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Overcoming the Fragility of Goals with Themes

2 min read · November 30, 2020

Category: General MusingsTagged with: ReflectionsThemes

Photo by Robynne Hu

I’ve never been a fan of New Years Resolutions in terms of making life changes. They often were lofty aspirations which were thrown out after the first few failures. The problem is that these resolutions are often too specific and don’t account for the inevitable unknowns of the future. This excessive rigidity creates the perfect foundation for failure. Short term goals can help mitigate some of these concerns by forcing a more constrained mindset around what can be completed in that timeframe. However, my personal experience has been that these continue to adhere to a similar pass/fail paradigm. In contrast, themes provide a flexible construct that is able to adapt and refocus as the unknowns of the future come into light.

A theme is a general and overarching mindset to help guide and inform direction. A theme is intentionally more vague than a goal. This vagueness allows themes to adapt to unknown variables in the future. This juxtaposes goals which are more likely to be thrown out or deemed as failed attempts when the clarity of the present challenges our naive plans of the past.

This past year my theme was trying new things. Had I set specific long term goals at the start of 2020, I am sure that they would have been thrown out due to circumstances outside of my control. However, keeping a generic theme has allowed me to adapt to what new things I can do within life's current confines. This has resulted in a wealth of new experiences in career growth, speaking at a virtual conference, finding and sticking with a form of exercise I actually enjoy, and much more. Foreseeing these different smaller goals would have been impossible at the start of the year, but they all aligned with my theme.

For me, the benefit of themes over long term goals comes down to how I handle coming short of a goal. Not accomplishing a goal can be accompanied with a substantial amount of psychological guilt. This can be defeating and lead to negative self-talk. Conversely, themes recognize the uncertainty of the future and allow greater flexibility for when situations or mindsets ultimately change. Themes are also not constrained to being a year long commitment. Quarterly themes can also be valuable. For more information about themes, I highly recommend CGP Grey's video on Your Theme.

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