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January 2, 2013

Slate: Vow to do less, not more

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

Which is why I, like other time-crunched professionals, would do well to resolve simply to take on fewer obligations in the new year, rather than resolving to learn Mandarin or pick up moose hunting. By taking on more, odds are I'd compensate by being a lesser parent, researcher and writer.

Of course, many resolutions this time of year are more about what we want to give up, rather than add, to our lifestyles — quit smoking, eat less and so forth. Here, too, Mullainathan and Shafir's theories provide some guidance. Recall that we spend much of our lives in tunnel vision focused on immediately pressing tasks. Long-term goals and self-improvement rarely sit within our narrow view.

But occasional periods of self-reflection — like the days of reckoning that arrive in late December each year — provide an opportunity to think about what we want to put in the suitcase that constitutes our lives.

The advice that Mullainathan and Shafir have for resolution-makers isn't that you refrain from trying to better yourself, but rather that you lock in commitments to self-betterment that won't require vigilance or attention in the year ahead. So while it's on your mind, go ahead and increase the default contribution to your pension plan; buy a smaller fridge that won't hold as much ice cream; force Outlook to block off every Friday afternoon to clean up your desk and the rest of your affairs; and use both the time and mental space that commitments like these can free up to stay on top of the workload and pressures that are already part of your daily life.

Fisman is director of the Social Enterprise Program at the Columbia Business School. His next book, "The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office," will be published in January.

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