Forget resolutions: Pick a theme for a focus this year

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

“How many of you make New Year’s resolutions?” the energized author asked the group gathered for a holiday luncheon.

Most hands rose, acknowledging the observance of the annual tradition.

“And now,” she continued, “how many of you keep those New Year’s resolutions?”

Only a few hands remained up as the rest of us placed our palms back in our laps. Clearly, we needed to hear what Mary Ann Masur, our luncheon speaker, had to say about keeping resolutions.

Most of us agreed that we failed to keep our New Year’s resolutions because we could not sustain the effort needed to accomplish them. We lacked the will or determination to complete our list. And sometimes the list itself became daunting or a negative reminder of what we were failing to do.

Drawing from her new book, “Leadership Tips: 52 Weeks to Business and Personal Success, Volume 2,” Masur suggested a new approach from her “Redirecting Resolutions” tip.

“Instead of creating a list,” she suggested, “pick a theme.”

She encouraged us to think in terms of what we wanted to accomplish in a year’s time and to look beyond the “to do’s” to a larger representation. She reminded us of the role of themes in the old television drama, Ally McBeal, where Ally’s quirky psychologist advised her to choose a theme song to play in her head when she needed to focus or muster courage. Masur also noted that each Chinese year is named after an animal, a kind of theme for each year. Then she asked us each to pick a theme for 2009.

As we sat there and pondered her request, it took us a few minutes to elevate our thinking from the details of specific “to do’s” to an umbrella of broader goals. Once selected, each theme was shared within the group. One fellow chose his theme to be the year of renewal. Another selected hers to be the year of simplifying. And another chose hers to be the year of family. For me, this will be the year of redefining. With children moving up and out and family and friends becoming more scattered, it’s time to re-engage, reach out and rediscover more roles within these changing contexts.

“The theme becomes your focus, inspiring you to take actions in its support,” Masur contends. “This approach means that you are moving toward something rather than denying yourself or relying on willpower.”

In the weeks since that workshop, I’ve reflected on my theme and the ease of working that into everyday living. It’s easy to keep it playing the background of my mind as I prioritize where I spend my time.

Webster may offer the best rationale for this method’s success when he defines a theme as “an implicit or recurrent idea.”

Our themes are there, implicit and recurring, just waiting to be tapped and thrown into the spotlight. More importantly, when we move toward a positive goal, we play right into Isaac Newton’s famous first law of motion: “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.”

And in this year that promises to be an extraordinary year of adventure, staying in motion will be critical as we enter into unprecedented uncertainties. We will need to keep moving, keep flexible and keep focused on what matters.

Perhaps we should all take a moment to reflect on what we want to accomplish this year and select a theme to anchor us. On the journey ahead, theme-based living could be a welcome companion.

Happy New Year!