Your Yearly Theme: The Secret to Better New Year’s Resolutions

All those SMART goals might be the reason you keep failing at your New Year’s Resolutions. A broad “yearly theme” might be the motivation you need!

In the final breaths of December, in that little week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I bet you’ve been asked by friends and family one too many times: “what’s your new year’s resolution?” I know I have been. But what if the whole concept just doesn’t work with your brain? Might a Yearly Theme be a better fit for you?

The new year resolution question can be frustrating—it often conjures up some guilt that I haven’t come up with some sort of life-changing goal to drastically improve my future with just the right task list for the next year.

Let’s talk about typical new year resolutions versus a totally different approach: a general theme for the year.

Are SMART Goals the Solution?

Even as an analytical, technical person that generally enjoys numbers and quantitive measurements, I’ve never been a fan of new year’s goals—especially their concrete cousins the “SMART goals”.

For a person that likes to focus on measurable goals—an almost necessary part of reaching financial independence—SMART goals seem like they’d be a great fit for new year’s resolutions!

Practical goals

SMART goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

What’s not to love?!

A new year’s resolution that matches up to this criteria might be something like:

“I will be able to run a half-marathon in under 2 hours before the year’s end.”

That’s a very clear goal! The idea even feels FIRE compatible:

“I will have a net worth of $1,000,000 by the time I’m 33 years old.”

Your steps to achieve that might be:

  1. Live below your means by spending no more than $30K/year
  2. Earn an average of $77K per year from age 21 to 33
  3. Save and invest the balance

Achieving your $1,000,000 SMART goal by 33 would happen with these clear steps. You’d wind up with an average savings rate of 62% and have a million in the bank by 33.

A quick calculation for reaching FI in 11.7 years on 30K of annual spending.
A quick calculation for reaching FI in 11.7 years on 30K of annual spending [calculator].

By the way, this is pretty much what we did to become millionaires.

Problems with SMART goals

So why don’t I like them? What’s wrong with SMART goals?

I’m not a fan of them within the context of New Year’s resolutions because:

  1. They set you up for failure
  2. They’re inflexible

If you have a goal that traverses the entire year, it’s going to be pretty big—not incremental, not something you can see happening in the next week or two. As the timeline creeps further out to a year, your ability to estimate what’s attainable loses accuracy.

Worse than that, when you’re looking far in the future, your ability to predict your own desires and interests is pretty weak. What if your interest in running wanes over the course of the year?

Reaching that half-marathon may become unattainable, and you might know it in the spring. You’ll suffer the rest of the year trying to attain something that’s highly unlikely while simultaneously losing interest in it.

And what about the unpredictable elements? What happens if you suffer an injury, making your goal to achieve a good half-marathon time nigh impossible?

Again, you’ll beat yourself up throughout the entire year and potentially stress your recovering injury in an attempt to not “fail”.

What if there was a way to have flexible goals that motivate you with much less risk of failure?

There is.

Let’s talk about a Yearly Theme.

Your Yearly Theme

I’ve written before about where in the hierarchy of your life’s priorities financial independence should exist. A key point from that post was to build the life you want first, then save for it.

Financial independence isn’t the summit of meaning and purpose within your life, it’s a supporting structure.

Far too many people learn about FIRE, then think:

“Sweet, this is a shortcut to not having to work, and I hate work!”

They toil for years with financial independence as the goal, reach it, then wonder what’s next.

Here’s the thing: within the context of FIRE, there is no “next”.

FIRE doesn’t prescribe a life for you, it’s just a method that’ll let you live the life you want without the weight of financial stress.

If you don’t build the life you want first, you’re going to wind up like that dog that finally caught the car and had no idea what to do with it.

So what’s a Yearly Theme and how does it relate to building the life you want?

Rather than a specific resolution or goal, a Yearly Theme is a general idea or area of focus for the year. Think of this as a guiding principle for your work or personal life over time.

Yearly Themes serve a structure within your life, connecting the vision of what you want to create for your life with the practical processes to get there.
Yearly Themes serve a structure within your life, connecting the vision of what you want to create for your life with the practical processes to get there.

Here’s some examples, starting with “Year of”:

  1. Order
  2. Consistency
  3. Finance
  4. Novelty
  5. Change
  6. Voyage
  7. Health
  8. Family

You get the idea, lots of general life themes. You get to imagine—and define—the details yourself. What you’re looking for is a word or phrase that means something to you.

Something that will plant a bug in your head and keep you motivated to stick with the theme throughout the year.

Your theme should be both broad and directional.

Broad

As your theme should serve as a sort of “North Star”, it needn’t be so specific as to only apply to a limited number of encounters and experiences over the course of your year. It should be broad enough to be an everyday thought in your head. Something to keep in your mind as a general focus as you make decisions throughout the day.

Your theme should trigger you to make small choices that you might otherwise roll right through as if there was only one option.

It should get you to evaluate other possibilities and reconsider the “normal” path you’ve taken with your decisions.

In order for your theme to be generally applicable to many parts of your life, it needs to be broad.

Aside from that, the broadness of your theme will help it be more flexible.

As an example, you may start out with the “Year of Novelty” and the intention to introduce new hobbies into your life. But, if you were to lose your job, you might find that the theme of novelty is going to apply to your need to try a new career or trade.

Either way, it’s a success.

The broadness of the theme helps it serve as generally applicable to your life and removes the possibility of “failing”—unlike a typical new year’s resolution.

Directional

Within your mind, you should have a clear understanding of what direction your yearly theme is going with its topic. For example, perhaps your theme is the “Year of Order”.

Some people may need more order in their lives while others may need less order.

It’s also possible that your theme suggests you want to maintain something that is working well but is perhaps under threat.

A “Year of Consistency” might include keeping your savings rate at the same level it’s been in recent years in order to stay on track for financial independence. But, you might be doing so while also having your first child or starting a new job—and you want the rest of your life to be consistent.

Your Yearly Theme should have a clear direction to it.

Bonus: Seasonal Themes

If you’re already thinking about different themes for 2021 and are stuck choosing between multiple that you like, you might consider the “pro version” of Yearly Themes for 2022: Seasonal Themes.

While I think having a single theme for a year is a good idea for first-timers, folks with more time on their hands (hem financially independent ones) might make more progress with Seasonal Themes.

Winter might be the time for consistency while Summer breathes novelty for you.

But, don’t bite off more than you can chew. If this is your first attempt at a theme in your life, stick with the Yearly Theme. Save this page, come back for review next year, and consider what themes might work for you throughout each season.

New Year’s Resolutions vs. Yearly Themes

New Year’s Resolutions have been part of human culture for millennia. Romans made promises to the god Janus which where we get “January” from. Some 74% of Americans intend to learn something new for 2021 per a recent survey.

Of course the joke about gym memberships expiring and equipment sitting idly by February 1 is made because loads of people fail at those resolutions. Hell, I intend to shop for a used exercise bike in February since I expect prices to drop like a rock locally.

As folks start to miss those SMART goals (“I’ll bike 5 miles each week!”), they get frustrated.

They give up.

But Yearly Themes will let you pivot to new approaches and find what works for you. Your “Year of Exercise” turns those biking mile goals into weight training or yoga. Either way, you’re still sticking with your theme.

2021’s Yearly Theme

Having a Yearly Theme can help you construct the life you want or reinforce elements that might be weakening.

You should be imaginative with your theme. It’s an opportunity for you to inject some creativity in your life for your own personal project where the subject is something most dear to you: yourself.

For me, 2020 was not at all the year I was expecting. As the pandemic surged, Jenni and I found ourselves canceling plans throughout the year. Rather than being the globetrotting, adventuring folks I was looking forward to being (and have partly become), we became homebodies.

We relaxed the purse strings on some of our spending and lowered our expectations for the year. Rather than stretching ourselves, we aimed for what we knew.

We sought comfort.

While it may have been necessary for 2020, I don’t foresee that being the case for most of 2021. Jenni already received her first vaccination (as she’s a pharmacist). She’s been vaccinating dozens of people on her workdays since the new year.

I think we’ll be able to dip our toes back in the world of travel sooner rather than later, even if it’s not a grand trip across the planet. In any case, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s time to let go of the year of comfort.

2021 will be my Year of Discomfort.

It’s time to get back to stretching that comfort zone and I’ll be bringing you along for all of those adventures, so stay tuned.

But now I’d like to turn it over to you. What theme idea do you think would work well for you in 2021? I’d love to bounce some ideas around! Any public exclamations you’d like to make for a little accountability?

Let me know in the comments!


Appendix

If you’re looking for more information about Yearly Themes, it’s not a concept I invented. I’ve mentioned the topic in recent posts (especially the video in this section) and our FIRE newsletter.

CGP Grey and Myke Hurley brought it to my attention with their podcast Cortex—which I highly recommend for those interested in productivity.

If you want to really dig into the details of yearly themes, they created a physical journal to help track your theme progress over the course of the year as the idea became increasingly popular. Check out the Theme System Journal (as of writing, they appear to have the current run soldout but it’d be easy to replicate the format on your own). The site also has links to specific podcasts about Yearly Themes.

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By Chris

Chris began his financial independence pursuit in 2007 as he learned basic personal finance from Get Rich Slowly as an aspiring web designer and novice investor. After several missteps, he learned the secrets of financial independence and began his pursuit of freedom.

He reached financial independence in 2018 with $1.2M and two businesses. He began the process of transitioning to early retirement in 2020.

Learn more: Meet Chris.

5 replies on “Your Yearly Theme: The Secret to Better New Year’s Resolutions”

Interesting! Everyone has to figure out what works for them. I’m not sure if I can stick to the theme the whole year. My goals are more like SMART goals. Some goals are a good fit for the whole year. These are like saving 50% of income or max out 401k contributions. However, some goals have the attention span problem you mentioned. These goals need to be finished in the first 6 months. From experience, I know if they’re not done by summer, they’re a lost cause. That works pretty well for me.
Good luck in 2021. I hope we get the vaccine before summer so we can travel more. 2020 was a terrible year.

I like your goals, Joe—and especially that you track them throughout the year. I’ve commented on your happiness tracking in the past, and really like that idea.

Contrary to the opening of this post, I do think goals (and SMART goals) can be useful, but I think they lose their usefulness the further out in time they get. They ought to be part of an overarching, more flexible theme for longer periods (like a year, or season). Of course, all this is just my personal experience and I know SMART goals work great for some folks (and you’d think they would for someone like me that loves task lists, numbers, and spreadsheets).

If it’s any solace, Jenni’s local pharmacy has been running vaccine clinics even through the weekends and trying to get their allotments out as fast as possible here in VA. There’s progress, but boy there’s a lot more work to be done. I’m hopeful for summer, too.

My theme this year is also discomfort! I started this last quarter last year and confusing into 2021. Continue pushing the boundaries and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. I love the yearly theme! And usually have one each year as my overarching focus. Then I tend break out smaller SMART goals that help me focus.

I’ve worked for two companies that use the SMART goal thing for reviews. I find it a decent way to make goals feel more tangible. But they can feel forced too. I like your concept of theme rather than the specific goals.

My theme will be a year of spending “more time outdoors”. As long as you own the gear already, outdoors is such a fantastic and cheap way to have fun. Now that the kids are getting older we can go on longer hikes and bike rides. I hope to carry some of the habits we developed in 2020 over into 2021.

YES to a theme! We’ve each picked a guiding word for many years. Often they align, but this year my wife’s is “outside” while mine is “creative” (with a focus on music, heh heh). I’ll still spend plenty of time outside.

I think the SMART goal concept can work in small doses. In my experience, it is too easy to get caught up on improving EVERYTHING in our lives (the American way…) and being stuck in a “I’m not enough” cycle. FI and FIRE principals can empower folks to get away from that, which lets us frame goal setting in a much healthier way. Or at least it helped me.

Hope your year of discomfort isn’t too uncomfortable!

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