Making 2019 a Turning Point: How to Make New Year’s Resolutions Work

With the new year just around the corner, the most common questions people are asking over the next week are what, if any, your new year’s resolutions are for 2019.

Whether or not you make resolutions at the start of a new year, it’s a great opportunity to think about what you want to create in your life this coming year.

Today’s post will look at choosing a theme as an alternative or supplement to setting a new year’s resolution, and provide a guideline on how to do some intention-setting for that theme.

Before jumping in…full disclosure

Setting new year’s resolutions has never personally jived with me, though I appreciate a lot of people like them. It’s really about knowing what works for you, and what kind of structure best supports your reflection and goal-setting efforts.

Many people prefer to make reflection an annual exercise, deciding on new goals and actions at the end of the year.

If you’ve read my post on structuring reflection and intention-setting on natural cycles, you’ll know that I’ve found a more frequent intention-setting and reflection schedule has been effective for me.

In case you haven’t read that article yet, here’s a quick summary. I’ve found it really effective to arrange my critical thinking about life choices, goals and progress on a four-week cycle, making course-corrections midway through each cycle. This is also a common approach among those who pay attention to natural or seasonal cycles in relation to their spirituality.

Regardless of whether you make new year’s resolutions, do reflective moon rituals, have a journaling practice, or none of the above, this week of transition from one year to the next is the perfect time to think about the coming months, and what you want to do in them.

Be it resolved…or not

New year’s resolutions aren’t typically known as being the source of great results. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use the end of the year as a useful mechanism to think about the year to come.

Blogger/podcaster James Altucher has suggested that setting themes is more useful than setting goals. Altucher’s idea is that setting goals creates rigidity and sets people up for failure.

If you’ve read my posts for awhile, you’ll know that I generally don’t like the idea of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when considering new (or old) ideas. So while I disagree with the idea of never setting goals, there is a lot of merit to taking a theme-based approach to intention-setting.

Let’s take a look at both goals and themes so you can find a way that works best for you. You have options, whether you’re someone who:

  • Loves goals because you take pride in checking off your to-do lists (which is fundamentally what working toward a goal is); or
  • Hates goals because you struggle with implementing them in a way that makes you happy.

Also, if you want to look into the brain of someone who is described by others as freakishly apt at planning/achieving goals (yes, that’s me…just ask my spouse…), get your voyeurism on!

1. Goals

A goal is a specific, quantifiable outcome that you want to bring into reality.

  • Specificity is important for both the outcome you want and the time by which you want it.
  • Quantification allows for measuring progress, making changes along the way, and determining whether you’ve brought your goal into reality.

For example, “Save $7,000 for that trip by June 2019.” or, “Deadlift two times my bodyweight by October 2019.”

Goals are great for very specific outcomes you want, because they allow for laser-point focus on that specific outcome.

If you do choose to take the goal route, remember that a goal is achieved by taking action on lots of lists of smaller tasks that will make the goal reality.

Setting a goal without making a plan

Having goals or resolutions without creating a place to get there (i.e. without creating lists or flow diagrams) is where people frequently run into issues with goal achievement.

A destination without a plan for how to get there will remain a destination and never a lived experience. So be sure to make yourself a realistic plan in bite-sized chunks.

Creating lists is a good option for this, or drawing out a doodle for yourself if you’re more visual. Here are some examples based on the illustrative goals mentioned above.

These might seem really obvious steps, but I’m going to go through each one anyway to highlight just how many smaller sub-steps are involved in each bigger step.

Goal example: How most goals are made

When we think of goal-setting, here’s what we might think of with a goal to save up for a trip.

Goal: Save $7,000 for that trip to Iceland (or whatever location is in mind) by June 2019.

Plan: Set aside a certain amount from each paycheque so that I have $7,000 specifically for that trip, and I want to set it aside by June 30, 2019.

  • Step 1: Determine how much I need to set aside per paycheque.
  • Step 2: Set up regular deposits into a savings account that is specifically for the trip.
  • Step 3: Stick with the decisions I have already made.

Seems like a great plan, right? It is a great plan.

Except that it’s woefully incomplete. Each of those steps involves several sub-steps, depending on my current situation. Let’s drill down into each of these steps.

Bonus: not only will it become clear why financial planning and goal achievement is in general so difficult for people, but you’ll also get a snapshot into my (apparently) freakish brain!

Goal example: How goals are actually achieved

Step 1: Determine how much I need to set aside per paycheque.

  • Microstep A: To do that, I need to know my financial position. If I already know this, this is a fast step. If I don’t know this, there a several sub-steps involved.
    • To do that, I need to go back into my bank/other financial statements and average out for each paycheque (or whatever time increment) how much I spend on all those categories.
  • Microstep B (if financial position not known): I need to figure out how much I can afford to set aside, and still meet all my other financial commitments like housing, utilities, groceries, personal care, debt payments, personal development, health and wellness, transportation, savings, investments, etc.
  • Microstep C: Then I need to prioritize which are necessities and which things I could potentially trim if needed.
  • Microstep D: Then I need to look at how much I make per paycheque and subtract the necessities amount I determined in sub-step b from my pay.

Step 2: Set up regular deposits into a savings account that is specifically for the trip.

  • Microstep A: Decide whether to make deposits into savings automatic or manual. Automatic is always recommended as more effective since it won’t depend on your remembering,having time, emotions, etc. Manual provides more flexibility.
  • Microstep B: If I already have a separate savings accounts that is for travel, then all I need to do is go into my bank account/bank and set up transfers (if doing automatic deposits) or a tracking system for myself (if doing manual).
  • Microstep C: If I don’t already have a separate savings account for travel, I need to decide whether to set one up, or repurpose an existing savings account just for travel, and set up a tracking system so I know how much of the account is actually for travel.
  • Microstep D: If I decided to set up a new savings account, I need to either do research on savings accounts in various financial institutions, or I need to set up an appointment at my existing financial institution.
  • Microstep E: Make a decision on which account to set up based on online research and/or meeting with the bank.
  • Microstep F: Actually set up the account.
  • Microstep G: Set up regular (payday) deposits into the savings account if automatic or tracking system if manual.

Step 3: Stick with the decisions I have already made.

  • Microstep A: Recognize that there will be hurdles that I encounter as part of my goal. This is simply a reality of life that unexpected things happen. I need to be aware that circumstances may arise that make me want to rethink my decision to save up that money by that date.
  • Microstep B: Decide what the boundary is on changing course.
    • To do this, I need to have good self-awareness to know where I tend to veer off course, and how to anticipate how I might want to change my mind. Are there major things that would wisely support a change in direction?
    • For example, if I have sudden unexpected changes in my financial position? Are there minor things that might not feel minor at the time, but that don’t warrant a change in plan? Such as, if I keep spending money on consumables that I want right now, but that take away from how much I can set aside for the trip?
  • Microstep C: Whenever I have a day that makes me feel like I don’t want to stick to my decision, I need to look at my decision in microstep B and remind myself of why I am working toward this future thing when the present feels uncomfortable.
  • Microstep D: Keep doing the things I have decided to do, no matter how mundane, uncomfortable, or boring it feels in the moment, as long as my boundary in microstep B isn’t in play.

An encouraging note

This requires self-discipline, but actually less self-discipline than you think you’ll need. IF you have worked on your self-awareness, and if you’ve actually done the work of alllll of the microsteps so far. This is because you’ll have focused so much energy and thinking on this topic, so your brain plasticity will adjust to serve you.

Step 4: Adjust if an unexpected hurdle arises

This isn’t actually the same as step 3. Step 3 is all about awareness and keeping the decision going in the event that nothing actually major happens to affect my decision. This step is about what I do if something unexpected does happen.

  • Microstep A: If something major that crosses my boundary in Step 3-microstep B does happen, reprioritize immediate real needs, and future desired needs.
  • Microstep B: This also requires self-awareness and self-discipline, but as mentioned, if you’re already doing work to enhance your self-awareness and you’ve already done all of these microsteps, your brain will have already started rewiring itself to make all of this easier for you. But if you haven’t done that depth of work yet, and you’re starting it now, taking stock to reprioritize will require a lot of grit.
  • Microstep C: Create a new plan based on your reprioritization.
  • Microstep D: Go through Steps 1 – 2 (including the microsteps if necessary) to implement your new plan.

This is why New Year’s Resolutions and goals in general tend to feel difficult or unachievable. It’s not that they’re unachievable, it’s moreso that any goal needs a plan, and any plan involves myriad microsteps and oodles of self-awareness.

And of course, all of this assumes that I do in fact have sufficient finances to save up that money by that date. I won’t go into all the steps involved if someone doesn’t have enough money, since this is illustrative of goal-setting and not personal finance, but you get the point.

Setting and achieving goals is really about figuring out all the minutiae, all the microsteps involved in being able to check off any more obvious step as ‘done’.


A theme is a broader idea that you want to embody.

Having a theme is different from a goal because it is less specific and less quantifiable. You can have a plan or not. Some examples of themes could include “exploring spirituality”, “feeling healthy”, “live joyfully”.

When James Altucher refers to goals as being inflexible, he likely means that the specificity of a goal itself is rigid. Achieving goals requires flexibility, but goals themselves must be specific to be meaningful.

Writer Niklas Gӧke describes a theme in contrast to a goal. Gӧke differentiates that “a goal asks ‘what do I want?’ but a theme asks ‘who am I?’”.

Having a theme can be highly supportive of your empowerment because it sets the tone and overall trajectory for your life.

Theme pros and cons

I think the appeal of a theme versus a goal (since other writers focus on the contrast) is that that setting a theme for yourself feels more fluid than goal-setting. That’s because it moves the decision-making burden from an initial plan to your everyday moment-by-moment.

  • On the one hand, this approach is great if you struggle with planning ahead, which a lot of people do (and that’s okay).
    • That’s because it allows you to make those microdecisions throughout your day, without comparing how you’re doing now versus yesterday.
    • It allows you to try new things that you discover and believe will support your theme.
    • The idea is that all those microdecisions will accumulate into your feeling overall happier.
  • On the other hand, this approach is not good if what you actually need is a goal, or if you have previously struggled with making good decisions in the moment.
    • Of course, having a theme could encourage you to make better, smaller decisions.
    • Following your bliss and making ongoing wise decisions is an amazing way to live.
    • And some decisions in life are better positioned to be specific and quantifiable, while others are positioned better to develop and morph organically.

Theme Example

For example, let’s say someone wants to save up for that trip. Say they are taking the theme-only route, and their theme is “live joyfully”.

Maybe their joyful living theme will result in their taking stock of how they spend their money, and maybe they’ll begin spending less and saving up, and having enough money to go away after June.

Or, maybe their joyful living theme will result in their making more impulse purchases of either consumables or non-consumables because in that moment of spending or enjoying the purchase, they experience enjoyment.

In contrast, perhaps they won’t have saved up as much as they might have thought they needed. But maybe their theme has encouraged them to make decisions throughout the year that result in their feeling happier overall and wanting a less costly vacation.

Which is better? A theme or a goal?

If you’re still reading this, congratulations! You’re clearly serious about making some positive enhancements to your life.

Neither a theme nor a goal is better than the other, it really depends on what outcomes you want, and what your style is.

  • Themes: As I’ve mentioned, having a theme is incredibly valuable because it sets the tone and overall trajectory for your life.
  • Goals: Goals are a mechanism that can support your theme, if you choose topics that are related. I disagree with other writers who believe that themes and goals are mutually exclusive or somehow in contrast.

This is about thinking through what’s most realistic for yourself, and what’s important to you for your own life.

How to know if a theme or a goal will work best

Some areas of life are more conducive to themes, and others to goals. That’s why themes and goals can work in concert to help you feel happier overall in life, while also coming through for yourself on what matters to you.

For example, personal finance is an arena that is less conducive to living by only a theme for the majority of us. If you’re independently wealthy and wise with your resources, then perhaps a theme is just great for you.

But for most of us who need to generate revenue on an ongoing basis to pay for living expenses and provide for retirement and work toward other financial goals, having a theme without a goal will not help.

An example before you choose just a theme, sans goal

Let’s say someone wants to purchase a home in Toronto (ranked third most likely as a real estate bubble by UBS this year). Let’s say that regardless of whether they have family/other assistance, they still need to save up a chunk for a downpayment. For argument’s sake, let’s say they need another $50,000.

If they choose a theme that complements homeownership, their theme could be just that: “homeowner”.

Will that theme get them the $50,000?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Potentially they’ll start saving money from every paycheque and/or windfall and meet with a financial advisor. Or maybe they’ll save a bit here and there (or not at all). Perhaps they’ll change goals mid-way and decide they want to use their money differently.

Was having the theme bad? Certainly not. The theme is great. It puts them in the mindset of homeownership, and from an energetic perspective, attracts that kind of energy and connections into their lives.

A theme allows them to explore lots of new things that they may have previously not associated with a goal. Their theme would likely result in some personal growth as well, which would also result in their overall improved happiness.

But did the theme provide the path to get to the destination or state of being of homeownership? No, it didn’t. It illuminated the destination and supported good decision-making along the way, which is fantastic.

However, the existence of the destination doesn’t automatically result in the path to get there. You have to create or find that path.

Why not consider both a theme and a goal?

If the person in our example had the theme of homeownership (or “happy home” which allows for broader self-development), and a goal of building up $50,000 (and did the microsteps necessary to achieve it), then they would be significantly better off.

They would experience:

  • Empowerment because they created the outcome they decided they wanted.
  • Satisfaction and new things because their theme had encouraged them to explore beyond the confines of the goal.
  • Improved overall happiness because they would likely have grown personally.
  • The ability to make that downpayment because they had a resilient and realistic plan whose implementation actually saved up the $50,000.

Concluding thoughts

Without having used these labels, I have personally been implementing both a theme and goals for the past couple of years.

My themes have included “spiritual development”, “wise, effective, compassionate leader” and “wise steward of my energy”. The goals I’ve undertaken have been myriad and have supported each of these themes synergistically.

Whether you’re a New Year’s resolution kind of person or not, I encourage you to ruminate on these ideas as you contemplate the start of a new year.

PS – if you’re new to this site and New Year’s Eve is difficult for you, I suggest you check out the previous post for a nourishing meditation.

My wish for you is a new year filled with healed power in love. Now let’s get out there and create that reality!

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