I’m not a big fan of resolutions (Merlin captures why pretty well) but I am a big fan of thinking I can be a better person than I have been up to this point and that there’s something, something, about the advent of a new year that fills me with optimism about that whole being better idea. In an effort to keep some coherence between these potentially opposing ideas I’ve adopted a thought technology I’m pretty sure I first heard discussed by Myke Hurley and CGP Grey on Cortex; the Yearly Theme.
Before you accuse me of playing a semantic game in a veiled attempt to set a new year resolution by simply dressing it up in fancy new clothes, let me try to explain their differences as I see them. A canonical new year resolution is generally a goal. It’s a statement of how you want to be different in the future and is usually pretty specific. This is what makes it feel good in the short-term (“It’s so clear and so simple!”) and what sets you up for failure in the long-term (“This turns out to be harder than I thought,” or, “January-Me had no idea what July-Me needed to do so let’s forget this whole thing…”). Meaningful personal change almost by definition takes a long time to accomplish and a resolution seductively simplifies the complex process into uselessness.
A Yearly Theme, on the other hand, is much more open-ended. Instead of a specific decision about how you or your situation is going to be different in the future, it’s a guiding statement or phrase that can help you make decisions across many different situations and scenarios. Its generality gives it more staying power because it can evolve and reveal new layers of meaning as you (hopefully!) grow alongside it. Plus, and this may be the biggest advantage it has going for it, it’s nearly impossible to fail at a theme. You can’t fail your theme in January, or June, or ever. You can just have variation in the extent to which you’re using it to guide your life and you always have the option of reaffirming and refocusing on it if you want to.
How to pick a yearly theme
A good yearly theme starts tickling the back of your head a couple months before you even realize what it is. It’s not the type of thing that you just sit down and make a rational and intellectual decision about. You’ve gotta live with this thing for a year and you need it to resonate with you on an emotional — nearly spiritual — level if you want it to mean anything 10 months from now.
It starts with noticing the points of your life where you feel particularly good about who you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re interfacing with the world. It continues with noticing the points of your life where you feel particularly shitty about who you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re interfacing with the world. The noticing of these individual moments hopefully turns into the noticing of patterns. The noticing of these patterns hopefully turns into profound personal insights about what makes you tick. These insights will form the foundation of your yearly theme.
You can see many of my insights in my 2018 recap article. These will become the launch pad for my 2019 theme: The Year of The Deliberate.
The Year of the Deliberate
I’ll try to keep this short considering variations on this idea are likely to inform nearly everything I write for the foreseeable future (that’s kind of the point of having a theme). The shortest version is that I’ve always been fascinated by what is possible when people deliberately use their attention and that the ability to do anything deliberately seems to be under profound attack in our current environment. On a personal level, which is the level that any Yearly Theme should certainly resonate strongest, I’ve noticed over the past several years, but particularly in the past year, that my best days are driven by a sense of having been deliberate in what I did and my worst days are characterized by the opposite.
In 2019 I almost don’t care what I do as long as I do it deliberately.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. There are four things that are going to serve as my Deliberate Anchor. They’re best summed up by this drawing:
Read = read a book, Write = write anything, Sit = meditate, Move = exercise
This is my easiest measure of whether or not I had a “good” day. When I do these things I generally feel good. When I miss any of these for a significant period of time I tend to feel bad. I created this drawing a couple months ago as I tried to articulate the simplest and most essential way to feel good about myself on a daily basis (see my comment earlier about a good yearly theme starting as a tickle in the back of your head…). Now that I’ve been using this little drawing every day for a couple months I want to see what I can accomplish by really focusing on it.
Like any good theme, though, I suspect the Year of Deliberate will be more than just me achieving my Deliberate Anchor every day. It’s going to come through in my writing — both for myself and The Ready (in fact, I just super soft-launched a newsletter called The Deliberate where I’ll be exploring some these ideas). It’ll be showing up in my own daily habits around media consumption, the news, relationships, and personal growth (I’m pretty excited to share a Personal Development Kanban Board that I’m pretty sure is the #1 reason I was able to kick a 30 year old nail-biting habit at the end of last year) and assuredly so much more that I can’t even think of, yet.
It’s not too late if you haven’t set your own Yearly Theme, yet. The rollover from 2018 to 2019 may provide a nice short-term motivational boost but there’s no rule that you can’t start your Yearly Theme on January 12th, May 23rd, or November 15th! And if you have set a theme, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. I’ve noticed that hearing other people talk about their own themes can be strangely motivating to articulate and adhere to my own theme so you’ll be providing a service to me and anyone else who makes it to the end of this article.
Have a wonderfully deliberate year!