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A Timely Resolve For the New Year

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FOR veteran list-makers, no list of Things To Do This Week would be complete without an end-of-the-year reminder: Make New Year's resolutions.

In theory, at least, this is the season of impending reformation - a time to shed old habits, stand up straight, and march efficiently into the new year. Whether the resolutions are small ("Lose five pounds." "Get in shape.") or large ("Change careers." "Get married."), all things seem possible to post-Christmas list-makers contemplating a new calendar and a fresh start.

In practice, though, New Year's resolutions appear to have fallen on hard times. For all of Americans' earnest talk about progress and new beginnings, many good intentions seem long on wishful thinking, short on firm resolve. Behavior experts warn, in fact, that resolutions typically have a distressingly short shelf life, leaving would-be reformers to wonder: Why bother?

Yet why not? Wish lists have their place. What are resolutions, after all, but a longing for reordered priorities and a better life?

What is emerging as the priority of the '90s? To backtrack a little, what was the priority of the '80s? For the Yuppies - remember them? - there was the famous obsession with "making it." The currency of the '80s was, well, currency, and lots of it.

Resolutions are the other side of statements of what is perceived to be missing in life. The basic resolution of the '80s - to get rich quick - led directly to another form of poverty. In "making it," the Yuppies ran short of time.

The basic resolution of the '90s is to find more time, even at the expense of "making it," even at the expense of money.

Time for relationships. Time for family. Time to be alone. Time to do more of what you want to do. The ideal of the '90s is to retire marginally while still on the job.

Yet time is just what life in the '90s does not seem to offer. Companies have tightened the belt, leaving fewer employees to do more work. Each year the time spent - wasted - in commuting gets longer and longer. One of the best bumper stickers of the year, spotted, appropriately enough, during rush hour in Boston, sums up the longing for less time on the road: "I'd Rather Be Telecommuting."

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