For as long as I can remember January 1st was always the day when new diets started, new languages were going to be learned and gyms were going to be joined. But as I’m sure many of you can sympathise, that momentum rarely lasts the course of a full year. The diets get thrown out the window as soon as the left-overs come out from the new years eve party the night before, the language classes get just that bit too difficult to follow (I mean it’s not like I’m going to Spain any time soon anyway) and the gym will just keep taking their monthly membership fees whether I’m on the treadmill or not. Sound familiar? For me personally it was a reoccurring happening each and every year since high school.
There was a period of two or three years where I banned myself from even entertaining the thought of having new years resolutions as I could see the failings and pointless meaning behind their sentiment. I was essentially sparing myself from my own failings to adhere to plans and stick to goals. The downside to taking such a stance is the fact that without some kind of guiding influence or directional objective it makes a persons life often fuzzy to navigate knowing exactly what is the best course of action and what is beneficial for the present frame of life.
Yes New years resolutions are dumb, arbitrary and have a high failure rates but at the very least they provided something of a target to aim at, a point of orientation for which to set the ambition compass and to journey towards. But the traditional January 1st solution is flawed in the same way that building a house with asbestos is a flawed. A house needs walls and cladding to keep the outside elements from getting inside but asbestos is definitely not the best solution for the job. Luckily though there are many better alternatives for the purpose of building a house and in a comparable way I believe I have found my own alternative to the asbestos that is new years resolutions. That alternative is Year Themes.
Put simply, a yearly theme is an idea that is carried through the whole year(ish). There is no inflexible endpoint to which you are shackled to, there is no ridged set of rules which have to be maintained to achieve success rather it is an overlying state of mind for how to orient your actions, choices and priorities for the set period of time, usually a year but doesn’t have to be the full twelve months.
A theme for the year should be a loose concept by design. For example, a year of health is not the same as starting a new diet and joining a gym come January 1st. The new years resolution would sound like: I will eat only healthy foods for each meal, no sugar and go to the gym three times a week. On face value this seems like a great idea, until real life happens and suddenly you’re trying to pivot habits which have been with you for a lifetime in a single day and hope that you just somehow sticks, that’s why its not sustainable and (speaking from experience) is the reason why new years resolutions are set up to fail. In contrast the theme of a year of health would be more like: instead of having a large coke with lunch have a small one or water, instead of taking the elevator take the stairs, instead of driving down to the corner shop for bread and milk walk there. It’s more about changing the framing and orienting of how everyday life is actioned. It is about making little, but deliberate choices which are in alinement with the theme of the year, it’s really about changing habits over a long period of time for greater chances or results and success than any crash diet ever would.
A yearly theme doesn’t even need to be a year, it can be a year and a half, it can be eight months it can be as long or as short as you would like it to be so long as it is still providing value to you. But the best part of all is it doesn’t need to start on January 1st and nor should it. Rather the theme should start at a time which works for you given the circumstances for your life.
I heard the idea while listening to the Podcast Cortex, hosted by Myke Hurley and CGP Grey. This podcast focuses on productivity and tools used for getting the most out of your time especially from a business perspective. I have been an avid listener to the podcast only since about mid 2019 and when listing to the back catalogue of episodes found this concept of the yearly themes intriguing as something I could possible adapt for my own needs. Listening to Myke and Grey discuss their own themes, the way they settled on their choices of theme for the year ahead and what they were hoping to achieve from it. The advantage to picking up on the podcast late and listening to the back catalogue is that I could then also listen to the end of year feedback about how their themes held up throughout the year, learning where they benefitted and where it could have gone better. It was a great recourse for me in setting my own. For me I have been working with the theme I wish to share with you since November last year (2019) and am still utilising each day. My theme is ‘The Year of Systems’
Because context is everything, I need to paint the picture of how I came to settle on my theme of the year of systems. I work full time, have a few side businesses on the go and on top of that have more ideas for future projects than I can poke a stick at. Not to mention, I started this very blog you are reading now earlier this year. Add to this family and social commitments and suddenly 24 hours in a day doesn’t seem enough for me. Managing all these spinning plates is the key to being able to keep all the commitments and still have enough capacity for the addition of future ventures. Prior to this year I would say I wasn’t the most organised person in the world, looking back its amazing I was able to finish high school given how unorganised and muddled up I was. But with increasing responsibilities and commitments being loaded upon me since, I needed to ensure I could maintain the flow of work and keep track of everything I was doing. Hence why I chose this, the year of systems, to be my theme.
The idea is that anything that had even the slightest bit of resistance or impedance towards getting that action complete was re-evaluated and changed to become more streamlined There hasn’t been a place in my life which hasn’t been in some way shaped by the theme thus far. It made me examine the way I was going about my everyday activities and questioning my procedures, asking if this was the best and most efficient way to be doing whatever it is I was doing.
The Systems Theme was not just limited to tangible daily processes either, it was also how I interacted and used software. More specifically what programs I was using, how I handled my emails, how I wrote blog posts and how I was using my iphone. Everything that took up time was placed under a microscope, examined and assessed for where it was working and where there was need for attention. This year could have almost been called ‘the year of smarter not harder’ but that would have been too limiting a concept for what I was trying to achieve from setting up not just workflow systems but those practises which I use each and every day.
Keeping lists, note and check lists are all part of how I have structured my work systems to get the most efficient way of completing a set task which must be done. One of the biggest changes I have made personally is no long trying to remember every bit of information that comes my way. Past me would have tried to remember the time of the appointment, would have tried to remember the address of that website, would have tried to remember what was on the shopping list. Not anymore. This year I have put in place systems to ensure those thoughts are taken out of my head and straight into some form of list or notebook or in tray. Some of you may recognise this as part of the ‘getting things done’ system made famous by David Allen and yes you are correct as the book was a big influencing factor in choosing this theme. While I do not follow the whole Getting Things Done philosophy down to a T, I have cherry picked the parts and elements which are applicable to me and that which I can get the most out of.
So far, If this years theme has taught me one thing and one thing only it’s that to have successful and efficient systems everything must have a place and there should be nothing out of place. For example, in my workshop all my tools have a specific location for a specific purpose. If I was to leave tools lying around wherever then too much time (and patients) is lost trying to remember where I put that specific tool I might need at the present moment. The system I employed is straight forward, all tools have a designated home and all go back to their home when no longer in use. It is a ridged system which is intended to help the next person who uses my tools, which will be future me.
In choosing the year of systems as my theme I feel I have really become more meta, turning a critical eye inwards and re-evaluating what I was doing and how I was using my time. The main aim was to make often complex tasks easier, even if just by a tiny bit. While I still have systems I need to implement I have a few months left in the year in which to roll them out and the beauty of the themes systems means I can continue into the new year should I feel the need. At the current rate I will be definitely be continuing on with the year of systems into the early parts of next year (2021) at least but while still also having a new primary theme which will take precedence for the coming year.