Use Annual Themes to Get Past Limiting Resolutions

Several years ago, I abandoned the idea of New Year’s Resolutions and replaced it with the concept of an annual theme.

A theme has greater transformative power than a simple point solution. Moreover, you can’t really “fail” at a theme. You can grow more or less mindful of a theme as the year progresses, but it doesn’t set you up to disappoint yourself or beat yourself up over an unmet goal.

These thematic thoughts provide a touchstone through all the ups and downs of the year. Actions make more sense with reasons behind them. Think about previous years when you’ve tried resolutions, especially common resolutions like exercise, weight loss, quitting smoking. You can’t just get commitment off the shelf as a pre-packaged “product,” which is really what resolutions like that typically are.

If you didn’t succeed with your past resolutions, ask yourself whether you really anchored that goal on a deep reason – to perform better at work, to live longer and with greater health for your loved ones, to have more impact in the world around you. When you do have a deep reason, which you can keep in mind using an annual theme, you’ll do better with your goals.

You can use an annual theme in many more ways. A resolution typically only applies when the topic comes up, even if it comes up in your thoughts often. You can use your theme as a lens through which to look at many circumstances and situations. You can even use it as a mantra if you choose to meditate.

For 2019, my theme is “grow.” I appreciate the double meaning of personal and business growth and of cultivating in the world around me. A grower prepares the soil and plants seeds. A grower acts as a committed steward from green shoots to flowers and fruits. A grower pulls out weeds. A grower cares and cares for.

I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for the level of focus on priorities and outcomes that I intend to bring to the coming year.

What would you choose as your theme for the year?

Kind Feedback: Don’t Make This Common Manager’s Mistake

Simple concept. Managers, don’t do this!


We don’t have to give everyone a gold star for everything they do, but let’s also free ourselves from the tendency to focus only on the negative. Managers can focus on reinforcing the best aspects of each employee’s performance. Peers, too, can shift their frame of reference, by keeping unmet expectations and concerns in proper perspective. Too often, we are conditioned to ignore what’s working well; we problematize rather than find ways to maximize and create shared progress through collaborative outcomes.

Photo credit: via Henry Ward.

Try Turning Off The Outrage Machine

I’ve stopped following the news, and I have stopped engaging on my personal Facebook account. A simple reason has pushed me to do this. The outrage machine, at last, has exhausted me. But I have learned so much more in the silence of turning it off.

I can’t listen to any more stories about war, conflict, violence, political buffoonery, grievance seeking, or the collapse of the environment. I can’t indulge in anyone’s opinions on any of these matters, my own included. “Oh, that’s a cop out,” some will say, and with even a degree of validity, but I think one comes to a point in one’s life where one has to ask why one is doing something. What matters and what must come first? I can no longer leave consuming news media anywhere on that list and at the same time put my practice of kindness first.

“Well, if you don’t know about the details of the refugee crisis in Syria, how can you feel sufficient compassion for it?” some might object. But I don’t think one needs the details of the suffering of other lives, human or other, to feel compassion towards them, especially when knowledge of those details comes with so much with so much toxic manipulation of opinion.

In all frankness, few people who read about these issues do so in the service of open compassion. Rather, the news serves as a pretext for whipping up outrage, spiraling sharing and opinionating around each crumb of information, regardless of its truth. In order to keep us reading, sharing, and commenting, we are subjected to a deluge of reasons to get angrier at “them” for doing or not doing something, at “him” or “her” for saying or not saying something, at “you” for sharing or commenting in a certain way.


And the result of stopping? From inner peace grows the strength to act. Every moment, every quantum of emotional energy that I’ve freed by unhooking from the outrage machine has come back to me multi-fold, with more productivity, greater impact, and deeper kindness.

I have found I can redirect my attention with the force of intention, not dispersed into an outrage that serves no one well and that improves nothing meaningfully. In other words, I have taken back control of that attention, away from the outrage machine that uses my emotions and beliefs to disseminate its products and to bring me back to the trough again and again. I find my time better spent in making a better world than in reading about a worse world.

And, for reasons I still wish to explore but which I still know hold true, I firmly believe that I have not surrendered to ignorance. Instead, I have simply moved along, to running my own machine of kindness and love, to building up steam towards knowing and doing what matters.

Confession: It took me months to build up the courage to form and then act on this principle. It seems to fly in the face of all of the values of good citizenship and informed intellectualism that I have absorbed over the years. So much so, that I have felt reluctant even to admit what I have done or face the stigma of “not knowing what’s going on.” But after a few weeks of doing it, in the face of such freedom, I can’t refuse the call to share what I am doing and why.

An Anti-Resolution Revolution

We all know that New Year’s resolutions, for the most part, fail. Beyond setting us up for guilt and unhealthy self-criticism come February, resolutions prove ineffective by draining our ego and our willpower, without an authentic grounding for change. I have tried them, with middling success. I’ve tried the alternatives, everything from writing a manifesto for the year to elaborate matrices of written goals broken down into achievable steps. The result? Some progress, but honestly, for what?

In 2015, I tried a new technique for capitalizing on the arbitrary but still meaningful change in calendar year: defining a theme for the year. This year, I committed to the theme “make.” I printed out that one word and hung it around my office so that I could see it from every line of sight. Over the course of the year, among other things, I wrote more than I have in a long time, I took a painting class and created a few paintings, and I even founded Kindness Communication. Without holding myself to specifics or berating myself for missed objectives, I am coming out of the year stronger and more focused, and I believe that themes versus resolutions offer us a kinder and more effective path to personal growth.

For 2016, I have chosen a new theme: “look up.” I like that it means a wide range of things, from authentically meeting the gaze of people whom I encounter and sending them kindness to eagerly, optimistically embracing the future, despite the endless churning of bad news that can easily become an addiction. I see the phrase “look up” as shorthand for taking a position that embraces and engages with my surroundings with greater focus and connectedness.

While I couldn’t tell you now how looking up will manifest itself in concrete actions I take in 2016, I feel confident it will serve as a powerful tool for me as I literally and figuratively meet the year ahead of me with a direct gaze.

With that in mind, if you followed suit, what would you choose as your own defining theme for 2016, rather than making resolutions?

Morning Kindness

When I wake up in the morning, bleary-eyed, thinking about going back to sleep, I like to remind myself of what I can do with the day ahead using this simple mantra.

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Let’s demilitarize marketing

I have worked in marketing and communications for many years. Times such as these, most recently faced with the massacre of ordinary people in Paris just living their lives, remind me of a fundamental reservation I felt when entering this field. Why does marketing language tilt towards militarization and violence? If we believe that language and tone matter, should we not promote a change in the dynamic, and demilitarize marketing?

I came to my current profession by way of studying and then teaching French literature at the university level. That experience made many of the quirks of business language sound odd to my ears, but, over time, I assimilated, and wrote off my discomfort as the naive perspective of inexperience. I concluded it didn’t matter, and that I could ignore how strange it is to consider what we do as “strategy,” to speak about “penetrating” a market, to consider our audiences as “targets,” all straight out of the domain of military planning and tactics.

Yet a violent world calls for deeper reflection, calls for accepting that discomfort, and finally calls for constructing a better view of the world. To repeat, language and tone matter, so after a steady stream of mass murders by lone actors and by coordinated groups, I can no longer let it pass. Not in my own thinking, and I ask my peers to demilitarize their own mindset, too.

  • I will no longer call people “targets.” In my marketing and in my work for clients, I am helping them connect with humans. And, along the same lines, I won’t “target” any audiences. I will focus on connection and engagement.
  • I will no longer wage “campaigns.” For now, I have no better words than “initiative,” or “effort,” but in this case the less vivid language suits my purposes better.
  • I will no longer develop “strategies.” I will craft approaches, plan programs and projects, and then work with my colleagues to carry them.

Seemingly everyone in business speaks this way, so even in stating my commitments, I know I will slip. I will certainly not position myself as a language policeman to correct others who use this militarized language. But maybe, just maybe, it will wield the same subtle influence that I believe words have in connecting with people. And maybe, just maybe, it will demilitarize our world just one little bit.


Günter Grass on Work, Leisure, and the Tyranny of “Busy”

“If work and leisure are soon to be subordinated to this one utopian principle – absolute busyness – then utopia and melancholy will come to coincide: an age without conflict will dawn, perpetually busy – and without consciousness.”

―Günter Grass, From the Diary of a Snail, 1972 (photo credit: AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

The Kind Approach To Meeting Madness

It’s absolutely possible to reduce the need for meetings if you focus on clarity and trust. In fact, it’s the kind thing to do. We all have tasks we have to complete and goals we want to reach. Meetings are an interruption. Let’s think with kindness about how to reduce the meeting madness.

A high-functioning team needs shared clarity on each of its members’ roles, and mutual trust that its members are empowered to do what they are accountable for doing. As a team, the time you invest upfront in establishing clarity and trust pays off. How? You all get back the time you would lose in every pointless daily or weekly status meeting that you allow yourself to avoid.

My rule of thumb is that you should almost never have a meeting unless you need the direct input of meeting participants to make a decision. Decisions and status updates can be communicated asynchronously, when team members understand each other’s roles and trust each other’s capacities.

​If it seems strange to think of meeting overload as a failure of kindness, consider the question this way. Many meetings are simply a proxy behavior that takes the place of action and decision making. This happens for two common reasons. One, organization: no one has clear enough accountability, so teams need to come to the table repeatedly to hash out ambiguous decision making. Two, leadership: consciously or unconsciously, a leader wishes to diffuse responsibility for uncertain outcomes by delaying them or multiplying the number of people involved.
When kindness becomes a key part of your interactions, these gaps go away, and the hidden pretext for proxy behaviors goes away. You and your colleagues can then come solidly back to acting and deciding.