This post is directly inspired by CGP Grey’s Youtube video on Themes. My theme for June, July, and August 2020 is the “Summer of Respect.”
In his video, he suggests doing away permanently with New Year’s Resolutions, and replacing them with themes.
Resolutions are great in theory: they provide a chance to reflect on the prior year, and to target an area of your life to improve upon in the coming year. But often, we incapacitate ourselves with an overly optimistic goal that we inevitably do not achieve.
In my experience, my resolutions end up as foolishly optimistic ultimatums: This year, I’m waking up at 7 AM EVERYDAY, and going to lift Monday Wednesday and Friday, and do cardio on Tuesday and Thursday.
My past 5 years or so of overly ambitious New Year’s resolutions have led to no concrete habit change, as come February, the resolution is abandoned. It’s easy to say “I will make this change,” but innately difficult to follow through. We’re human after all, and making permanent changes to your habits is immensely difficult.
If I were a betting man, I’d say your New Year’s resolution isn’t doing too well either. And you shouldn’t feel bad about it, because New Year’s resolutions SUCK.
They are not a model conducive to success for our monkey brains. Enter themes:
New Year’s Themes
Considering New Year’s resolutions have led to nothing but a brief dose of annual guilt and anxiety for me, I was ecstatic to be exposed to an alternative method to self improvement.
Themes aren’t immediately actionable, but act as a broad foundation to guide you through all the little forks in the road that make up your year.
For example, rather than approaching the year with an ultimatum about exercising 5 days a week, the alternative is to define the year as your “Year of Health,” or “Year of Exercise.”
These themes are then there to make you more conscious about your own day to day decisions, passively nudging you towards the healthier decision
Let’s say you just finished up your day at work (or working from home), and you’re hungry. It’s your year of health
Instead of hopping in the car and picking up some takeout, perhaps you make the simple decision to drive to the grocery store and pick up a fresh rotisserie chicken instead. Success! You just chose a healthier alternative to fast food.
Maybe next time, since the grocery store is such a short drive, you walk, or ride your bike next time. Another success! Whether your theme was health or exercise, this little action is an improvement over an alternative decision that you may have made without the presence of your theme.
Seasons of ‘Theme’, Not Year of ‘Theme’
CGP Grey is right: a year is a long time. It’s much easier to commit to a theme if there’s a little trial period.
Three months is a convenient time bound to make adopting a theme easier. No year long commitment, just a few months that often coincide with a season, a physical marker of the passage of time.
A part of why New Year’s resolutions are so unsuccessful is because there is no time bound. It’s easy to procrastinate or postpone your goal, because you have a whole year to do it, and today, you’re hungover from your New Year’s Eve party. There’s always tomorrow, right?
The time bound of a season is a much gentler entry to the world of themes. If your theme doesn’t work out, you have another trial period coming right up.
Spring of Health
My first theme ended up being a “Spring of Health,” for March, April, and May 2020. I jogged and biked more than I had ever before, and doing so felt good. I had not set a pie in the sky goal of going to the gym 3 days a week, or running/biking every single day. Instead, I had a theme that gently nudged me towards the healthy activities that I so desired: jogging, running, and body weight fitness.
My diet stayed stagnant through my “spring of health.” However, my spring of health led to the side benefit of reduced time on reddit in favor of reading good old fashioned books.
In hindsight, maybe “health” should have been “exercise” as I didn’t adjust my diet in any meaningful way, I only increased my physical activity. But, the health theme helped steer me away from the instant gratification entertainment machine that is reddit, towards a higher consciousness version of consumption: simply reading a book.
This subtle change in consumption improved my mood and my mental health, keeping me on theme!
Having a theme, rather than a rigid resolution, allowed my priorities to change throughout my “Spring of Health.” It just wasn’t the time for me to fundamentally change my diet, but changing up my source of information ended up improving my mental health and general cognitive function.
Spending less time on reddit and more time reading has been a long time goal of mine. When embarking on my “Spring of Health,” I had physical health in mind. It was a time to focus on diet and exercise.
With the broadness of this theme, however, my priorities were able to gently adapt and adjust to my priorities as they changed. Slowing down my reddit use and channeling more of my time towards reading something I expected, but having a theme and the malleability that comes with one allowed just that.
That’s the beauty of having a theme! Mission accomplished (even if I didn’t have that mission when choosing my seasonal theme)
Picking a Theme
Here is a common list of theme words from CGP Grey’s video:
Maybe one of these common themes resonates with you. Maybe there’s something else that comes to mind for you.
Whatever you choose, it should be a word that you derive some form of meaning from, something that “calls out” to you. And any theme you choose should be broad, directional, and resonant. Here’s CPG Grey’s advice:
“When picking a theme, go with something that has a nice broad name for the general direction you want to navigate your life. And it is navigation. The diverging paths of life are hidden under the fog of the future. You can’t plan the route and fail to follow it, because there is no route, and unseen obstacles await. At any moment, you are where you are and can only navigate from there.”
It should be broad enough that the meaning of your theme can adapt and change over the three months or one year that your theme is in place, just as my theme of (physical) health permeated into the realm of mental health.
Summer of Respect
My “Spring of Health” was decided upon after watching CGP Grey’s video and choosing one of the common themes (listed above). I’m happy with how my intro to having “a theme,” but I’m even more excited for my next one. For me, this summer is the Summer of Respect.
My intention is that I will respect the boundaries I set for myself.
I have had a lifelong struggle with going to bed on time and getting up in the morning. During my summer of respect, I plan on respecting both my bedtime and my alarm clock.
There will inevitably be days where I stay up late and sleep in, but the point is to literally be conscious upon waking up, rather than being a zombie that instinctively turns off my alarm and returns to sleep each morning, which is my current status quo.
I will respect the fact that I’m addicted to the internet, and be conscious about replacing mindless internet time with journaling, reading, and writing. When I inevitably end up surfing the web, I’ll have my theme there to catch me.
Hey bud, looks like the internet reeled you in again. Not a problem at all, just gotta respect the endless abyss that you’re surfing.
I have to respect my body, even if gyms are closed. Body weight exercises and biking will do for me.
And I want to respect my hands, my fingernails specifically. I’ve been compulsively biting them for my entire life. The behavior is so ingrained in my being, and I don’t think now’s the time I’m going to magically stop. But I do plan on simply respecting them.
Now, this is already quite a list of things to somewhat arbitrarily ‘respect,’ but keeping this one word in mind over the next few months will help guide my actions whenever I’m faced with choices in my day to day life.
And the beauty of having a theme is that it’s meaning will change over time. Let’s see what the summer of respect has in store for me.
So, what’s your theme gonna be?