How to Start the Year Strong

A pink planner open to a "yearly theme" page, on a table next to pink and yellow pens and pink and yellow washi tape.

What do you want to accomplish over the next year?

Chances are it’s probably more than one big goal. When you look at the next 12 months, you probably have lots of goals - some big, some small, some related to your current work, and some totally new. 

That is why you need something better than a new year's resolution if you want to make real progress and accomplish your goals this year.


The hard truth is that you aren’t likely to stick with a resolution. Survey after survey has shown that people who set resolutions start off with the best of intentions; they create a meal plan, outline a budget, and think they're off to a good start. But after a few weeks the motivation wears thin and the resolution is basically forgotten.

You’ve more than likely had this experience. It's like starting a marathon in a sprint. You might see a lot of progress at the beginning, but you can’t keep up the momentum for the entire race. 

Psychologists believe there are other contributing factors to failed resolutions, like unrealistic expectations or the inability to measure progress.

That’s why some of the most successful people have dumped resolutions altogether and opted for an annual theme, intention, or in Melinda Gates’s case, a word.

“I do believe in starting the new year with new resolve, but instead of adopting a resolution, I choose a word of the year—a word that encapsulates my aspirations for the twelve months ahead,” she wrote in a 2019 LinkedIn post. The year before, she used the word “grace” and in 2016 it was “gentle.”

These words, she said, are reminders of how she wants to live her life. 

“That’s the power of a well-chosen word of the year. It makes the year better—and it helps me be better, too,” she added.

Setting a theme for the year can be more manageable than a resolution in a lot of ways.

For example, it doesn’t create restrictions. Instead, it opens your eyes to opportunities and feels less limiting, especially if you fall off the wagon on a particular goal or need to switch directions. Instead of viewing your year as pass or fail, a yearly theme is simply a guide for making the right decision as you encounter the many opportunities and obstacles that any year brings.

Like Gates, television titan Shonda Rhimes lived a year by a single word. Hers was “yes.” She said yes to all of the things that made her nervous or out of her comfort zone. 

“A crazy thing happened,” she says in her TedTalk. “The very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear and made it not scary...It’s amazing the power of one word.”

Quite simply, Rhimes had set a theme for her year, and she said it changed her life. Instead of feeling burned out and overworked to the point of no longer loving a career that became her life, she was imagining again and enjoying it all because she was saying “yes.”

Like it did for Rhimes and Gates, setting themes instead of resolutions can open a world of opportunity for you. Whether it be something like “nourish” that allows you to focus on your health or “focus” that helps you drill down into your best work, it’s important to set an intention that will serve you in just the way you need it to.

It's unlikely your yearly theme will pop right into your head. That's okay! Allow it to unfold by giving yourself space to reflect on last year and imagine your hopes for this coming year.

Write out lots of ideas. Think about your ideal year and all the things you have planned or would like to accomplish. It can be anything, from a major career goal to something as simple as wishing for calmer mornings at home. 

As you reflect on last year, ask yourself: what went well? What did you miss out on? If you could have changed one thing, what would it be?

From there you can naturally start to create a brainstorm that leads in a direction that feels right.

Once you have your yearly theme decided, start applying it to as much of your life as possible. Write it down so you can read it often.

Start every week or month by examining how it fits into your schedule. You’ll start to find new ways to challenge yourself and make moves you may never have thought possible. You never know where “yes” (or whatever theme you choose) will take you. 

Next, define your goals. At the beginning of the year, how you fulfill your theme may not be totally obvious. Sometimes it can feel like working backwards, and in a way it is. Instead of the linear direction resolutions often take you, themes allow you freedom to move and expand and retreat when necessary.

Themes can be these very abstract ideas, but they also have the ability to direct our goals. Maybe a year of “nourishment” looks like cooking more or maybe it looks like more time for quiet reading at home. Allow yourself to feel your theme and how it can touch all the areas of your life.

Even though a yearly theme is an anti-resolution of sorts, make sure to check-in on it from time to time, just like you would with any big goal. Themes can be just as easy to abandon as resolutions if you aren't keeping them on your mind.

As with any goal or lifestyle change, you’ll have to work at it until it becomes a habit.

Ask yourself often what your theme is bringing to your life, how you’re adapting to it, and what you can do to get the most of it as possible. Change or adapt when necessary, and remember that it’s okay to do so! You have the freedom to fit it to your life accordingly.

Flexibility is strength, and that is what your yearly theme provides that a new year's resolution cannot. As you change and grow, your theme will change and grow with you, allowing you to become the best version of yourself that you possibly could be this year.

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