One of the most helpful things I've been doing for the past few years is setting a theme to guide every season. I got this idea from the wonderful CGP Grey, who speaks about why loose themes can be more helpful than setting specific goals and resolutions.
As I wrote in my post about my Winter of Weird:
I've tried a lot of different productivity systems over the years. I am a goddam connoisseur of productivity systems. Setting up new productivity systems is my favourite way to procrastinate, in fact.
Some of them stick - I've been following some version of the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach for over a decade now. GTD is basically about never keeping your to-do list in your brain: building a system that lets you collect anything you want to do in an inbox (anything from vague "maybe I should take up pottery..." to a "crap, that article was due yesterday"), and regularly processing that inbox, turning those things into clear, prioritised, actionable to-do lists.
GTD is the perfect system for anal type-As who love lists, i.e. it's Sam Crack, but it has it's limitations. It's very good at helping you make progress towards actionable productive-y goals, but useless at more holistic health/attitude/mindset-type intentions. Things that aren't about achieving specific, pre-defined things, but are rather about habits, the small decisions we make day-to-day that end up defining who we are. The virtues we cultivate.
As Grey points out, the other problem with setting goals is that we usually fail to reach them, and that makes us feel shitty and de-motivated.
Themes, unlike goals, are gentler. They're broad, so that they can be re-defined as your situation changes. They help you change in a direction, but they don't specify an outcome. Over the years, people have tried themes like The Year of Poise, The Year of Home, Learning, Attention, Joy, Structure, Reading, Gratitude, Music, Growth, Health, and Simplicity.
I highly recommend Grey's whole video about themes, here:
I've found that a season is the correct length of time for me to set a new theme. It's not so long that I forget about it, while being long enough that I see meaningful change from it.
I've now been setting themes for the past two+ years. Here are the themes I've set myself:
- The Winter of Small Joys. I was moving countries, which is stressful and lonely. There's so much stuff that's outside of your control. So this was my reminder to myself to make time for tiny things that make me happy like candles and walks and long baths. This turned out to be VERY prescient, because the world shut down in February 2020 and all I had were small joys.
- The Spring of Germination. Okay, this was a bit obvious, fine, but was about gently nurturing new ideas and new writing projects and not giving up on them too soon, and was also a time I was growing a LOT of vegetables (it was lockdown, I had nothing else to do).
- The Summer of Excavation. I was working on my first novel (then called Magpies, now Girls of Little Hope) and it was hard because I hadn't figured out the plot. This theme was about challenging myself to just write a draft of my novel even though I didn't know what "shape" it had yet. I loved the imagery of sweating and toiling in the sun to unearth something that was already buried in my unconscious mind.
- The Autumn of Movement. All about being in my body, walking and running and cycling and stretching and dancing, and also about moving on emotionally from some stuff I needed to let go of.
- The Winter of Weird. A year of Covid meant I'd fallen into some very boring ruts, and I needed to challenge myself to inject some strange back into my life.
- The Spring of Apprenticeship. I stepped out of all the other jobs I had and started writing full-time. This was scary as hell. So, this theme was my attempt to try throw a rope over my imposter syndrome, harness it to a chariot and make it do something useful. I tried to let myself enjoy feeling like a beginner, and be deliberate about the process of learning.
- The Summer of Here. A year and a half after moving to the UK, I was still feeling unsettled. I hadn't been able to visit the people I loved back home because of travel restrictions, and I was heartsore. The theme I gave myself that summer was to just enjoy feeling entirely present, to commit to friendships in Cambridge even though I'd decided to leave again, to make a home I knew I was about to pack up, to plant seeds in our garden that I knew I'd never see the fruits of. My mantra was the poem, "Not Somewhere Else, But Here" by Adrienne Rich.
- The Fall of Flexibility. The world was opening up, but everything was still so up-in-the-air with Covid rules changing all the time. This theme was my attempt to find peace with hoping for stuff but still knowing plans could change at the last minute. Also, I was trying to do more yoga. All this flexibility paid off: I got to go home for the first time in two years, and finally figured out Crow Pose.
- The Winter of Courage. I decided to uproot my life again and move to London, which required some ovaries, I'll tell you. I was trying to channel the theme of courage in a number of other ways, too: have the courage to leave the house when it was zero degrees celsius, have to courage to be more honest with the people in my life, have the courage to write the most outrageous stories I can think of.
- The Springtime of Recklessness. Left to my own devices, I have a tendency towards routine, convention, introversion. This theme was about pushing myself to embrace the newly-opened world, stop overthinking things, be bolder, love wholeheartedly. I was trying to channel big Knight of Wands energy.
- The Summer of Less. I have a tendency to run myself to my limits and then spectacularly crash and burn, so my focus was on trying to do less. Take on fewer projects. Be less rigid about productivity and organisation. Organise fewer adventures and outings. I... did not really succeed at any of this. But I did have a very fun summer!
- The Autumn of Longevity. After years of disruption, I've finally started feeling like my life has found some stability. My focus this Autumn is to work on the foundations of that life: healthy routines, my social support network, balance between work and play. Choosing the things that are best for me in the long-term over things that are good for me in the short-term. I'm imagining a lot of yoga and sunscreen, and investing in both new and old friendships. I'm also trying to cut back on the booze (after 35, one's poor liver becomes less efficient, shem).
Have you ever tried setting a seasonal theme? Tell me about it!