The Most Important Women Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of


This blog was originally published on
Throughout history, there have been plenty of women leaders who left their mark. You’ve probably heard of a few of them; Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Angela Merkel. But there are quite a few female leaders who aren’t household names–and who have inspiring stories all their own.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Sirleaf left an abusive husband at a young age, then left her homeland of Liberia for America to get her education, eventually earning a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard. Her return home saw her dive headfirst into the often dangerous world of Liberian politics, and she was arrested and thrown into prison by political rivals. After her release, she worked across Africa for the UN, but could not resist returning to her homeland.

Once her rivals were out of power, she came back to Liberia and was eventually elected president in 2005. She became the first elected female leader not only in Liberia but all of Africa. Upon inauguration, she announced a national peace and reconciliation initiative aimed at healing the wounds of all the domestic upheaval and civil turmoil that her country endured over the course of two decades. She was re-elected to a second term in 2012.

Jeannette Rankin
Rankin was born in Montana, the daughter of an immigrant carpenter and a schoolteacher. From a young age, she never shied from hard work, even single-handedly building a wooden sidewalk for a business her father worked for. Even in her youth, she was stricken by the fact that women worked just as hard as men–but were barred from voting.

While studying at the University of Washington, she became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Working as a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she helped gain the approval of the state’s voters to guarantee women the right to vote in 1910, a decade before women nationwide gained suffrage.

But Rankin was far from done. Thanks to a far-reaching campaign, Rankin won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1916, becoming the first woman in U.S. Congress. She continued to be a passionate advocate for suffrage in her new position and introduced the legislature that became the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women nationwide the right to vote.

Begum Hazrat Mahal
From humble roots, Begum Hazrat Mahal eventually led her people towards freedom. Her husband, Wajid Ali Shah was the leader of their province of Awadh, in British-occupied colonial  India, until being exiled by the colonial authorities to Calcutta in 1856. While he was gone, Mahal took the reins and led the people of Awadh, a rare distinction at the time.

A year later, people across India rose up in rebellion against the ruling British East India Company, a powerful trading corporation with its own army and territory. Mahal, infuriated by the Company’s unchecked power and suppression of religious freedom, led Awadh in a revolt against their oppressors. The revolt led to the end of the East India Company’s domination of the region, with the British taking political leadership away from them.

Although her efforts were answered with exile to Nepal, and it would be a century before India gained true independence from Britain, Mahal is remembered today as a pioneering leader who, for the sake of her people, defied overwhelming odds. She was put on a commemorative stamp in 1984.

Gertrude Bell
She wasn’t born into royalty, so Gertrude Bell instead had to earn the title “Queen of the Desert.” Working for the British Empire, Bell traveled the Middle East extensively around the turn of the 20th Century as a writer, archaeologist, diplomat, and photographer. She enthralled audiences back home with her books chronicling her experiences and was eventually drafted into service for British Intelligence in World War I.

Bell impressed her superiors to the extent that she became a vitally important part of British diplomacy in the region. She was given the title “Oriental Secretary” and worked closely with T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill to establish the nation of Iraq, where she was beloved by the people and still spoken of in positive terms today among Iraqis who remember those tumultuous times.

Known as “the first great woman of history,” Hatshepsut was expected to serve as a placeholder after her the death of her husband, Thutmose II (also known as Thutmosis II), but refused and is remembered as one of Ancient Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs.

Among Hatshepsut’s accomplishments were the establishment of vital trade routes that allowed her people to travel far and wide throughout Africa, trading for valuable materials. She is also remembered as one of the great builders, embarking on a series of projects that, according to Egyptologists, “far outstripped those of her predecessors.”

Hatshepsut even survived an attempt on erasing her legacy. After her death, the stepson she was supposed to be merely serving in the place of, Thutmose III, ordered her monuments defaced, statues to be torn down and official references altered so that he would not have appeared to have been secondary to a woman for so much of his life. He was not successful.

Live, Dream, Travel: The Best Jobs for a Digital Nomad


Not too long ago, a great many workers’ days started with an alarm clock and a commute to a suffocating cubicle.  Now, with the world at our fingertips, a growing proportion of work is conducted entirely online.

What this means is that you do not need to be based in any one city, or even one continent, to get the job done. Today’s employee can wake up in Berlin, log into a job in New York, conduct a conference call in Tokyo, and fall asleep on a beach in Indonesia. This might sound like a fantasy, but it’s reality for a digital nomad.

Of course, not every job will accommodate this lifestyle. If you’re looking to be a firefighter or a surgeon, you’ll likely find it best to stay in one spot. On the other hand, if you’d rather set out into the world with just your laptop or tablet to keep you connected, there are plenty of jobs in this economy that can give you the free movement you’re looking for.

Freelance Writing

Blogs and other web outposts are constantly looking for fresh takes, and as you’ve probably seen, quality writing is at a premium. If you have the talent to string words together in a way that people will want to read, you can get work on a per-piece basis for one of the many content-rich sites out there. You might not ever meet your editor in person, but all that matters is the words on the page (or screen, more likely).

Graphic Design

Along those same lines, there is a vital need out there for compelling visuals. Even the best verbal content can fall flat without a well-designed graphic component. Graphic design work is certainly out there for those with the skills for it. Even better, tablet computers have made great leaps forward so that you can do what you need with a stylus on a touchscreen, with no need for a big expensive workstation.


What better way for a world citizen to earn their way than as a translator? The versatility that comes with being a digital nomad means you can immerse yourself in languages in a way that would have been difficult if you were stuck at a desk back home. Need to check a primary source in Swedish? Easier to do in Stockholm than in Seattle.

Executive Assistant

Don’t laugh, this isn’t as out there as it might sound. Being an executive assistant goes much further than getting coffee. More important is the ability to organize and communicate rapidly, all of which can be done online. Being a ‘virtual assistant’ gives you the opportunity to work flexible hours while satisfying the needs of multiple clients. Whether you do this while on the beach or on a rooftop deck isn’t something they’re worried about.

Digital Publishing

Once you put in the work to build an audience, a successful blog can bring in quite a bit of income. Revenue from advertisements, sponsored posts, and affiliate marketing can fund your travels, while you stay plugged in wherever you go. If you’ve got the content, and the views, it’s more than possible to make a good living. You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to be a player in digital media. Of course, you can jet there if you so desire. It’s up to you.


It’s not only media jobs that digital nomads can thrive in. The explosion of apps and web solutions means that there’s a huge need for talented code writers, many of whom telecommute from all around the world. As computers have gone from gray boxes in rows of cubicles, coders have gone from office drones to any type of person you can imagine. In this world, being a computer expert doesn’t mean you’re cooped up in a basement anymore.


Thanks to cheap and easy video conferencing, tutoring in nearly any subject you can think of can be done completely online. Whether helping people learn a language, sharpen their math skills, learn an instrument, or even become a dancer, if you’ve got the know-how, sharing it (and getting paid for it) is easier than you might imagine.

A “world of opportunity” is no longer just a metaphor. We’re at a unique point in time where those who want to travel the world and stay employed don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other. If you’ve got the skills and can use them while staying connected, the possibilities are global.

8 Critical Skills for Today’s Workplace


From economic downturns to increasing automation, the job market seems to change from month to month. But even during this economic uncertainty, the fact of the matter is, there are a number of necessary skills one should have for our digital workplace.

1. Microsoft Office

It may seem basic, but don’t scorn the sacred triumvirate of Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. As simple as they may seem, these three are also universal, vital programs for day-to-day business operations–no matter what industry you may be in.

Take Excel, for instance: even if your first thought is of finance, where analysts constantly crunch data in endless rows of formatted cells and special formulas, its versatility lends itself to many fields, including basic accounting, product sales, and even scheduling and booking.

Along the same lines, be sure to understand Google Drive, which offers a cloud-based, free-to-use version of Excel, Word, and Powerpoint. Not only is Drive a close match for the functionality of Microsoft Office, it is also superior to other, comparable tools (such as Dropbox). The key to Drive’s success is its ability to collaborate, allowing different users to come together to work on projects across different time zones and locations.


2. Public Speaking

Though it’s often labeled as a soft skill, public speaking is arguably one of the hardest to learn (yet most important) tools in your repertoire. After all, it’s an ability, that, unlike more nebulous qualities like loyalty or adaptability, can be easily assessed: either you can speak in a logical, eloquent, and engaging manner–or you can’t.

Best of all, public speaking is a transferable, desirable skill across a variety of sectors, such as law, television and film, marketing, and government, to name a few. Quite frankly, given the existence of public speaking organizations like Toastmasters International or the National Speakers Association, there’s really no excuse not to learn public speaking. Doing so, after all, will jump start your career and fast-track your life.


3. Foreign Languages

In an age of increasing globalization, being able to speak multiple languages fluently is incredibly valuable. If you, a proficient, multilingual speaker, work at an international corporation, you are likely to be first in line for a number of perks, from business trips to dynamic, emerging markets to spearheading your company’s expansion into a new country.

Basically, your employer will know that you can create and maintain professional relationships across many countries and cultures–without the embarrassing, potentially expensive mistakes that another, less fluent newcomer might make. Furthermore, people who speak multiple languages are usually more observant, have good memory, and are better at resolutions.


4. Social Media Management

You’ve probably seen it in your own life, but social media is the future of advertising, marketing, and branding–as well as the primary method for businesses to instantly interact with consumers. True, everyone and their mother might have a social media account, but to really create a clever, engaging online presence is half-science, half-art, and all skill. An effective social media manager will be creative, up-to-date on the latest news and trends, and most importantly, have eyes and ears for the perfect, pithy copy and the ideal image.

And it’s clear that social media will only grow, especially as consumers do the bulk of their reading and shopping online. So read up on the art of social media, get familiar with management tools like Hootsuite and Buffer, and you’ll have a job in no time.


5. Graphic Design

Though it’s true that graphic design is outsourced more and more for cost reasons, you’ll still be able to make a living from freelancing. If you choose to do so, it’s critical to be fluent with Adobe Creative Cloud, the gold standard of graphic design programs, which encompasses Photoshop, Illustrator, and Indesign, among others.

Just remember: especially in our world, where average attention spans are shorter than goldfish, every industry uses some form of visual media to pull in returning customers, new users, and cold prospects alike. Learning graphic design will open plenty of doors and jobs, and thanks to the power of the Internet, can even allow you to become a digital nomad, working full-time while traveling from one country to the next.


6. Content Writing and Blogging

Yet another skill that is particularly notable for being location-independent, content writing and blogging is a growth industry: in the last quarter of 2015 alone, it grew by 20%, or as much in two months as it did in the past two years.

The reason for this? In a nutshell, content marketing gives customers value, and sells your brand indirectly. The proof is in the numbers: even though content marketing costs 62% less than outbound marketing, it generates three times as many leads.

Clearly, content marketing isn’t going away anytime soon, and freelancing jobs will continue to increase. It’s in your best interest then, to write on a wide variety of topics, and do it well.


7. Web Development

Creating and running a website is a common and sought-after task for all industries–not to mention an ideal skillset for someone interested in working remotely.

After all, a well-made, engaging website will provide potential consumers a great first impression in today’s online world, serving as a critical marketing tool for online businesses. From a website, consumers can learn about a company’s history, products, and brand narrative, browsing product displays, promotions, and even team histories.


8. SEO

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which consists of strategies and tips to boost a site’s search rankings, is a bit mysterious. After all, the algorithms of search giants are notoriously opaque, and the subject of endless speculation among marketers.

Still, in a country where 51% of the population shops online (totaling $22 trillion internationally), SEO is incredibly important. Since it often seems that there’s an infinite volume of information on the web, it’s in any organization’s best interest to stay current and high on search rankings, in order to pull in business (or for nonprofits, donors), generate buzz, and stay current. Clearly, any job seeker that can demonstrate this proficiency will be much in demand with employers.

Whether you’re a first-time applicant or seasoned worker seeking to change your company (or industry), creating or modifying a resume can be challenging. However, these skills can help elevate your resume, pushing it out of the slush pile and directly into the hiring manager’s hands. And in a world where thousands of job seekers compete for a small number of openings, that may be all you need.

The National Society of Leadership and Success Asks, “Is Acquisition Leadership Right For You?”


Being an entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily mean taking a unique idea and starting a business from the ground up. Those who don’t experience a sudden moment of insight (which then leads to their own startup) can still experience all the challenges and rewards that come with being an entrepreneur.

Through the practice of acquisition entrepreneurship (AE), also referred to as entrepreneurship through acquisition (ETA), an interested party can buy someone else’s startup company and run the business. This practice is becoming increasingly more common in the U.S: 2016 saw a record number of total small business transactions, an increase of 8.6 percent, from the previous year.

Becoming a successful entrepreneur through acquisition involves a lot of moving parts. In order to turn the transaction into a successful career path, it is important to assess all the advantages and disadvantages that go along with acquiring a company, and to thoroughly examine the company’s profile in order to identify on potential red flags. Determining the point in a career path in which AE makes the most sense is critical too.

As a result, a recent college graduate might experience this form of entrepreneurship differently than someone established in their career.

A closer look at acquisition entrepreneurship

Making a career choice, whether straight out of college or years down the road, can be stressful. Not every opportunity that presents itself makes sense financially or logistically. As with any career choice, AE comes with various advantages and disadvantages that are important to note before making a move.



A major benefit acquisition entrepreneurs enjoy is the ability to avoid sifting through specific areas in any given market that need improvement or in which something is missing. In other words, they are not in charge of developing an idea and turning it into a business. They can also avoid writing out potential business plans that require endless editing before getting it right or developing a prototype that involves lengthy, complicated procedures before it is ready for the masses.

Acquisition entrepreneurs can step into a business that has already gone through the seed and development phase, as well as the startup phase, and enter at a time when the business is ready for growth and establishment. Additionally, time is on the side of this type of entrepreneur. The late nights and weekends that were a reality in the company’s early stages are a thing of the past.



Owning a company can be an incredibly rewarding endeavor. However, the responsibility comes with a tremendous amount of pressure. Once someone acquires a business, they face similar disadvantages as most other business owners. Major decisions often need to be made that could have a harsh impact on the company or on employees. Owners of companies find themselves second-guessing whether or not they made the right choices during times of crisis.

The original person (or people) who envisioned the company started it because they likely had a deep passion for it. A potential challenge of AE is that the buyer might not share the same level of passion, which can cause difficult times to be especially hard. Possibly the biggest disadvantage of acquiring a company is the reality that mistakes and financial losses are inevitable and will hit much harder as the owner of a company than it would have as an employee in a large corporation.

Gearing up for success


In order to make AE a successful career move for a potential buyers, professors at Harvard Business School recommend committing to a search for a period of six months to two years. Raising the funds needed for acquisition and identifying potential acquisition prospects are two components that take a significant amount of time. According to these experts, narrowing down acquisition prospects can be done using five criteria:

  • Is the business profitable?
  • Is the business established?
  • Are revenues and cash flows desirable?
  • Are the managing skills in the buyer’s wheelhouse?
  • Does the business support the buyer’s lifestyle?

AE might sound like a tempting career move for a recent college graduate, especially with a competitive job market ahead of them, but it might make sense for someone more established in their career to tackle the venture. Let’s explore how shifts in focus at business schools are changing the typical career path for college graduates.

Paradigm shifts in business education


Top business schools such as Harvard Business School and Columbia Business School are preparing students for the possibility of buying a small business after graduation by offering comprehensive courses. These classes cover a wide range of topics, from negotiations on acquisitions to debt financing and equity investments.

It seems that such courses are making an impression on students. Over the past decade, more and more MBA students have sought to acquire businesses immediately following graduation, rather than going into consulting, the traditional career path for new MBA grads. Given that entrepreneurship seems to be on the rise, increasing dramatically after drastic lows in 2014, it’s safe to say that this trend towards AE will only continue to increase in the years to come.

It’s true that there have been questions as to whether a recent college graduate has enough real life experience and business management skills to successfully buy and run a company. As a result, business schools are offering courses on this very topic as a way to expand students’ conventional post-graduate possibilities and truly prepare them for this career path.

The National Society of Leadership and Success Lists Top 5 Cities for Professional Millennials


Having recently graduated from college, many Millennials are on the move. Their ideal place to call home is surprisingly different from their preceding generation, who were attracted to the hustle and bustle of large cities. However, large city living comes with a hefty price by way of narrow job prospects and steep living costs, making it difficult to live comfortably.

What was once seen as a refusal by Millennials to buy a house or a car can now be understood as a financially intelligent move to delay these major purchases. In most cases, single-family homes are more affordable in suburban areas than in urban city centers. In fact, a whopping 66 percent of millennials said they would prefer to live in the suburbs according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

Aside from a more affordable cost of living, young professionals thrive in cities that boast job growth, a rising economy, and easy access to entertainment and nightlife. Based on these key components, the following cities (in no particular order) are ideal environments for new college graduates.

Provo, Utah 

In 2014, Outside Magazine named Provo the second best place to live in America. Provo, Utah’s third largest city, has received national recognition in several publications for work-life balance, job growth, and recreational opportunities to name a few. An active community, stellar businesses and start-ups, and access to outdoor recreation helped Provo earn this impressive title.

What’s even more impressive is Provo’s 5.2 percent annual job growth far exceeds the 1.9 percent increase nationally and its unemployment rate is 2.7 percent, which is almost half the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department. This Utah gem is also a very affordable place to live. In fact, a study published by Bloomberg Business shows that Provo ranked second on the list of cities where Millennials in the 25–34 age range purchased their first home.

Arlington, Virginia

Located across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., Arlington is a place where residents can do it all: live, work, shop, and play all while using transit, pedestrian walkways, bikes, or cars. In 2002, Arlington County won the Environmental Protection Agency’s Smart Growth Achievement Awardfor creating lively “urban villages.” Arlington’s smart growth allowed for a wide range of housing including apartments, condos, townhomes, and single-family homes, making it an ideal location for Millennials to live.

Millennials are sure to feel at home here since Arlington County’s Millennial population is higher than any other age group and roughly 72 percent of residents 25 years and older has at least a four year degree. With plenty of jobs in business, management, science, and arts, as well as competitive salaries, Arlington is a great spot for Millennials to consider after graduation.

Cambridge, Massachusetts 

A twenty minute drive from Boston, Cambridge offers a suburban, historic feel. Although Cambridge is notorious for its high cost of living, there is an abundance of job opportunities, most notably in the technology sector–making it a great place to build a career. Cambridge is home to two prominent universities: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, so it may come as no surprise that the major industries in Cambridge are Education and Technology.

Here, Millennials will be surrounded by fellow scholars since 75 percent of the population over the age of 25 has either a bachelor degree or a graduate degree.

Raleigh, North Carolina

Raleigh, North Carolina is located near Research Triangle Park (RTP), which is home to over 170 thriving companies and is anchored by its three founding universities: NC State University, Duke University, and UNC Chapel Hill. Ever since RTP was established, the area has experienced a steady increase in the number of companies and employees.

With a median base salary of $50,679, an affordable housing market, and close proximity to many reputable companies, Raleigh is an ideal city for Millennials to get their start professionally.

Austin, Texas

A cultural hotspot with a booming market, Austin, Texas is home to the Austin City Limits Music Festival and South by Southwest Film Festival. Forbes named Austin number one on its list of Best Cities for Future Job Growth. With a projected annual job growth of 4.0 percent and a median household income of $59,554, Austin is a prime location for job opportunities.

Austin’s emphasis on sustainability is also attractive to Millennials. The City of Austin is number five on the EPA ranking of the largest Local Government Green Power Users.

In the end…

Ultimately, to get the best value for their dollar (and the best jobs possible), it’s important for Millennials to look beyond large cities like New York or Los Angeles, which feature so heavily in the popular imagination. After all, there’s a lot to be had in prosperous, smaller cities: less stress, a better work-life balance, a lower cost of living, and best of all, plenty of opportunity.

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National Society of Leadership and Success Explains Why Automation Won’t Kill Jobs


Without a doubt, automation is the future. From car factories to self-learning robots, each day brings with it the increasing mechanization of tasks, as humans are relegated to roles on the sidelines.

The media has taken note of this trend as well. Some, like popular historian CGP Grey, have stated that robots will soon lead to human-free workplaces; others, like Professor James Livingston, have explored the economic, political, and philosophical dimensions of a world where humans will not have to work.

The two approaches are very different, but they come to the same conclusion: soon, humans will be replaced entirely by machines, and it’s past time to re-think the nature of work and society as we know it. In a nutshell, technology is fast making humans obsolete.

But is it, really?

Automation is not always the solution

Actually, there’s good evidence against a fully-automated future, where the majority of humans are either broke and starving or living lives devoted solely to their interests and pleasure. As usual, the truth will fall somewhere in the middle: automation, as useful as it is, has its limits.

Key to this idea is that automation cannot be applied to every industry and occupation. Even with advances in technology, there are many areas where machine learning and programming cannot replace human intuition and judgment.

But what qualifies a job as being more susceptible to automation? According to a McKinsey report on business functions, the key lies in the nature of the tasks associated with a job, and not necessarily the job itself. In short, jobs that involve lots of rote, repetitive tasks which can be easily learned and quickly programmed, are first on the chopping block.

This category includes plenty of predictable work, physical and otherwise. Think of workers who pack merchandise for shipping in giant warehouses, temps who input data into computers and databases, or workers on assembly lines (many of which are already automated).


Making your way through a brave new world

So what skills should you focus on? What work will be safe from our robot future?

As the previous McKinsey study explains, tasks that are unpredictable, require management of others, and utilize decision-making, planning, and creativity, are less susceptible to automation. These areas include jobs like skilled construction trades, education, healthcare, politics, and law.

A study by the University of Oxford predicted that low-skill, low-wage jobs were most at risk; this included workers in transportation, logistics, and office administration. These researchers also found jobs that both require a higher level of post-secondary education (both college and vocational) and pay higher wages are less likely to be automated, specifically “tasks requiring creative and social intelligence.”

While trends can (and do) change, these findings provide some interesting tips for future-proofing your education. First, realize that even as robots automate some tasks and take away some jobs, they will still create many more. Just as the rise of the web brought into existence jobs like technicians and web developers, robots too will need people to design, maintain, program, and upgrade them.

Even then, not everyone will be directly employed in fixing or building robots. One study by the International Federation of Robotics found that robotics will actually drive job growth in several sectors, including renewable energy, food and drinks, automotive, and electronics, where humans will still have to help build, design, and conduct quality control.

In fact, the rise of robotics will create millions more jobs that actually have nothing to do with robotics, as the following chart will show.


Source: Metra Martech, via IFR.

In summary…

Pick a skilled profession that requires a secondary education, creativity, and problem-solving tasks, and doesn’t involve rote, repetitive work as a matter of routine. STEM is a safe bet, especially given the tech explosion that we’ve undergone and will continue to undergo in the future, and robotics is perhaps the safest bet.

Most of all though, it seems that high-level problem-solving, management, and other human-centric abilities are safe. One example of a fantastic, future-proof job is that of a system integrator, who codes robotic behaviors, integrates many disparate components into a single assembly line, and tests and repairs robots. Alternately, an advertising copywriter, who utilizes creative problem-solving, wit, and imagination to capture audiences, will likely also be safe.

Whatever the future may bring, humans will still be wanted.


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10 Ways to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick

10 ways to stay strong in the face of tempting cupcakes, pricey shoes, and the urge to hit the snooze button instead of the gym.
There’s an inevitable rhythm to January 1 at my house. I take down the tree, vacuum up pine needles, and start making my New Year’s resolutions. The list usually looks like this: Lose weight. Swear off TV and saturated fat. Eat salads. Call Dad more. Write that novel. Floss. By midday I’m worn out, intermittently dozing in front of a football game and swiping my husband’s million-calorie nachos.
It’s not that I totally lack discipline. It’s just that I don’t sufficiently appreciate what’s going on in my brain, explains Joseph Shrand, M.D., an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Self-restraint is a rational desire, which means it lives in the front of the brain, the section that’s most recently evolved and most vulnerable to being overruled by survival instincts. Pleasure resides in the brain’s most primitive part, which has spent millions of years learning to reward us with a deeply satisfying jolt of dopamine when we give in to these kinds of urges. And while that brain circuitry evolved to encourage life-prolonging desires like eating and sex, says Dr. Shrand, we now get a rush from giving in to anything we want, whether it’s an illicit drug, chocolate, or buying expensive purple peep-toe boots, even when the more evolved part of our brain tells us we’ll quickly regret it.
So how do you help the rational (i.e., your New Year’s resolutions) triumph over the pleasure-seeking?
You need to outsmart it with these research-proven strategies.
1. Give It a Workout
I’d always thought of willpower as a steady, steely resolve that made some women triathletes and some (not my real name) couch-nappers. But it’s more like a muscle, says Marvin D. Seppala, M.D., chief medical officer at Hazelden, the well-known addiction treatment center. That means the more we use it, the stronger it gets — and quickly. In an experiment at the University at Albany — State University of New York, researchers asked 122 smokers who were trying to quit to exert extra self-control for two weeks, either by avoiding sweets or by squeezing on a grip strengthener for as long as they could twice a day. In the following month, 27 percent of those who were diligent about practicing their self-control exercise successfully kicked their cigarette habit, compared with just 12 percent of volunteers who’d been given a task that didn’t call for self-control.
To try this at home, squeeze a grip strengthener (available at sporting-goods stores for under $10) or a rubber ball till it becomes uncomfortable, then hold as long as you can. Repeat at least twice a day. Or, flex your self-control emotionally by trying not to tear up during a sad movie.
Just don’t expect to become the Wonder Woman of Willpower, advises psychologist and study author Mark Muraven, Ph.D. As with a muscle, push too hard or under conditions that are too challenging, and your resolve (like an overworked hamstring) will collapse. “If you’re very hungry, I can’t imagine that any amount of willpower will keep you from eating a cupcake,” Muraven says.
2. Make One Change at a Time
Once you understand that you have only a limited amount of willpower, it’s easy to understand why multiple resolutions aren’t likely to work, says Ian Newby-Clark, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Guelph in Canada. Most resolutions actually require many behavior changes. Sure, some are straightforward, like remembering to take a calcium pill every day — but a successful weight-loss program, for example, calls for more than just a decision to eat less. You have to shop and cook differently, start or ramp up an exercise routine, maybe even ditch certain social or family events. “Thinking through these substrategies boosts success rates,” says Newby-Clark. “But it would take too much attention and vigilance to do all that and also decide it’s time to brush your teeth for the full two minutes and become better informed about world events.”
3. Break It Up
Since your supply of self-control is finite, make resolutions that require small acts of will, not weeks of vigilance. ” ‘Lose 10 pounds’ sounds specific, but it’s less likely to work than behavioral goals like ‘This week I’ll try to go to the gym three times, take the stairs at work at least twice, and bring a healthy lunch every day,’ ” says Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC, and author of the “Baggage Check” column for the Washington Post Express. You’ll feel good when you accomplish each goal, and your success will help bolster your resolve: The better you are at making small changes, the easier it will be for you to keep going.
4. Lift Your Spirits
Watching funny movies — or doing just about anything that puts you in a good mood — also helps when willpower starts wearing down. In a particularly sneaky study, researchers asked a group of 30 hungrystudents to sit in a room that smelled like freshly baked cookies. Although a plate of M&Ms and still-warm cookies was placed within reach, participants were told to snack on a bowl of radishes. Then they were left alone for 10 to 12 minutes in order to exhaust their self-restraint.
Next, some of the students watched a film clip of Robin Williams doing stand-up, while another group viewed a film about dolphins. When, in the last part of the experiment, they were asked to perform a complex tracing project that called for lots of self-control, students who’d seen the funny film stuck with the trying task for about 13 minutes. The Flipper crowd hung in for only nine.
5. Have Some OJ
Self-restraint — stifling your disagreement during a politically charged discussion, for example — can reduce blood glucose to less-than-optimal levels, report Florida State University researchers. But a glass of orange juice or lemonade can replenish your self-control. The brain relies almost exclusively on glucose for energy, so it has to be the real thing — artificially sweetened drinks won’t deliver the jolt.
6. Outwit Your Inner Rebel
To give your willpower some wiggle room, avoid making 100 percent resolutions. “Absolutes like ‘I’m giving up all sweets’ or ‘I’ll never use my credit card again’ set you up to try to get around your own overly strict rules,” says Connie Stapleton, Ph.D., a psychologist in Augusta, GA. Instead, try drafting more limited restrictions like “I’ll have sweets only when I’m in a fancy restaurant.”
7. Crank Up Your Greatest Hits
When you feel discouraged, remind yourself how much you’ve accomplished in the past, suggests Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. “People beat themselves up about still needing to lose the baby weight or no longer going to yoga class. But they overlook the long list of things they have done that required major self-discipline, like building a nest egg or sticking with the computer training they needed in order to get a better job.” Lombardo’s advice: “Write down 100 things you’re proud of, right down to ‘I get out of bed when I don’t want to.’ It’ll remind you how much willpower you really have.”
8. Be Extra Nice (Or Nasty)
Do unto others, and you’ll be doing unto yourself as well. In a Harvard University study, psychologist Kurt Gray, Ph.D., gave 80 participants a dollar, told half the group to keep it and the other half to give it to charity, and then asked all the volunteers to hold a five-pound weight for as long as they could. Those who had donated their buck to a good cause held the weight significantly longer than the “selfish” ones.
But imagining doing something not nice makes us even stronger. In another experiment, Gray asked participants to hold the weight while writing a story that involved their helping someone, harming someone, or doing something neutral. Those who envisioned dastardly deeds held the weight longer than the helpful ones, who in turn beat out the neutrals. Whether we’re doing someone a good turn or a bad one, it increases our feeling of personal power, making it easier to stick with something uncomfortable, says Gray.
9. Use Your Senses
The primitive cravings center is highly susceptible to visual cues, explains Tufts University psychologist Christopher Willard, Psy.D. Draw on the strength of images by putting a photo of a thinner you on the fridge, or a picture of a Caribbean beach in your wallet near your credit cards to remind yourself of the vacation that you’re saving for.
10. Finally, Get Out of Dodge
The same way a sprinter can tell when she doesn’t have another 100 yards in her, “it’s important to know when your resistance is tapped out,” says Dr. Seppala. “Stress will wear it down. So will being hungry or tired.” His advice for those times: Get away from whatever is tempting you until you’ve eaten and rested, which will give your willpower a fighting chance.

Write Your Ticket to Success

People who put their goals on paper are significantly more likely to achieve them than are those who merely make mental vows, research from Dominican University of California has shown. What’s also key: posting your goal in places where you will see it often, says Marvin D. Seppala, M.D., of Hazelden. “Your will matters most the moment you make a resolution — and you’ll want to be able to recapture the intensity of that moment again and again.” Share what you’ve written, too: The Dominican study found that those who told friends or family about their goals did better than those who didn’t, and people who e-mailed their support team weekly progress updates did best of all. Social approval — as in “You look great!” — gives your brain a surge of soothing oxytocin, explains Joseph Shrand, M.D., of Harvard.

“How I Keep My Resolutions”

GH staff members share the tricks that work for them.
“I make it easier for myself by waiting till spring to take on a new challenge. January is a busy time of year (not to mention cold as well as dark in the morning and night!).”
— Cortney Pellettieri, entertainment editor
“I remind myself of times I wanted something even more desirable and was able to resist. Why blow calories on ordinary packaged cake when I turned down a gorgeous pastry at a restaurant the night before?”
— Toni Hope, health director
“I take ballet, which is a marriage of discipline and grace. It’s extraordinarily hard to do it well. But the class is a weekly reminder that I can take on a tough challenge and slowly but surely improve.”
— Jenny Cook, executive editor
“I think of myself as a role model for my 7-year-old son. I tell him that we both want to exercise and eat lots of veggies and fruit so we can be strong and healthy — and then I can’t backslide.”
— Samantha Cassetty, nutrition director, GHRI
“The only time I’ve stuck to a resolution was two years ago, when I set an end date — my 30th birthday in early May. I’d decided that I wanted to get into the best shape of my life. I did it, and I’ve kept up the good habits since.”
— Amy Roberts, associate editor
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