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Famous Resolution Lists: Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, Woody Guthrie

“Stay glad. Keep hoping machine running. Love everybody. Make up your mind.”

New Year’s resolutions need not be confined to January 1, nor regurgitate the most common ones — like changing habit loops, exercising more, and being more productive — here is a look at some of history’s more unusual resolution lists from the diaries, letters, and personal effects of cultural icons:


Writing in A Tale of a Tub in 1699, at the age of 32, Jonathan Swift — best-known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels — compiled a list of 17 aspirations for his far future, titled “When I come to be old.” Focusing on wisdom, humility, patience, and justice, the list brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s famous thirteen virtues, penned around the same time.

When I come to be old. 1699.

Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

via Lists of Note


In 1972, 39-year-old Susan Sontag noted in her diary:

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, gelatin silver print, 1975

Kindness, kindness, kindness.

I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.

Then, in early 1977, she resolved:

Starting tomorrow — if not today:

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)

I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)

I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)

I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.

I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)

I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)


In the winter of 1955, a 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe resolved in her leather-bound address book to do things better. The list comes from Fragments, the fantastic tome that gave us Monroe’s moving unpublished poetry.

Must make effort to do
Must have the dicipline to do the following –

z – go to class – my own always – without fail

x – go as often as possible to observe Strassberg’s other private classes

g – never miss actor’s studio sessions

v – work whenever possible – on class assignments – and always keep working on the acting exercises

u – start attending Clurman lectures – also Lee Strassberg’s directors lectures at theater wing – enquire about both

l – keep looking around me – only much more so – observing – but not only myself but others and everything – take things (it) for what they (it’s) are worth

y – must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen – making much much much more more more more more effort in my analisis. And be there always on time – no excuses for being ever late.

w – if possible – take at least one class at university – in literature –

o – follow RCA thing through.

p – try to find someone to take dancing from – body work (creative)

t – take care of my instrument – personally & bodily (exercise)

try to enjoy myself when I can – I’ll be miserable enough as it is.


In 1942, 30-year-old Woody Guthrie penned a 33-point compendium of “New Years Rulin’s.” The list, originally featured here in 2011, is equal parts brave and vulnerable, brimming with a kind of heart-warming earnestness we’ve come to be tragically cynical about.

  1. Work more and better
  2. Work by a schedule
  3. Wash teeth if any
  4. Shave
  5. Take bath
  6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
  7. Drink very scant if any
  8. Write a song a day
  9. Wear clean clothes — look good
  10. Shine shoes
  11. Change socks
  12. Change bed cloths often
  13. Read lots good books
  14. Listen to radio a lot
  15. Learn people better
  16. Keep rancho clean
  17. Dont get lonesome
  18. Stay glad
  19. Keep hoping machine running
  20. Dream good
  21. Bank all extra money
  22. Save dough
  23. Have company but dont waste time
  24. Send Mary and kids money
  25. Play and sing good
  26. Dance better
  27. Help win war — beat fascism
  28. Love mama
  29. Love papa
  30. Love Pete
  31. Love everybody
  32. Make up your mind
  33. Wake up and fight

Now, wash these down with this brief history of the to-do list and the psychology of its success and revisit last year’s resolution to read more and write better.

Published January 1, 2013




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