Do you know anyone who can’t wait for this year to end? I certainly do, and who can blame them? So many people have had enough of 2017 and its disruptions, from family and work troubles to political turmoil and natural disasters. Some of them are looking forward by making New Year’s resolutions or following the growing trend of designating a single “word for the year” as a way to express a desire or set an intention.

Resolutions can be self-defeating, though. The threat of not keeping them hangs over us at every moment — a single misstep could mean the battle is lost by February! And characterizing the entire year with a single word feels both too broad and too limiting to me. So let me suggest a different way to focus forward: Declare a theme.

Think Thematically

A theme functions as an informing spirit for the year. It offers significant direction while providing enough flexibility to permit adjustments as necessary. A theme can infuse your life with consistency, focus, and purpose in the same way tea leaves infuse hot water.

It’s okay to choose more than one theme because you operate in more than one way in the world. Perhaps you’d benefit from a theme relating to self-care, or learning a new skill, or finally getting your house in order. You might also consider declaring a theme for your organization, your team, or a long-desired career accomplishment.

How to Pick and Work on Your Theme

You can work by yourself, with a dear friend, or with your entire work team, to choose a theme for 2018. These questions may help:

  • Will 2018 be a year of continuation for you, or a break from the past? In either case, what would you like to leave behind?
  • Is there a characteristic or truth that you’d like to manifest around your values or purpose?
  • Would you like your theme to be a verb describing your actions or a noun announcing your goal? For example, which feels better, a year of “Development for All” or a year of “Learning and Teaching”?

Be sure to frame the theme in positive language, rather than in terms of stopping something or giving something up. So instead of “No more struggles with X,” communicate accomplishing or adding something, like “Create amazing success with Y.” Then make a list of the activities that support the actualizing of your theme, and plan for experiments in these areas.

Keep the End in Mind

In one of my favorite books, The Art of Possibility, author Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and an amazing speaker (check out his very popular TED talk), details how he asks students to “give themselves an A” at the beginning of his class and assigns them a brief write-up in which they describe what made them worthy of their A. Not surprisingly, most students follow through and do wonderfully in the course.

Why not follow in Zander’s mode? Assume that 2018 will be the most wonderful year, and that you’ll rise to every occasion and take advantage of every shot the Universe gives you. To make that real, how would you need to behave starting January 1? What plans would you need to make right now?

Remember that you have the whole year to fulfill your theme. Don’t pressure yourself to accomplish everything all at once. You can take small steps, asking yourself: What’s next? What can I do each day? What shift could generate even more progress?

Periodically, create informal check-ins with yourself, a partner, or your team to assess what you’ve done in the last few days and what you’re aiming to do in the next few. Work reiteratively: “Here’s what I/we did in pursuit of or informed by our theme, and here’s what I’d/we’d like to work on next.” Keep looking back and thinking forward.

Practicing What I Preach

I’m also weighing themes for myself. I’m thinking about “Do What Makes a Difference” to ensure that I stay on track and only invest energy and resources where they’ll have impact. I’m also considering “Take care of yourself so you can take care of others” because life is complicated, and it’s hard to be both strong and flexible enough to be of service if you’re not managing yourself first.

Let me know if you’d like to share your theme — helping to get your 2018 in gear feels to me like something that has impact!