Even though nothing special actually happens on January 1st, we like to think that it is the perfect time to start anew and become a better you. We set goals and resolutions for the New Year in the hopes of making a positive life change, but we quickly find that it is insanely hard to change our behaviours.
Our brains love defaulting to the lazy option and will justify bad behaviours, so we fall into the cycle of mediocrity and bad habits. This is why in January, we see the gym full of people of steely resolve aiming to lose weight, but by February, the gym has cleared out and only the regular exercisers remain.
We can combat this tendency (and cliché) for New Year’s resolutions failing with SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-based), such as “I want to lose 5kg of weight within one year”. Having a clear, realistic goal that can be reviewed along the way is much more effective than a vague resolution that can easily be forgotten or warped by our feeble minds.
But even SMART goals have flaws. Not meeting goals can be crushing to our self-esteem, which seems contrary to our resolution to become healthier. The pressure of goals can take away from enjoying simple pleasures of life and we can easily obsess over meaningless metrics such as daily step counts.
If you feel that goals are too daunting or easy to fail, an alternative is to set a broad theme for the year. For example, the New Year could be a Year of Reading, Year of Less, Year of Health or Year of Balance. Instead of specific goals or unrealistic resolutions, themes allow you to set a broad undertone for the year, guiding your everyday decisions and actions.
For example, a Year of Novelty may push you to go on an adventure to a country you have never been to, instead of a safe holiday to a place you go to every year. A Year of Learning might make you choose to read about a new skill or hobby instead of watching another episode of reality TV. Themes act as algorithms or bots assisting your decision-making. Essentially, every time it is applicable, think about how a choice or decision (no matter how small) fits into your yearly theme and act accordingly.
When you look back at the end of the year, you will notice that there were ups and downs, such as your weight fluctuating, but as long as you keep to your theme, the general trend will hopefully have been positive and you would have enacted change. Changes in human behaviour happen on slow scales, so seeing the big picture is very important to keep up your motivation.
Themes should be broad, letting you adapt to change and unexpected obstacles. For example, an illness or accident may make a goal of saving $5000 for the year unrealistic. But a Year of Finance will accommodate for this, because you will instead be setting up healthy habits such as eliminating unnecessary costs such as subscriptions, keeping account books and tackling high-interest debts. Even slowing down the accumulation of debt will be a positive life change in this situation. Over the course of your life, you will be much better off because you changed your behaviour and created a healthy system.
It does not matter what word you choose as your theme, as long as it is applicable to and resonates with you, so that you stay interested in it. The act of applying the theme itself will become a habit, training your mind to be more focussed and act with direction. If a year seems too long, you can always change the time period to a month, a quarter or a season – such as Autumn of Gratitude.
At the end of the day, setting a theme for the year is a simple tool that is very easy to apply, while having the potential to be far more effective and powerful compared to a flimsy resolution. It takes little effort to set a broad theme and the direction you want to head in, especially if it resonates with your inner desire for positive change.
The only way to grow and improve yourself is to think about how to improve yourself and take action. Having a simple system such as a theme is the easiest start to getting in the habit of actively improving your life.
So why not give it a try?