Yearly Theme Cover

How to Set a Theme for Your Year

You’re an ambitious person. You set goals for yourself, and then you hustle to achieve them. You’ve never shied away from working hard to get what you want.

But maybe this sounds familiar: For some reason, despite all you’ve accomplished, you still feel unsettled. The milestones that were supposed to bring you a sense of contentment never did — and now you’re worried that whatever you do will never be enough.

You can put your worries to rest. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not wired to be unhappy. You’re just using the wrong system.

In his book Happier, the Harvard researcher Tal Ben-Shahar describes what he calls “the arrival fallacy” — the false hope that “reaching some future destination will bring lasting happiness.” The arrival fallacy is what makes you think, “If I could make $10,000 more each year, then I’d be set.”

Once you hit that goal, however, you don’t feel any different. So what do you do? You set a new, higher goal, and start hustling again.

If you allow your level of fulfillment to be a by-product of your goals, you’ll spend a lot of time feeling unfulfilled. But there’s a way to reverse this dynamic: having a theme.

A yearly theme is a baseline ideal, one that you use to guide your actions and decisions. It isn’t worried about tomorrow, nor does it care what happened yesterday. With a theme, all that matters is what you do today. It turns happiness into an attainable, daily standard that’s based on your behavior, not your accomplishments.

For the past five years, I have set a one-word theme for myself:

  • In 2015, it was “commit.” I committed to the idea of becoming a writer, and spent a lot of my time practicing in public, even if I didn’t make a cent from it.
  • For 2016, it was “invest.” I spent 2,000 hours building a website that would go on to provide a full-time income two years later.
  • In 2017, my theme was “grow.” I tried lots of new things to become a better writer, entrepreneur, and person, all while nurturing my projects.
  • For 2018, it was “leverage.” I doubled down on what worked, which helped me grow my income.
  • In 2019, my theme was “focus.” I knew that as I matured as an entrepreneur, I needed to learn to skip good opportunities in order to keep working on great ones. With every invitation, I asked myself, “Does this add to or take away from my focus?” If a venture didn’t fit, I shut it down.

The beauty of a one-word theme is that it allows you to compare all your thoughts, actions, and decisions against a single, universal standard. All you need is to ask a simple question: “Is this aligned with my theme?” For instance, if your theme is “learn,” you can catch yourself when you’re acting closed-minded — say, you’ve always scoffed at the idea of hiring a business coach, but then you suddenly get an opportunity to chat with one. You can rise above your past assumptions and ask, “What can I learn here?”

A theme doesn’t require perfection. Think of it more as a meditation for your life’s trajectory. There’s no judgment if you lose your way for a while. Just work your way back to your baseline when you can.

A few tips to get you started: Words that work as both verb and noun, like “focus” or “love,” often make for good themes. Plain old verbs can work, too — “thrive,” or “create,” for example. Nouns work, but they can feel a bit abstract.

Also, make sure your theme is positive. For example, instead of setting your theme as “sacrifice,” you might want to use “help” or “love.” Your resulting behavior will be similar, but the emotions surrounding it might be quite different. Sacrificing three days to speak at a conference sucks, but helping the people you meet there is wonderful.

I like to create a reminder of my theme that I’ll constantly bump into. I usually design a simple phone and desktop wallpaper that displays the word.

For 2020, my theme is “balance.” After working hard on my career for the past few years, I’d now like to make more time for relationships, health, and enjoying my free time. I also hope to find balance in my career and settle into a rhythm that I can sustain for the long haul.

What will your yearly theme be? Whatever word you choose, consider it daily, and watch how you change.