Start With A Theme If You Want To Achieve Your Goals
A different way towards success
I suck at goals.
They either start off too big and ambitious — or are entirely unachievable.
Yup. That’s me.
If you’re having the same problem, year after year, week after week, goal after goal, then you should give theme setting a try.
What is theme setting?
Theme setting is something I’ve discovered recently for myself.
It’s the idea of setting an overarching idea of what you want to become over the next 12 to 24 months. There are two components to set a theme:
- the vision
- the timeframe
Both of these are important because the vision gives you the blank space to figure out your path. The timeframe gives you a deadline.
While the deadline often looks far away, the journey towards the vision is often dotted with events, activities, and mini-goals. The months in between are not idle time. Rather, it’s the time you take to consistently figure out the path towards what you want to achieve.
Why it works
The point of theme setting is that gives you a compass to work with, rather than written instructions.
Most of the time, when you start out, your self imposed and prescribed path are most likely incorrect — or your habits, routines and mental ability to perform such tasks are not quite trained up for it yet.
It’s like trying to run a marathon without any gym work or preparation. You can try and the first few minutes will feel alright. Then the breathlessness kicks in. And your throat starts burning. Your face turns red and your legs protest with cramps.
It’s the same thing with goals when you completely change your life to try and achieve them. Working with themes rather than concrete goals lets you ease into the life you want rather than jumping into the yo-yo effect.
What happened for me
In 2019, I set a theme for myself. I struggled with a sense of technical and professional depth and decided to pursue it. I ended up calling it a Depth Year and committed to the idea for 12 months.
There were no plans, only an overarching theme that I reviewed my actions against every month. It was a big and overarching end goal of happiness and I assessed my activities based on that metric.
Questions I asked myself included:
- was what I did in alignment with where I want to go?
- is the client’s work aligned with where I want to go?
- is my writing aligned with what I’m trying to achieve?
- have I been attentive and present to my toddler?
- did the things I do make me happy this month? If not, what went wrong? What can I do better?
These monthly reviews kept me on my true north each month. There were times when I strayed — I started chasing after Medium money rather than myself. Or when I took on clients that didn’t exactly inspire me to work, which I didn’t continue with them beyond the contracted work.
Failure but not a complete failure
The failures I experienced were different from the kinds that happened when I just had goals.
Instead, each failure was more akin to straying away from a pathway.
The thing with themes is that you’re allowed to walk the wrong roads every now and then. It’s a process of discovery and uncovering the right path. There’s no set way or guarantee — only what you’ve experienced and figured out based on your personal discoveries, revelations and circumstances.
It’s one thing for me to tell you exactly how to get somewhere vs. you figuring it out for yourself and what works for you. Because I can tell you to wake up at 5am to guarantee success — but it doesn’t mean that success will automatically happen for you.
Setting a theme is more a framework towards figuring out a series of goals that will get you to where you want. It’s not a prescriptive methodology. Failure is expected, along with your response to it.
little itty bitty steps towards success
Setting a theme gives you a destination. Every step you take is supposed to contribute towards that theme in some way.
This means you are actively working at your goals.
Personally, I use the no-two-day rule.
It’s a rule where if I decide to commit to something, I don’t skip it two days in a row.
If I miss one day — it’s not the end of the world.
But I must do something about it the next day. The only exception is if I’m legitimately dying of sickness or the toddler is sick. Then it becomes a priority of which goal I’m not allowed to skip.
It’s how I managed to write 228 stories so far on Medium. It’s how I managed to finish all my client work on time. It’s how I can still find time to code, experiment and create in addition to all my other life’s obligations.
I use the no-two-days rule.
Train like a turtle
I’m a rabbit — easily distracted by the shiny new things. But turtle-like habits can be trained and ingrained.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the tale of the turtle and the rabbit. The turtle represents slow and steady while the rabbit is fast but darty.
Yes. It’s a bit unfair to compare the nature of two very different animals. But we are not exclusively like one or the other. We all have a bit of turtle and rabbit in us. We are also in total control over how we respond to the world.
We might have our nature and natural inclinations to do one thing over another, but we always have the choice to decide.
It’s why we can train up our habits to be like the turtle — wholly focused towards an end goal.
And that’s where themes come in handy for the more rabbit inclined among us.
A theme gives us a destination. It’s an end goal and the race against time is only against yourself. There’s no one to compare yourself to and how quickly you get there depends on how often you review your path.
The process of review is more important than the goal itself. It allows you to determine if your goal will actually get you to where you want. Sometimes, your circumstances change and you’ll need to adapt your journey to it. The inability to achieve a goal is often viewed as a failure. It’s a fixed signpost.
Themes, however, gives you the flexibility for change — something you’ll need as you uncover new information, come to new realizations about yourself and the world around you.
It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you go. For all we know, our perception of slow may actually be someone else’s version of fast.
Take things in your own time and commit yourself to something — even if it’s just for a year.
A year can change so many things, as it has done to mine.