The reason I don’t like goals is they either feel so arbitrary they become meaningless – or they make a promise about something we don’t actually have control over. Intentions are something that make much more sense to me, as it sets a direction I can work towards regardless of what progress has been made. It inspires me. A goal doesn’t.
When I first came across the concept of a Yearly Theme it almost took my breath away. Finally I had a framing for my resistance towards goals and a way to solidify my abstract thinking and cultivate action from it. I’ve had one every year since I first came across the idea.
YEARLY THEME: A SOLIDIFIED INTENTION
Yearly theme is all about intentions, it’s almost like a vision – and the best vision incorporates a solution to something that is bothering you. Something you’re looking to improve, either because you’re lacking there or you have some crazy ambitious plans that require you to direct all your energy there.
A good vision is intangible and aspirational. By definition, it works when it’s abstract and ‘stretchy’, and doesn’t have one outcome of success. There are many possible tactics, but it becomes true when the outcome is realized. Something so grandiose and abstract by its very nature can’t be put down on a checklist. It seems like it would be even worse than goals but it isn’t for me.
So to know what vision makes sense, we need to set our intentions. To set our intentions, we need to identify what matters to us. What we care about.
The more honest, the better it works. It can be crushing to dig into what is either something you so deeply desire, or what problem is so overwhelming that tackling it head on is not only worthwhile, but it helps build a better life.
And digging into that truth becomes incredibly powerful. While this work feels intangible and abstract, it’s more powerful than anything else I’ve ever done.
MY THEMES 2021 & 2022
Once you know what you care about, the rest (at least for me) just kind of falls into place. When I picked the Year of Flourishing, my theme for 2021, I wanted to prioritize my own self even when I felt like it was in conflict with the community around me. That was the hardest thing for me at the time, and I needed to be okay with the time it took to find a new balance in that environment.
In that context, the Year of Harmony (a more poetic and aspirational word for balance) was a natural next step for 2022. How to balance community, self, and a relentless workload in a way that is productive and healthy. That’s what my 2022 was about. You can listen more about it on MWW 43.
The success of 2021 made me go harder than I ever have on the planning for 2022. I reflected. I figured out what is missing from my life. What frustrates me. What drives me crazy. What makes me excited enough to get out of bed when it’s always dark. How do I want all of these things to play off of each other?
A theme for me isn’t really a work thing, it’s a life thing. I have always done a yearly theme, but I know a seasonal theme works for others, like it has for for Hailley a couple of times, or setting an intention over a defined period like a pregnancy or a big move. So you do you, but it’s yearly for me.
The 12 Life Dimensions has become the default mode for me to check in and reflect. I don’t just do it at the end of the year, I sometimes do it when there’s an upcoming change – in season or in life, or if I’m feeling particularly frustrated or overwhelmed. The reason I like it is that it prompts reflection on every aspect of life and whatever might be going on in the deep dark subconscious normally finds a way to surface through there.
We go through extraordinary lengths to avoid pain. This is why we are addicted to food, alcohol, Netflix, the gym, endless scrolling etc. Sometimes our avoidance of pain causes ourselves more pain, different pain. But pain is where truth lives. Truths like: are you lonely? are you broke? are you living in a shitty town that doesn’t tolerate modern perspectives? are you surrounded by people who look like friends but are actually poison for your mind? are you too big which makes everything else harder? do you have physical pain you’re ignoring? do you spend all your time on the sofa because you’re too lethargic and depressed to find your focus? These are hard things to acknowledge. But pain points to problems. And problems have solutions. Tangible solutions.
FIND THE WORD
After reflecting like that I’m normally left with a pretty clear idea of either what’s wrong or where I want to go next. Normally a word or a direction emerges to me clearly from that process. The trick is to frame the theme around a word that really resonates.
I don’t mind mulling things over for a while. I started thinking about my theme for 2022 in the fall of 2021. And it’s one of these things that when you know, you know. For 2021 I did active brainstorming to find the word, for 2022 I was inspired by a tweet. Inspiration can come from anywhere, it’s about being attuned to this way of thinking.
Reflecting on what areas of life could be in a better place; what does a better place look like, and then: how can an idea of a direction be reflected in a single word. This really is an exercise in abstract thinking, concept work almost.
If you’re familiar with ‘album eras’ some pop-stars do, where they create a whole new look and feel and theme around each album, this is very similar work. If you are a visual thinker, pull together a mood-board, what colours pop for you; is there a way to visualise your intention.
Visual representation gives our minds something to hold on to when trying to grasp abstract ideas. I love photography, branding; ‘aesthetics’ – so taking the time to decide how I want my theme to be reflected visually pays dividends every single day as it frames my environment, especially my digital workspaces. It seems like a stretch to go from reflecting on how I feel conflicted in my environment to putting cherry blossoms on my computer background, but that’s how I get there.
I ‘copy’ the concept of an album era to my yearly theme. Once I recognsie what I want, my mind goes into thinking through “how can I find subtle ways to bring me there in my day-to-day?” An easy way is with desktop wallpapers. iPhone homescreens. iPhone focus modes. Even choice of emoji in your todo lists. And then I create the visuals. Here for example are my desktop backgrounds I made for 2021.
It’s a way of bringing intentionality into my everyday. It sets up little reminders and routines that invite the question: “what was it that we wanted to do now?” and sets up the space for that with ease.
It sounds like a lot, but it’s really about being honest with yourself and what you want; solidifying that intention in a way that is meaningful to you, and then creating reminders and routines to set yourself up for working on what matters to you on a daily basis.
If this is your first time, don’t overcomplicate it – I only share my approach in case it sparks someone else’s flow.
If this doesn’t resonate, don’t let this be another thing you stress about, please. The true purpose of a theme is to be a gentle approach to enacting positive life change by creating a subtle structure to rest your intentions on.
Extra bonus points if you find a way to cross the representation of your yearly theme dictates with the PARA method, i.e. how you structure all your folders, todo-lists, documents and other day-to-day resources.
It’s hard for me to articulate just how meaningful yearly themes have been, so all I can really do is share my approach. You can listen to MWW43 to hear more about my 2022, and how my theme helped me work through some complex dynamics. I ticked of major milestones this year, and quicker than I ever thought possible. So this post is titled “how yearly themes propel me” yet the answer is an unsatisfying “I don’t actually know. All I know is that it does work.”
All I know is that reflecting on your frustrations and your wants, the good and the bad; and then deciding the direction you want things to go into, it sets in motion something bigger than ourselves. And it absolutely works. It’s like magic.