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Blog // Productivity
December 20, 2020

How To Choose Your Yearly Theme

Yearly themes have become more popular as an alternative to new year’s resolutions. Here’s a guide to choosing your yearly theme.

The end of the year invites introspection. In amongst the gifts and celebrations, it’s natural to look back, and, as we start another year, we hope life will be better.

We set goals and make New Year’s resolutions. But so often, they don’t work. Abandoned, sometimes before the end of January, these resolutions prove to be useless as guideposts for the rest of the year. All they do is add to feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

There is another way: choosing a yearly theme.

The Yearly Theme Philosophy

Resolutions encourage you to look at life as a series of tests you pass or fail. That’s a tough path to walk, especially if you’re into the slow task of personal growth. The inevitable risk of failure could well encourage you to just give up.

A yearly theme is different. It isn’t a test. You don’t pass or fail. A yearly theme can adapt to changing circumstances because it can be explored in different ways.

Take the classic New Year’s resolution: going to the gym more often. It’s a nice idea. But what if a few weeks go by and you haven’t gone for a workout? Or your local gym shuts down? Are you tempted to give up? What happens to those hopes you tied to your gym-going resolution? Is anything going to get you closer to feeling or looking better, for example?

What if, instead of setting a resolution like going to the gym, you choose a theme like health? Health can express itself in a lot of different ways. Exercise in a gym is just one path to health. Eating well and getting enough sleep are a couple of alternatives. You might discover gyms don’t work for you, but some other exercise does. Maybe illness or injury changes your ability to exercise, and health takes on a whole different meaning. Maybe the path to health starts with a visit to the doctor instead of the gym.

Yearly Themes Are Growth-Oriented

Yearly themes are adaptable, creative, and holistic. As your circumstances and needs change, your yearly theme can be implemented in ways you might not have imagined at the start of the year.

New Year’s resolutions encourage you to look to the past and focus on what you don’t like about yourself. Failure causes you to doubt yourself and your potential to grow. Year after year of broken resolutions becomes a story that suggests you might not have the ability to grow.

Yearly themes help you embody a growth mindset. They’re future-oriented and invite you to develop multi-faceted strategies for becoming better. This helps keep your focus on the way your positive attributes are developing. Living with yearly themes encourages you to trust in your creativity and your ability to adapt to what life throws at you.

How To Choose A Yearly Theme

Trying to pick a clever word out of thin air is really hard. The way I do it is a little less arduous.

Take a piece of paper and draw three columns. In the first column, make a list of the things you felt were missing from this year, in your personal life, in your work, in the world around you. You’re looking for the gaps, the inadequacies, the limitations. Then, in the next column, make a list of things you want more of in the coming year. You’ll naturally start with things that were missing, but move your focus onto things that are already part of your life, but you want to experience more. Now draw some lines from one column to another. You’re trying to make connections and common themes. Explore the paths that can take you from one item to another.

As you do this, make a list in the third column of words that describe these connections, paths, and themes.

Think about the processes you might need to commit to in the coming year to make these things happen. Look for the nouns and verbs you’d use to explain those commitments. Focus on the ones that evoke strong feelings in you.

This is your list of potential yearly themes.

Now narrow down your list of potentials to a few words and live with them for a little while. It might be that your yearly theme isn’t even on the list yet but considering the short list finally gets you there. You’re looking for a word that works in three different ways:

Enigmatic – your yearly theme should be like a good question, the kind of thing that would make someone say, “Interesting. Tell me more.”
Extensive – your yearly theme should cover as many of those areas of life you wanted to address as possible and those paths you wanted to travel. It should address both your work life and your personal life.
Fructable – your yearly theme should be able to bear fruit. It should encourage your growth mindset and generate ideas and inspiration.

Putting This Into Practice

Focus, Luxury, and Style were all on the shortlist for my 2018 yearly theme. I chose Simple instead. Those other ideas all spoke to some aspect of life, but Simple encapsulated them all. Focus wasn’t enigmatic. Style wasn’t extensive enough. And Luxury wasn’t fructable. It was hard to see how it would generate interesting ideas.

For 2020, I was almost decided on Novation as my yearly theme. But again, it didn’t feel quite right. Then, at the start of a ski run, my instructor said, “Momentum is your friend.” And Momentum turned out to be a much better yearly theme.

A Few Yearly Theme Questions

Can you have more than one yearly theme? Yes. I don’t, but some people do. Some people have different themes for work and personal life. Some choose a sub-theme for a particular hobby or project.

Can you change your yearly theme? Yes. If it doesn’t work, probably you should change it. I was originally inspired to try yearly themes by the Cortex Podcast and one of the hosts changed his theme for 2020 because of the pandemic.

Can you use seasonal or monthly themes instead? Yes, you could. I use seasonal themes in conjunction with my yearly theme.  But they aren’t totally different. Changing your theme so often would fragment the power of sticking with a yearly theme.

Putting Your Yearly Theme To Work For You

Once you’ve chosen a yearly theme, remind yourself of it regularly. An easy way is to set a daily reminder in your calendar app. Just create a new all-day event and set it to repeat every day at a time you’re likely to see it (mine is set for 11am). If you use a paper calendar, you can write it at the top of each month or week. You could also incorporate it into your bullet journal if you use one,  or as a prompt in your journaling habit.

You don’t need to be thinking about your yearly theme all day every day. But it’s good to be reminded of it when you face a problem or need to make a decision. And it’s remarkable how using a yearly theme starts to give your choices a sense of flow and purpose.

If you’d like to dive into this some more, here are the themes I’ve chosen in recent years, along with explanations for why I chose each one.

2018 – Simple
2019 – Conviction
2020 – Momentum
2021 – Imagination
2022 – Tensegrity
2023 – Savour
2024 – Frequency


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