10 years ago, I gave up making new year’s resolutions. It wasn’t a conscious act nor an act of rebellion, as it is for some people, against an arbitrary date measuring when the earth has successfully made it around the sun again. On the contrary, for me, I’ve always cherished opportunities to reflect on who I am and who I’m becoming. Instead, I gave up new years resolutions because I developed something that worked better for me and that I think, might work better for you too.

I was a student in college at the time and as the new school year approached, I thought back on my first two years. I had gone to Stanford University to learn how to change the world. I wanted to become an inventor who would create products that improved quality of life. But, as I looked back on my first two years of college, I concluded that I was only marginally more intelligent than I was in high school. I knew a bit more physics, a bit more calculus. But more glaringly, by the end of that first two years, I had sacrificed many of the aspects of self that had gotten me to Stanford in the first place. As I looked ahead, I saw where that would lead me in life and it wasn’t exciting.  

I grew up in what was then a small town in Texas. We had one public high school that everyone went to. I had 754 people in my freshman class. And though we didn’t have every elective that some of my peers in college had when they were in high school, I took full advantage of all the ones we did have. I took classes that let me express myself through poetry in both English and Spanish. I played sports but was also was a drummer in the band. In physics, we were given the assignment to design a trebuchet that could throw a heavy object far. Naturally, my best friend and I took to building a 20 foot tall trebuchet, bolted to the top of a flat-bed trailer, to launch an 18 lb training shot put, 172 feet. And of course, there was my home environment where in my working class, military family, if we were going to have anything, we were going to build it ourselves.

In high school, I was designing, building, and creating all the time. As I entered my junior year of college, I thought back to all these moments and realized that in my first two years of college, I had stopped doing almost all of these that had gotten me there. While some people just accept that as we get older, we need to let go of our childhood passions and fit in more with the everyday world. I rejected the future that not expressing myself would bring. One where I moved only on the path that was laid out for me by the world. One that wasn’t custom. One that didn’t know my dreams. And, one that would never lead me to become the person I wanted to become.

So I decided to take control of my future. But not with a new year’s resolutions. Instead, I took control by giving my year a name – A theme – that I would live day in and day out for the next 365 days.

I named that year – The Year of Creation. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to create, but I knew I wanted to embed creativity into as many aspects of my life as I could. From that point forward, everything changed.

I bought a giant 8 foot by 6 foot canvas and hung it on the wall in my dorm room. I would draw on it during my free moments here and there throughout the year. I continued to take my normal Mechanical Engineering classes but used them to design ambitious and creative products, like a vertical axis wind turbine, my professors and teaching assistants were dubious would be possible within the time frame. Instead of taking a normal internship, I applied for a grant for a grant to carry out my own summer research project that would lead me to live with a host family in the forests of northern Nicaragua. There, I did research on how access to electricity affects quality of life. I bought a $40 dollar guitar off ebay, downloaded some guitar music to my computer knowing I wouldn’t have internet for 2 months, and learned how to play a new instrument alongside my host father. I read 8 books and learned that my dream in life – creating things that help those furthest from opportunity – was not only possible, but needed.

That one act of naming my year changed everything. It’s now been 10 years and I’ve been naming my years ever since. The results are clear. I’m the Founder and CEO of my own social impact design firm. I’ve worked to design new solutions to problems that have physical products as their solutions – like devices for those with disabilities. But I’ve also helped governments design their strategy for helping people leaving jail get back on their feet, helped nonprofits and foundations improve quality of life outcomes for foster youth, and gone on to teach thousands of young people how to design the world around them and create change that matters.

I attribute so much of this to the mindsets and frameworks I’ve picked up and developed over time and one of the big ones is this habit of naming my years.

WHY NEW YEARS RESOLUTIONS RARELY WORK:

As far as I can see, the reason New Year’s resolutions don’t work is because of three key factors:

  1. They focus on “what” you what to do instead of focusing on the 3 other key factors that make naming a year successful.
  2. They don’t allow room for flexibility or creativity as conditions change. Whether you accomplish your goal is typically a binary choice.
  3. They don’t represent a change in who you are. They just represent a change in what you do. They aren’t fundamental to anything about you and because they don’t lead to a change in your mindset on a fundamental level, the pressures of life that make it too easy to return to the status quo.  

HOW TO NAME YOUR YEARS SO YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE:

Naming your years is different than a new year’s resolutions because not only does it address all three issues stated above. It also helps you to focus on three other key factors that are crucial. You’ll see that naming a year does include goals – similar to resolutions, but they are not the sole focus. As you choose a name – follow these steps and you’ll be well on way to changing your life.

STEP 1: DEVELOP YOUR WHY.

The name of your year is a theme that you are going to intentionally live by for 365 days. For this to work, you need to understand your “why.” What’s important to you? What makes you sad or disappointed when you think about it? What’s something that ties into a deeper goal?  In my example above, the Year of Creativity stemmed from a feeling of disappointment that I had lost so much of the creative and thus, self-authoring, aspects of my life since going off to college. The knowledge that that loss was directly tied to my dream of living a fulfilling life where I didn’t work a normal 9-5 and settle for a life I didn’t want was my Why.

STEP 2: DEVELOP YOUR WHO.

I think the strongest motivator for lifelong change is to tie disappointment regarding whether you accomplish something or not to how you’ll feel about yourself. However, often it doesn’t look like that to start with. In your case, if you’re a smoker and you choose a name like “The year of healthy action.” One of the things you may include as a goal to live more healthily is to quit smoking. However, another might be to start eating more organic food.

As you think about these It might not be you who’s really disappointed that your still smoking, but when you think about your daughter, you might find that your more motivated by her, the example you want to set, and the fact that you want to be around for her future. In my example from the “Year of Creativity” I was mostly motivated by thinking about my future self and how he would view his own college career. How he would view himself. And how disappointed he would be if I wasted more time.

STEP 3: DEVELOP YOUR HOW.

How are you going to make that theme a reality? what are the general goals you want to achieve and what are the specific actions you want to put in place to make it happen? This is where you take the concept of a new years resolution to quit smoking or to start a business and transform them into lifestyle and mindset changes that you can practice in all sorts of ways.

Using the “Year of Healthy Living” as an example, your general goals might include

  1. Losing 50 lbs
  2. Quitting smoking
  3. Eating Organic Food

But to make these goals, which in the past would have been seen as new year’s resolutions, into something meaningful, you’re going to want to decide on specific action items you can take that can help you move toward those goals but that are also part of healthy living in and of themselves.

These specific action might include

  1. Getting some form of exercise, even if it’s only 5 minutes, every day.
  2. Realizing that if you smoke most when you drink but drinking isn’t as big of a problem, that cutting out drinking might help reduce how much you smoke and could serve as the first step toward quitting all together.
  3. Planning one night a week where the family cooks healthy foods at home together in place of ordering take-out.

There are a number of ways to approach the “How” of executing on your theme for the year, and over the years, my how’s have become more detailed and measurable. But what I’ve found to be the most important part of creating change in a new year is to remember the name itself and what it means.

New year’s resolutions box us into a win or lose situation. Sometimes in life, that can be good. But often, to change our lives the way we want to, it’s more important to develop new mindsets which lead to new practices. Naming your year gives you a chance to practice “healthy living” or “creativity” any time you remember that that’s what your theme is all about.