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Megan Poorman is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on Twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.

If I’m being honest, I’ve never been a big fan of resolutions. Like most people, I have never been able to stick to all the lofty goals I set for myself at the new year. Sure, I’ve diligently written pages of goals in a journal each new year, but there was never any action plan to ensure that I followed through. As I’ve continually failed to accomplish all that I hoped, I’ve begun to wonder why I must wait until the new year to tackle all my imperfections. Why must January 1 be the only chance I have to implement positive change in my life when the struggle to change my habits is a daily task?

It was an innocuous group conversation with a friend two years ago that changed my perspective. We were talking about plans for the holidays when she asked if we had any fun resolutions for the new year. When I explained that I don’t usually make resolutions, she explained that her family typically doesn’t either. Instead they set a theme. The theme can be small or large, silly or profound, but has to be general enough to guide your whole year. I had never heard of this before and thought it sounded like a fun idea to try. So I set a theme and much to my surprise, I followed it for the whole year. I’ve been setting themes for myself ever since.

What makes a theme so special is that you don’t have to stick to it every day. You don’t have to check a box; you don’t have to guilt trip yourself. There is no task to fail at, no rubric to measure yourself by, and no waiting for next year to try again. Having a theme for the year is almost like setting a mantra. It serves as a guiding principle when making decisions and reflecting on events. Setting a theme removes the daily pressure of measuring yourself against something you wish you were and encourages a holistic approach to self-awareness. There is a time and place for daily habit checking and there are many great resources available on how to establish such a practice. However, if, like me, you have enough in your life to keep track of and want a simpler way to direct your year, this is the approach for you.

With that many feel-good, hand-wavy sentences this has got to be very impractical to implement, right? Again, surprisingly not, which is why I think I’ve been able to stick with my themes better than previous resolutions. All it takes is creating a theme and writing it down. This can be in a bullet journal, sharpie on your forehead, or a cloud-based notes application like Google Keep. Try to keep the theme as short as possible (one or two words) so that you can easily remember it when you need. You can follow this up with a couple half-sentences or bullet points describing what exactly your succinct theme means. The goal here is stream-of-consciousness-style descriptors of a short and simple idea for your own reminder. Now proceed through your year and keep in mind your theme when making decisions and going about your day.

How to choose a theme:

This will require some self-reflection. What areas of your life do you want to improve? Is there a hobby you’ve wanted to get in to but you never make time for? Are there people you want to connect with more? Is there something in your life you want to stop or take control of? Based on your answers, create a generalization instead of specific metrics. Fitness might become self-care/wellness, volleyball could become emphasizing hobbies, and contacting college friends could become valuing genuine interactions. Now, instead of vowing to go to the gym every day, you could measure decisions by whether they will improve your overall wellbeing. Maybe one day that means you need a cookie to destress but maybe another day that means you need to punch it out in a boxing class.

Implementing a theme in daily life:

This concept is probably best illustrated through examples, so I’ll walk through my past and current themes to give an idea of how this style of New Year’s Resolution fits into my daily life.

2016: Be present…in all situations engage with the world and take to enjoy people and experiences.

I set this theme because I was feeling increasingly distracted. My brain was always on–I would stop mid-conversation to debug code in my head and constantly check my email, afraid I was missing something. I decided that I needed some partitioning in my life. I would actively listen to seminars instead of checking out to think about work. I did my best to focus on only one task at a time and consciously uncouple from my electronics, especially when walking around. There were of course times where I was checked out and not present, but overall having the theme reminded me to slow down and focus on things around me.

2017: Relax hard…diversify and work on yourself, not just research. Learn to love what you do again.

This one was an idea taken from one of my committee members. He was expressing how he was striving for balance by devoting as much energy into his fun life as he did into his work life. This really struck a chord with me at the time since I had begun to feel the stress of grad school burnout. I took this as a chance to sign up for the outdoor adventure group I’d been eyeing for a while. I committed to trips on the weekends, planned well in advance, and took up painting some evenings instead of mindlessly watching TV. There were definitely days (weeks, months) that I worked more than I played, but I felt more balanced in the long run.

2018: Take ownership…of your time, of your work, of your actions. Be bold, say no when needed.

This year’s theme is to take ownership. I’m a point in my degree where the timing on many things is largely unknown and there are too many moving parts to control. There’s no use analyzing every action I take and worrying how that might affect timing down the road. My goal is to be genuinely myself at all times, take decisive action where needed, and not worry about things outside of my control. We shall see how it goes!

How do you fare with New Year’s Resolutions? Any unconventional strategies to make them stick?

[Image by Flickr user Morgan and used under Creative Commons licensing.]