germany.” Other people have achieved some of his resolutions, but nobody’s managed that last one.
Julius Caesar (46 BC)
Although it’s not actually known what the Roman emperor resolved to do at the time, his changes to the calendar at the time established January 1 as the beginning of the new year, a month named for the Roman god Janus.
Since Janus was said to look back into the past and ahead to the future at once, Romans like Julius would have made offerings to him and made promises of good behavior during the following year.
Jimmy Stewart (1941)
While many people resolve to lose weight at the dawning of a new year, it seems that Stewart had the opposite intention in mind by the time he told Good Housekeeping about his resolution. However, it doesn’t sound like he was any more successful than the rest of us.
As he put it, “No matter how I saturate myself with milk and butter and eggs, I still stay thin as a string bean. So now I’m going to forget it, and eat what I like. And it won’t be milk and butter and eggs!”
Although we can point to New Year’s resolutions that the great minds of the past have made, we’ll hear just as many voices from history who don’t bother making them at all. Such figures were often writers, and this prolific French-born writer might have a hint as to why.
In Nin’s words, “I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning, and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me.”
Although it’s unclear in what context the famed A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist novelist wrote one pearl of wisdom, it’s no surprise that it’s gone on to inspire some heartfelt New Year’s resolutions.
As he wrote, “Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.”
J.M. Coetzee (1970)
Although Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, the South African novelist apparently needed the help of an unusual resolution made shortly before his 30th birthday to motivate himself to write at all.
On New Year’s Day in 1970, Coetzee sat in his basement fully dressed in a coat and boots and promised that he wouldn’t come out until he had written 1,000 words. It worked, and what a start it would turn out to make for him!
Marilyn Monroe (1955)
The tragic movie star has left a complicated legacy, and a recovered resolution from her heyday gives a little insight into both how ambitious and how troubled she was.
In her words, “Go to class…without fail…never miss actor’s studio sessions…start attending Clurman lectures—also Lee Strasberg’s director’s lectures at theater wing—enquire about both…keep looking around me—only much more so—observing…take at least one class at university—in literature…try to find someone to take dancing from…try to enjoy myself when I can—I’ll be miserable enough as it is.”
Susan Sontag (1972)
The author, critic, philosopher, activist, and film director obviously had a lot of pursuits in her life, but it was clear from her recovered journals that she also spent a lot of time deep in thought.
And that was reflected by her 1972 resolution, which read, “Kindness, kindness, kindness. I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.”
Susan Sontag (1977)
Although her 1972 resolution is more commonly quoted, Sontag had some more practical promises to herself five years later. These included getting out of bed by 8:00am and only having lunch with her publisher, Roger Straus, but she gave herself weekly allowances to break these.
She also resolved to write in her journals every day, answer letters once a week, and keep her reading until the evening because it would otherwise be an escape from writing. It’s not often we see someone resolve to read less.
Samuel Beckett (1983)
Not only was the Irish playwright, author, and poet not prone to making New Year’s resolutions, but it seems he looked at the potential for each coming year with the same bleakness that characterized his work.
After The Times asked him to contribute his resolutions in 1983, they received only this response: “Resolutions: Zero. Hopes: Zero.”
Nora Ephron (2006)
For the director and screenwriter of a library of beloved romantic comedies, it apparently wasn’t a big problem to have her two biggest New Year’s resolutions contradict each other. And it’s definitely hard to argue with one of them.
As she wrote, “I resolve to eat more waffles, even though this resolution is in direct conflict with my most important resolution of the New Year, which is to lose two pounds. Waffles are amazing. When I’m dying, I don’t want to regret not having eaten more of them.”
It’s unclear when exactly the actress and singer who starred in movies throughout the 1940s and ’50s made her resolution. But it’s definitely a charming and relatable one for a lot of us.
As she put it, “I resolve to study arithmetic, which I don’t like, as hard as music, which I love!”
Louis Kronenberg (1942)
If the respected literature and theatre critic hadn’t seen an apparently dismal and short-lived Broadway play called You’ll See Stars on December 29, 1942, we would never have heard of his New Year’s resolution that year.
He resolved to be kind and courteous right before writing the play’s second act.
Burroughs was a prominent essayist who explored the natural world. But whether his resolution was informed by his observations of the circle of life or just something that sounded nice to him one day, it’s a pledge that he clearly carried with him.
In his words, “One resolution I have made and try always to keep is this — To rise above the little things.”
It’s certainly nothing new for some folks to dispense with the very idea of New Year’s resolutions, but the former baseball player seemed to make that decision into a personal challenge in its own right.
As he put it, “Many years ago, I resolved never to bother with New Year’s resolutions, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
Jonathan Swift (1699 part 1)
Technically, the famed author and satirist didn’t make New Year’s resolutions but rather described things he pledged to do when he reached what he considered an old age.
Funnily, many of them involved not only abstaining from marrying a young woman but also staying away from children and the youth in general unless they really wanted to be his friend.
Jonathan Swift (1699 part 2)
Although Swift apparently wanted the young to stay away from him, he also resolved not to scorn current trends or be overly severe with the young people in his life. Furthermore, he resolved not to listen to gossip and to avoid telling people the same stories over and over.
However, that doesn’t mean he actually fulfilled any of his promises to his future self, as his last resolution was “not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear, I should observe none.”
While some of the comic queen’s recurring resolutions were intentionally cruel jokes, one of them put an unusual twist on perhaps the most common resolution, as only she would know how to do.
In Rivers’ words, “Lose weight. I love to eat. I bought a picture of The Last Supper just to look at the food.”
The venerated British author seemed to prize action above all else, and based on both his personal resolution and his encouragement to others, the fear of failure should not be an obstacle to that action.
As he put it, “Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, do it. Make your mistakes next year and forever.”
Samuel Pepys (1661)
Pepys was renowned as a writer and diarist during the 17th Century, and his New Year’s resolutions in preparation for 1662 show what a different time he came from.
Because while maintaining his family’s health and saving money were goals that we’d understand today, he also pledged to find a wife for his brother and “abstaining from plays and wine.” After all, while theatre is considered high culture today, it was seen as more frivolous and immoral at the time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
While it hasn’t been so unusual for writers and poets of the past to see little value in making New Year’s resolutions, Emerson’s apparent lack of interest in doing so has little to do with the resolutions themselves.
That’s because he wrote, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”
Fred Willard (2014)
By the time the reliable comedic actor was 81, he had told Entertainment Tonight that he spent each year resolving to keep as healthy as he could. It sounded like he was committed to this one, which likely extended his life before his passing at the age of 86.
As he said, “I love [to] exercise. I love nothing more than getting out and running around, swimming and climbing.”
Whether Keats had intended this profundity as a New Year’s resolution or not, it’s definitely something that likely inspired its share of them in the two centuries since his death.
In the words of the great romantic poet, “To silence gossip, don’t repeat it.” Of course, we’ve long proven that resisting that urge is easier said than done.