Put a Theme to Work

After discovering that goals and real change aren't the same thing,  I let go of achievement oriented goal setting. Instead, for the past 10 years I've set a theme for the year. It guides and focuses my mindset -- and my actions. It's also a great tool when in transition. This is the third in a series about how to make deeper change stick.

You can read more about the genesis of this shift which was guided by research. My 2015 retrospective is here. This article is about the theme I picked for 2016 and how I incorporate this sort of deep change into my daily life throughout the year.


2016 Theme: Let Go

In early September 2015, I noticed that I cared less when acquaintances fell away. I started being less anxious about which seat I got on a plane. I stopped treating things I didn’t need like a security blanket. Then in October I went to a retreat where I did yoga four times in 48 hours. Before the retreat I worried that I couldn’t keep up. This feat showed me that I was stronger than I thought and — that I listened to silly fears too often.

This year I’m focusing on my relationship with fear. I wouldn’t call myself especially fearful but, rather than letting go and trusting that I can catch myself, I cling too often. I tend towards hyper-responsibility which is helpful for my business. But it causes high levels of stress when not managed. Sometimes I think taking on too much responsibility is partially about fear. I’m delving into this in 2016.

The kernel for 2016’s theme actually started a year earlier in 2015, when I went on an extreme decluttering of clothes, keeping only those I loved. I sent more than 14 bags to local charity. For a devout clothes hoarder, it was an extreme version of letting go. By keeping only what I loved, I started to feel happier, I began getting dressed every morning (I work from a home office). What I thought would be hard, turned out to be liberating. Letting go was far easier than I thought. I’m actually looking forward to the practice of letting go in 2016. 


Putting a theme to work

Once I have the theme I find ways to incorporate it throughout the year. Often the long retrospective period embeds the theme into me. I also find other ways to keep it top of mind. Sometimes I turn it into a mantra. For example this year the mantra might be: What if I just let go?  (yes, that song from Frozen is on repeat in my head. I could karaoke the crap out of it by now.)

I've also written my theme on something that I stick in front of my desk. At the beginning of the year I also give myself a set of questions to ponder.

Questions I'm asking myself this year:

  • What if I trusted that things will be alright?
  • When am I holding on and how will I know when to let go? 
  • What would happen if I just allowed things to unfold naturally?

Everyone is different when it comes to incorporating something like this into thoughts. For some, just the deep introspection is enough. Others need constant reminders around them. Just find a way to make it part of your daily life.

Want to read about the research behind the problems with goals or learn how to set your own theme? Check out the Anti-Goals Guide.



2015 Retrospective

Though incredibly goal-oriented for most my life, I largely gave them up 10 years ago when I realized that goals don't always lead to real change. Rather than trying to lose 10 pounds or set a revenue goal, I set a theme for the year, something to guide my learning, helping to fuel lasting change. I've also found the theme helpful when I'm going through a transition. 

As a part of setting a theme for the coming year, I do a retrospective. Sometimes I sit down with a journal, taking notes. Other times I look through spreadsheets of my revenue and how I spent my time. I even look through my physical calendar. (yes, I'm old school) Mostly though, I meditate and ruminate on the past year. This is the result of my 2015 review.

2015 Theme: Boundaries

In December 2014, I did my first beach yoga class. As the waves lulled my ever-moving brain into submission, I relaxed into the moment. The yoga teacher invited us to be fearless with our practice. She urged us to relax the expectations we set for our bodies. After the class I thought a lot about expectations and even more about boundaries.

I kept thinking about boundaries, eventually making my 2015 theme. It wasn’t one I consciously wanted, but it was the one that kept coming back over and over again. Frankly, it was a little uncomfortable. I had solid boundaries so why did I need to focus on them again?

Given a propensity for over-responsibility, setting strong boundaries has been critical for me.  When you lack strong boundaries, your business suffers. When I first started out, my boundaries were atrocious. My hunger for business allowed my boundaries to wobble and bend. You don't even want to know what I accepted as payment when I started. I'll write about it at some point.

Luckily, I quickly learned that having your own business makes stellar boundaries critical. Having worked on this skill over the years, I thought I had boundaries licked. Still, I trusted my instincts. So in 2015, I focused on the lines I drew. 

Early in the year I discovered that my boundaries with others were solid—I stuck to my guns—even when others didn’t like it. The problem wasn’t boundaries with others — the problem was within me. I’m a notorious “and, and, and” person. I want everything—and I want it now. This habit meant trouble with internal boundaries. If I had a great idea, I followed it — even when I had 5 other projects. When I wanted to buy something, I did. I’m being a bit facetious but compared to where I am now, this is a fairly apt description of my attitude.

My theme also showed me where I needed more boundaries with my work. I'd worried about putting all my business eggs in one basket—even though it was a basket I’d been building for most of my career. I was holding onto side projects rather than focusing on a deeper, more important one. A few months in, it became clear why my instincts chose boundaries as a theme. 

How I Bet On Myself In 2015

Focus. In the beginning of 2015, I was brimming with ideas. Too many ideas. Somewhere around May I got very clear that I wasn’t going to be successful at any of them unless I focused my attention on one. I picked Bet On Yourself. Outside of client work, I spent the entire summer focused on writing a first draft of the book. My deadline was XOXO, a festival for independent creators, held in mid-September. I printed the manuscript the night before I left. I’d been trying to write this book for over a year. Once I dropped the rest of my pet projects (ahem, distractions) the task was far easier. 

Well-being. Chronic health issues that left me constantly fatigued lead me to go on the Whole30 eating plan in March. Whole30 has strict guidelines, but really, it's about paying attention to your relationship with food. The insights were astounding.

I tend to eat too little. Some foods disagree with my constitution no matter how much I love them (goodbye, beloved cheese). I even saw how easily I succumb to my workaholic ways, shunning self care. The shift in the way I treated myself lead me to kept going for 90 days. Though I’ve eased my eating a bit, Whole30 is now a way of life for me.

Biggest Disappointment 

After spending most of 2014 with a foot in a surgical shoe due to injuries, I was looking forward to a healthy 2015. But I still struggled with my health due to chronic illness. I finally realized that my condition was something to be managed rather than wished away. Though it was disappointing to deal with these health issues, it helped me strengthen my boundaries.

Biggest Lesson Learned

Internal boundaries are just as important as external ones. This year the importance of outer and inner boundaries became utterly clear like a squeaky clean window. If you want real change, you have to look inside, not just outside.

What I did in 2015

- Had an essay published 

- Read 62 books 

- Got a bookkeeper and a strategic financial advisor for my business 

- Started doing yoga again 5x/week 

- Highest year of revenue 

- Finished a Whole30 cycle and continued on for a total of 90 days

- Transformed my eating and relationship with food

- Wrote three essays for a popular blog

- Finally reached inbox zero (for the very first time)

Why Having a Theme Matters

By focusing on making deep change, I actually accomplished more than when I had long lists of goals and resolutions.

The irony is not lost on this reformed goal setter. 

Really, all these accomplishments are secondary to what I learned by paying attention to my theme. Boundaries are closely linked to making choices which meant I made better ones. Solidifying my boundaries also shifted my confidence dramatically. I looked toward 2016 focused and clear.

In the third post in this series, I share my 2016 theme and how to put your theme to work.

Want to read about the research behind the problems with goals or learn how to set your own theme? Check out the Anti-Goals Guide.

Goals Vs. Real Change

For the past two years I’ve spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square, the epicenter of NYE celebrations. You won’t find me standing on a street corner with the rest of the revelers. Instead, I’ve been tucked inside a theater adjacent to Times Square watching my partner’s favorite band perform. Though in the past I’d prefer to be at home alone, I started going to the shows with my partner out of love and then because of an intention I set one year to have more fun. 

Each year, as I walked through the crowds, on the faces of nearly every reveler, was the desire to be better or to escape something. I used to be that way. These days I don’t want to escape from anything but I still want to be my best self. NYE resolutions grow from this desire to be better — and from the natural transition of a new year. A clean slate, a chance to start anew, is so very enticing.

This is why we have outgrowths of NYE goals like sober January. Structures like this aren't a bad thing. They just aren't the most powerful way to change your life.

Much of the advice on self-change programs is based on tangibles like goals and habits which generally produce surface change at best. "Experts" tell us that we just need 21 days to make something a habit, with the promise of real change implied.

Goals might help you get a laundry list of goals complete, but rarely produce the real change you seek. And the advice that it only takes 21 days to form a habit? Research shows it can take 12 times longer to make a habit stick.

Sustainable change happens over time and is largely guided by your mindset. I've always been goal-oriented so this was a hard lesson for me to learn. My goal orientation was so strong that when I kid, I consistently won sales contests. It didn't matter what I was selling, I had to hit a goal. My early jobs all had timelines, milestones and goals embedded in the job description. I learned the really hard way that goals don't always mean change. It led me on a years-long journey to understand the research behind motivation, growth and change.

Finally, 10 years ago I let go of self-change programs like resolutions. But I didn't let go of the notion that I could be a better version of myself so I starting doing a theme for the year. The theme serves as guide, helping me focus. It allows me to make meaningful progress in an area of my life.

I'm still a recovering Type A so the need to meet imaginary standards creeps up once in a while. But now on the rare chance I set a goal, they look more like intentions and are always an outgrowth of the theme.


If you want to read more of the research and learn how to set your own theme, check out the Anti-Goals Guide.