The more New Year’s resolutions you set, the faster you’ll feel like a failure.
I used to pick five, seven, ten new goals each year. Sadly, making it from New Year’s Eve to January 1st never turned me into Superman. I was still the same old me, still hopelessly overwhelmed with trying to change too much all at once. Within a month or so, I failed and had to start over. Smaller. With lower expectations.
For a few years, I gave up on resolutions entirely. Then, instead of a barrage of targets, I tried setting one goal, and that worked a lot better. The real game-changer, however, was using a different concept altogether. That concept is a theme.
A theme is a laid-back, human-proof, considerate approach to improvement. Having set one for several years, I now think themes are 10x, maybe 100x better than goals. Let me explain why and how you can set one.
Goals are a bad way of trying to achieve happiness. But why?
First, goals are a constant source of pressure until you achieve them. They undermine your self-worth. You feel like you “lack” the result of the goal, and until you fix it, your self-esteem will remain in the dumps.
Second — and this is even worse — when you do achieve a goal, your sense of fulfillment never lasts. You celebrate for a minute, then move the goal post (pun intended) and set your sights on the next one.
Let’s say you want to be a millionaire. You work your ass off, but for the better part of a decade, you feel totally inadequate. You constantly compare yourself to existing millionaires and always come to the same conclusion: You’re not measuring up. Regardless, you grit your teeth and persist. One day, you hit the magic $1 million mark. You jump with joy. You pop the champagne. You walk around like you own the world for a day.
The next morning, however, you wake up and go: “Okay, now what?” You realize the million means nothing. Maybe it’s not liquid. You don’t actually have it in cash. And anyway, it’s not enough. A million’s not what it used to be! You start worrying about inflation. You look up house prices. My god, a flat now costs $500,000! It only takes a few minutes for you to decide you need $10 million instead.
This might sound ridiculous, but you know it’s true. Moments like this happen all the time. Every day, millions of people turn their greatest achievements into ashes in their minds.
Imagine you’ve just gone through such a scenario. You can still taste the bitterness of a sober realization in your mouth. Now, here’s the big question:
Probably not. That’s what you’re really throwing away: Time. Time you could have spent feeling happy as a clam, slowly making progress. Instead, you spent it fretting about a future that didn’t last. Therefore, repeat after me: Goals are a terrible way of trying to find happiness.
Okay, but why should themes be any better?
First, a theme gives you a singular, universal standard against which you can compare all your thoughts, actions, and decisions. This standard is simple but meaningful, realistic yet ambitious.
For every challenge you face, you’ll only need one question: “Is this in line with my theme?” If your theme is “health,” there’ll likely be few circumstances under which sacrificing sleep is okay. If your theme is “work,” hanging with friends might have to take a back seat for a while. The right choice in any situation will become clearer because you’ll now have a compass to point you in the right direction.
Second, a theme isn’t worried about tomorrow, nor does it care what happened yesterday. All that matters is what you do today. A theme turns happiness into a daily, attainable standard based only on your behavior, not your achievements. Failed today? No problem. Tomorrow is another chance.
In 2021, my theme was “Matter:” I wanted to focus on the people, projects, and experiences I truly cared about and that could make a real difference in other people’s lives. For most of the year, I struggled, particularly with work. My income halved from the year before. I started four books yet barely managed to finish one.
But all the way through, my theme gave me peace. It made me feel confident in my choices. It helped me stay calm. Knowing I was living up to my theme — prioritizing what mattered — made it easier to make the hard choices that were uncomfortable but necessary. In the end, I managed to publish my first book after seven years of writing only articles, and I felt good about the year overall, despite 2021 being far from my best. That’s the power of a theme.
So, what makes a good theme?
First, your theme should be a single word to guide you through the year. It must not be complicated. Otherwise, you won’t naturally remember it right when you need it the most.
Second, I’ve found the best themes to be words that can act both as verbs and nouns. Here are some examples: Love, Balance, Focus, Act, Share, Grace, Believe, Work, Move, Rest.
If you want to choose a theme for 2022, start by asking a simple question: “What’s the theme I need the most right now — based on what happened in 2021?”
Personally, I reset my career this year. I went from writing essays to books and had to start from scratch. It was a long, hard year, but it laid the foundation for the next ten. I wanted my new theme to reflect that; to include elements of rest while ensuring I stay on course. In order to appreciate the new direction I’ve established while (hopefully) managing to write more books, my theme for 2022 will be “Joy.”
I will write the books I enjoy writing. Books I think will bring others joy. I will also spend more time on hobbies, being with family, and going on adventures with my girlfriend — activities to cultivate joy in my life. After a year of “Matter,” I need a year of “Joy.” What do you need more of right now?
If you want more ideas for potential themes, you can look at the ones I set over the past seven years:
- 2015: Commit
- 2016: Invest
- 2017: Grow
- 2018: Leverage
- 2019: Focus
- 2020: Balance
- 2021: Matter
As a tip, start with the first word that comes to your mind and feels like it has the right overall “direction.” Then, use a thesaurus to look up its synonyms. Usually, you’ll find one word in particular that has both the perfect spin and sound to it. Instead of “Execute,” which sounds harsh and demanding, you could try “Grow,” “Build,” or “Progress,” for example.
Finally, if you want to make your theme ever-present, I suggest choosing a dedicated wallpaper each year. I pick an image that visually resonates with me and/or has some personal meaning. Then, I write my one-word theme on it and set it as the background image on my phone and desktop. Here are some examples:
In 2022, instead of setting goals, try a one-word theme. You’ll be surprised how easy and efficient it is. Your theme will work for you both consciously and subconsciously, and you won’t feel the usual regret, pressure, and anxiousness associated with goals.
What will be your one-word theme?