A Fun Way to Shape the New Year: Pick a One-Word Theme.

I love New Year’s resolutions – and I’m not the only one. Some 44% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions.

There’s one kind of resolution that I particularly love: identifying one idea, often summarized in just one word, as an overarching theme for the entire year.

My sister often does this kind of resolution. This year her theme is “Novel.” One year was the year of “Free Time,” another, “Hot Wheels” — that year, she got a car and started driving; she and I have both struggled with a fear of driving, which was much tougher for her, given that she lives in Los Angeles and I live in New York City. If you want to hear about my fear of driving, click here.  (Warning, non sequitur: follow my sister on Twitter, @elizabethcraft.)

Another friend of mine does the same thing. One year, I remember, was “Dark,” another was “Make.”

One year I chose “Bigger.” I have to fight the urge to simplify, to keep things manageable; this word will remind me to think big, to tolerate complications, to expect more from myself. Many people work to simplify their lives, but I struggle against the tendency to simplify too much. As Albert Einstein observed, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

This year, I’ve chosen “Upgrade.” I want to take many areas of my life to the next level. I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages, from the opening of Norman Rush’s fascinating novel, Mating.

“There was an opulent sunset. I was standing under an acacia in bloom and the words ‘shower of gold’ came into my mind, followed by a surge of feeling. I call it greed, but it was more a feeling of wanting a surplus in my life, wanting to have too much of something, for a change. I didn’t want to be a candidate anymore, not for a doctorate or anything else: I wanted to be at the next level, where things would come to me, accrue to me. It was acute.”

I love this passage because it describes a feeling that I’ve often experienced, but have never quite been able to put into words myself. Do you know this feeling of “wanting a surplus,” “wanting to have too much,” where “things would accrue to me”? My sister and I sometimes talk about “wanting to get a present in the mail,” but it’s not exactly that…

In writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I’ve been thinking obsessively about habits. There are lots of one-word themes that might help someone determined to master his or her her habits: Health; Finish, Rest; Free (as in “free from french fries“); Fulfillment, etc.

Have you ever tried this choose-a-theme approach? Did it help you direct your year?

I’m fascinated to get more ideas for themes. What theme or word would you pick?

  • Maike

    My theme for 2015 is “change” as I know there are going to be many changes in my life this year. Involuntary ones as well as voluntary ones, e.g. looking for a new flat, looking for a new job and, best of all, my very own Happiness Project. So I hope that 2015 will, indeed, be a “Happy” New Year with lots of good changes.

  • My word for 2015 would be “consistent”. I already know the things I need to do to stay happy, and I’m doing them semi-regularly. I don’t need any revolutionary new system or massive overhaul or anything like that. I just need to keep being consistent and pushing on with what I’m already doing.

    • gretchenrubin

      GREAT word for good habits.

    • this is my word, too! consistency is where i’ve failed in the past, so that i end up gaining and losing the same ground over and over again. like you, nicole, i know what i need to do … this year i’m focusing on doing them consistently.

  • Priyanka

    My word for 2015 is self-care. I’m inspired by you Gretchen – when we give to ourself, we can give more to others. I tend to completely neglect my physical self-care — too much in my mind — and plan to start walking and do yoga to be more fit and grounded. The other thing that I’d like to incorporate is more down time in my day.

  • Claire

    I love the “one word” idea … versus resolutions which feel like such downers. This year I picked Wave as my word. I love the idea of moving and carrying forward. I spent some time looking at all the various definitions and loved the fluid, almost
    dance-like, feel. I can create waves. I can carry my wave forward. Or I can
    take the friendly route and just wave!

  • momto2cuddlebugs.wordpress.com

    My word for 2015 is “lighten up”. Ok, that’s two words. Lightening up is soooo important to happiness. I find myself reflecting a lot more on happiness, and what specifically makes me happy, after reading your two books. Your writing is inspirational!

  • Orla Kenny

    My one word for this year would have to be Abundance !

  • Gillian

    My word/phrase for the year is Act! Implement! Do! This is an attempt to make better use of my time and to fulfill my intentions. I frequently have an idea of what I want to do but almost as frequently don’t do it. I also lose a lot of time between tasks while I psyche up for the next thing on the list – procrastination. So when I am in that state of mind, I want to invoke my phrase in the hope that it will actually stimulate action.

    I’ve already had some success. I received a Christmas card from an aunt in Scotland who said she would be alone on Christmas Day. I thought that was a shame and thought then that it would be nice to phone her. Traditionally, it would have stopped at the thought but on Christmas morning, I actually picked up the phone and called her. We had a nice chat and she was completely delighted that I had called, which made me delighted that I had done it. If only I can keep up the trend for the whole year so that that kind of thing becomes in ingrained habit.

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  • My theme for the year is “Completion”. I have a book as well as several projects I’m aiming to finish up in 2015. I decided to throw goals and resolutions out for this year and just concentrate on that one word. Completion. I’m for it!

  • Brooke

    Last year the word I picked was SPACE. I wanted more SPACE in my daily life, in my weekly and monthly planning, in my finances. Instead of thinking, “Can I do this?” when faced with a decision about time and energy, I would look at all my other obligations and think, “Can I do this and still have SPACE in my schedule?”

    This year I picked CONNECT. I want to connect more with friends and family and meet new people.

  • Ermelin Leal

    My word for 2015 is change. I will be embracing change in every shape and form. I’ll become a mother for the 3rd time and will be having my first baby boy!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Last year I chose ‘KIND” as my word. It felt like an epic fail. I often had unkind feelings and lacked patience and compassion as my Mom became more affected by memory loss. I was able to do kind actions, but not responding sharply to her sharpness? Not so easy. I became more aware that my opinion of myself as a ‘good, kind’ person only holds when I am not put to the test. Lesson learned.

    This year I have chosen ‘TIDY’. I adopted the word used by Maria Kondo in her book ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ — and I thank you, Gretchen, for leading me to it. Her approach makes sense. Her idea of a big, one-time effort to get home where you want it to be (in about six months) gives me a great timeline. I have already begun, and aim to finish with the things-we-all-have by the end of June. The rest of the year will probably be needed to deal with fabric and sewing tools and with my library, which I do not ever intend to shrink down to 100 books or less. Hey, I’m a scholar and a writer and a quilter–those are my tools and materials we are talking about.

    • penelope schmitt

      The word I was groping for, for the year 2011, was DETAILS . . . I could not remember the word, but I could certainly remember the mountain of details I addressed and took care of that year. Last year I am sure I did more such work than I had done in the year of ‘details’ so I know that I learned something from the experience. Interesting that a word that was counter to my usual disposition was the most successful teacher. I hope that TIDY, being uncharacteristic too, will be equally a good one!

  • Miriam Young

    Mine is “Enjoy”. Ex: Putting down the phone, taking less pictures to prove i was there and just being in the moment with my husband and my 20 month old daughter.

  • Jenny

    My word for the year is NOW. My hope is that this will help me in a variety of situations, especially getting things done NOW that I’m avoiding, and being both mentally and physically present for myself and my family NOW, whatever the situation.

  • jen13

    My word for the year is “adventure”! I want to approach my life with a sense of excitement and openness. I want to try new things and stretch out of my comfort zone. In the back of my mind I have the Indiana Jones theme playing and it gets me excited for what’s to come.

  • I haven’t ever done this before and have never heard of it until this year at this time. One of the bloggers I follow is using the word “flourish,” which I think is beautiful 🙂 My word this year is… “passion.” I want to be passionate about everything I do. I want to find what I’m most passionate about. That may also come in handy as I’m trying to decide on a major (or two??) to declare 😛 -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

  • Natalie

    I did this last year and I think I chose Thrive. Not sure because I rarely remembered it. I don’t know what I would chose for 2015. My life is in such turmoil at the moment with family health issues, I probably need Calm. Not sure how to achieve it.

  • Kristi Socha

    My theme for 2015 is “Enough”. I have enough..I do enough..I’ve had enough…I am enough! I have the tendency to allow myself to be directed by negative self talk and always thinking I need to be more. This year I want to savor and relish all that I am and all that I have in my life.
    Other years I have chosen “create” and “shine”. I try to find verses, quotes, and songs that go with my theme. They help me to stay inspired!

  • Joanna

    I could not come up with a word straight away. But since I’ve just read “the Happiness Project” over Christmas break and am in the process of planning out my own project, it came to me the other day: “FOCUSED”. Even though, there are many other words I could adopt ( and might starting next year), I thought it was a great one to get me started.

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  • Kate

    I’ve chosen the word “Aware.” I want to be aware of what I’m eating, the choices I’m making, and even aware of how/why I do things around the house…like being aware that if I put down my book on the kitchen counter, there’s a good chance it will be there for two weeks, so I might as well put it in its proper place to begin with.

  • Tosha

    I’m a high school English teacher, and this is my 3rd year to use a theme to focus the year for my teaching. I started with Inspiration – what inspired the stories, the authors, the ideas. Year two I chose Explore – and the kids and I looked into everything a little deeper than before and tried many new technology tools. I just learned with them. This year is my favorite, Together – we’ve been building community within the classroom and working for our community. The kids have two or three different groups they work with for review, research, questions, and they are started to see that Together they are stronger and have a more powerful voice.

  • I would pick “Fearless” so I can convince myself that I can do anything without self-doubt.

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  • Pam West

    I just decided on my word this morning: Stewardship. I want to keep this thought in mind with all my decisions this year. I want to be a better steward of my time, my money, and my relationships. For me, this concept is founded in my Christian faith. Not so much “what would Jesus do” but more “what would Jesus want me to do.” I can’t be like Him but I can be better and make better choices.

  • ConstanceEve

    Last year I picked music, a great love of mine. Having it as a special word meant that I paid more attention, went to more concerts, was even more thankful for music. I’m thinking about art for this year; hopefully I’ll pay more attention, learn something, even take some lessons! That will be new for me.

  • Katy B

    This is my first year of picking a word for the year ahead. I’ve decided on “establish.” I’m being made redundant at the end of this month and will be starting a new journey being self employed. I want to establish myself as self employed, establish a good work/life balance, establish a new routine and many other exciting things 🙂

  • Megan

    I was thinking about “BEST”… not “the best”, but “my best”. I usually tend to do things just to get them done, without doing a thorough job of it. This could relate to my appearance, my fitness routine (non-existent), my work, or the cleanliness of my home! I’d like to try to do more… not aiming for perfection, just my own personal best. I’ve just finished reading “At Home with Madame Chic”, where the author encourages us to be aware of how we present ourselves, and to relish the details in our daily lives. Another commentor said “DETAILS”, so maybe that applies to my resolution too.

  • Deb Hayden

    Gretchen–love the upgrade concept–especially how it works with habits of simplifying, decluttering, tidying, minimalism, etc. You focus on what you want to keep and make it, whatever it is, better. Then the rest falls into the background, disappears by magic. Waiting for your new best-seller.

  • Kelly

    Cultivate. As in, grow, encourage, nourish. Primarily relationships, but also skills and interests. Happy 2015!

  • Marci

    My 2014 word: FUN. And I’m happy to report that I had much more fun in 2014 than in recent years. I typically focus so much on my family, my job and those good-for-me-but-not-fun goals that I haven’t spent time just enjoying life. I didn’t have a long list of how I was going to accomplish having more fun, but “FUN” gave me the right mindset to say yes to fun opportunities that came my way. I also decided to do something fun every Sunday, which gave me something look forward to during the week.

    FUN gave me permission to do things I wanted to do, but someone was usually willing to join me. I grew closer to my kids and husband as a side benefit, and I also deepened friendships. I wanted to complete some photo challenges – my daughter joined me for sunrise pictures and other projects; I wanted to go on a trip – my son and I organized a long weekend road trip with his friends and their moms. I wanted to try a new restaurant – my husband joined me and we made a list of other places we want to try.

    It’s funny, but I also ended up doing some of those good-for-me goals as well. I exercised more because I went hiking or biking regularly with friends. I networked more because I made lunch and walking dates with colleagues I enjoy.

    My 2015 word/phrase: MORE FUN.

  • Kimberly Ann

    My word for 2015 is Forward. This is the 5th year I’ve picked a word and for the last 3 years I’ve participated with a group of creative people that choose their words and react to a monthly creative prompt to keep the word visible in their lives during the year. Feel free to check it out at http://www.aliedwards.com!

  • Issi

    I’m going with “order”. I have had some success with the Strategy of Foundation but the pillar I struggle most with is order. I am hoping that getting my paperwork in order will mean I find it less stressful and free up the time I spend fretting to do something more fun. I have set up an online to do list (at http://www.rememberthiemilk.com) and calendar (at http://www.keepandshare.com) and I really recommend both sites. I also intend to get my craft supplies in order so that I can easily sit down to half an hour of knitting/drawing/sewing rather than spend that half an hour hunting for stuff.

    Strangely I have resisted “order” in the past as being a bit boring but actually I can see that it will free up time for me to have more fun. I am also finding two other strategies that I have previously resisted extremely useful – scheduling and monitoring. Why is it that I’ve have strongly resisted such useful things for so long?!

  • HL

    My four-word phrase for 2015 is: “It’s not about you.” (Spoken to myself.) It’s so true but I keep forgetting it.

  • Mike

    I’m reading the Happiness Project and I’m on the march chapter, so when read that you have a blog i felt i wanted to see it. It’s not criticism but i just noticed all the images about resolutions are on the first images shown when googling “Resolutions”. By the way I’m thinking to start my own blog, that’s why I wanted to see this one, I’m really enjoying the book.

  • HEHink

    My first-time word of the year for last year was “Stronger,” and having that word was really helpful when I was in a slump or having trouble making decisions. I could ask, “What would make me stronger?” and that would usually make my choice, or at least my range of options, clearer.

    This year, I’m choosing a phrase carried over from the holidays: “Comfort and Joy.” Last year, my family and both needed to grow stronger in order to – and grew stronger through the process of – buying and moving into a home of our own in a beautiful yet challenging location. This year, I want to focus on bringing more comfort and joy into our home, first, and maybe also into my space at work later on. For me, comfort includes both the physical comfort of being well settled in, and the peace of mind that will come from a) knowing my family and I are taking care of ourselves well, and b) dealing with important matters that we have been putting off. I actually forfeited a full scholarship to pursue a master’s degree (which I had sort of ‘drifted’ into in the first place) because I concluded that it was more important for me and my family to “Put [our] house in order” as Marie Kondo says (I, too, will be using her book to help us accomplish this). The degree program did not fit comfortably into our life, and it wasn’t bringing me, or any of us, joy. Having made that decision, my phrase for the year will help me focus on what I DO want to accomplish, rather than floundering and wasting time deciding what to do next. I’m kind of keeping ‘and strength’ in parentheses in my head next to my phrase, because I want to keep doing the things that have made me feel stronger, too.

  • My theme this year is Replenish. I tend to give myself lots of tasks and drive very hard to accomplish as much as I can. But after moving during the holidays and also on a work deadline, I realize that this tendency to cram too much doing into my life has left me burned out and uninspired. This year, anything that feels like it is feeding me gets top priority. Doing for the sake of feeling “productive” is out. No more frantic over scheduling. I look forward to a year of carefully protected time and restorative activities and plans.

  • Intention!

  • Dawn Cook Design

    My word is recalibrate! Diet, exercise, expectations, relationships…it works!

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  • Erin

    I first saw this on Christine Kane’s blog and have done it for several years. Past words were Courage and Action (which led to trying all sorts of new things) and Grace (to take the high road/cut people some slack and generally zip my lip against the temptation to gossip/criticize).

    For 2015 I chose Abstain – I gave up alcohol on January 7, and also want to limit buying possessions. I just recently added Share as my other word. I often wait for people to ask me about myself instead of freely offering info or stories (sometimes out of politeness but often as some sort of control by withholding issue). My hope is that Share will help me express myself and get closer with people; also professionally a reminder to share positive feedback and encourage sharing of views.

    I’d love some tips on how to remind myself of this word throughout the year.

  • Maria

    My word for 2015 is PLAYFUL. I suppose it’s similar to what someone above mentioned about ‘lightening up’. My wish for playfulness doesn’t only have to do with spending more time playing with my child, but also has to do with the adoption of a more playful attitude in my general outlook–in my work, with my husband, in the way I see the world & think about things. I also think playfulness has to do with allowing more creativity in life.

  • Dawn Downs Purney

    Last year my word was Reframe. It served me well & I will continue to do it. This year I am deciding between Breathe and Connect.

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