10 years ago, I gave up making New Year’s resolutions because I figured out something that worked better. I was a college student at Stanford University reflecting, disappointedly, on my first two years of school.  I chose to go 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 freshman and sophomore years of college, I concluded that I was only marginally more intelligent than when I was in high school. I knew a bit more physics, a bit more calculus. But more glaringly, by the end of the 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 growing small town in Texas. We had one public high school that everyone went to. There were 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 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 that could launch an 18 lb training shot-put, 172 feet. And, there was also 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 the things 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 resolution. 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 Creativity.” 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 pushed to live more creatively at every turn.

  • I designed a vertical axis wind turbine to generate power in developing countries. 
  • Instead of taking a normal internship, I applied 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 strategy & design firm called DC Design that’s working to change the world. I’ve designed new products for people with disabilities, developed strategy alongside governments to ensure people leaving jail can get back on their feet after release, helped nonprofits and foundations improve quality of life outcomes for foster youth, and taught thousands of young people how to design the world around them and create change that matters. 

I attribute 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 want 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 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 resolution 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 your 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 many of the creative, and self-authoring aspects of my life since going off to college. The knowledge that losing those aspects of myself would hinder 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.

Who will you disappoint if you don’t live out the theme you’ve set? Is it you or someone close to you? I think the strongest motivation for lifelong change is to understand what disappointment feels like. You have to look ahead and think about how that disappointment will feel to you or those you love.

For example,  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 is to quit smoking. 

When you think about how you’ll personally feel about yourself in the future if you don’t quit, those feelings might not be strong enough to motivate you to act. But when you think about your daughter, you might find that you’re 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 and his life if he 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 Action” 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. These should be action that can help you get closer to accomplishing these goals but that are also part of the theme of “Healthy Action” 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 you don’t much care for drinking, that cutting out drinking might help reduce how much you smoke as well.
  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 “Hows” 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 Action” or “Creativity” any time you remember the name. After a while, the actions you take become good habits to replace bad ones. And ultimately, isn’t that what we’re all aiming for?