It’s that time of year: the calendar is about to flip to a new year, some people are making New Year’s resolutions, others are pointing out why resolutions don’t work, and those who have longstanding exercise habits are bemoaning the forthcoming January crowds at the gym (caused by resolution-makers).
I must confess, it’s my favorite time of the year!
I love the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day because it creates a natural pause for people to reflect on their life and consider making changes. I don’t know any other week of the year where so many people have so much time on their hands and are so open to self-reflection and behavioral change.
Over the past few years, increasing numbers of people are shifting away from resolutions and jumping on the “one word” bandwagon. The idea is that choosing one word for the year is so elegantly simple that it will help you to better clarify your direction, focus your energy, and accomplish your goals than a long list of New Year’s resolutions.
It’s become so popular that you’ll surely see people over the next few days sharing their one word on social media, explaining why they chose it, and declaring it as a theme for 2019.
That genuine enthusiasm will likely be followed by….. nothing. No follow up, no results, and no life changes. And like resolutions, most people won’t even remember what their word of the year was by April.
It may sound like I’m not a fan of choosing a word of the year, but I am!
I loved the elegant simplicity of one word when I learned about it in 2015. That December I tried it by picking a word from a list of possible words I found online. Then I shared my word of the year on Facebook with great enthusiasm!
That was the beginning and the end of it.
It had minimal impact on my life and I forgot all about my one word until it resurfaced the following year as a Facebook memory.
The problem was that:
- I chose one word, but I didn’t use it.
- I shared my one word, but I didn’t make it part of my daily life.
- I forgot my one word, so I I didn’t experience the power of this practice to catalyze significant changes in my life.
When I reflected on why I was treating the potentially transformative practice of choosing one word like a superficial and momentary exercise, I realized that I had made a few simple mistakes. I’m sharing my errors with you because once corrected, my word of the year has played an important role in bringing my annual plan to life.
Mistake #1: My One Word Was A “Should” Instead of A True Desire
My first word of the year was “radical generosity”
Above and beyond the fact that I selected two words for a one word challenge, each word had it’s own unique problems. “Generosity” is a weighty noun that sounds like something a good person should choose. Adding the adjective “radical” gave it a perfectionist turbo boost by ensuring that no ordinary generosity would be acceptable.
To be clear, “generosity” is a lovely word. The problem was that it was not connected to anything other then the vague idea that “I should be more generous (radically more than normal humans)”. Because it was rooted in a should, it made me feel guilty every time I thought about it. So after doing one radically generous thing the day I posted my one word on Facebook, I avoided thinking about it and my first “word of the year” was quickly forgotten.
To address this mistake, I changed how I picked my word the next year. Instead of randomly picking a word off a list (and strapping on a perfectionist turbo booster), I added “pick one word” as the last step of the annual planning process my husband and I have used since 2005. It looked like the following:
- Evaluate the previous year
- Identify our life domains
- Envision what we desire in each domain of our life
- Identify what would stop us from optimizing each area of our life
- Create goals for the next year that will move us toward the life we desire
- Choose affirmations for a daily practice
- Added: Pick one word for the new year
Adding it as the last step of our existing process meant that my one word:
- emerged organically from the reflective work I did in the previous steps
- was deeply connected to my desires, goals, and vision for how I want to live my life
- was in no danger of being a guilt-inducing “should”
Since making this correction, I’ve noticed that words jump out in every step of the process as possible contenders for my one word. I jot them down and keep moving forward. This leads to an organic self-generated list of possibilities that come out of a larger reflective process. For example, this year my short list included the following words: effortless, freedom, flow, intuition, ease, relax, patience, slow, spacious and joy.
When it’s time to pick my one word, I read back through what I’ve written for all the previous steps. I do this because I want my one word to be aligned with the spirit of what I’m envisioning for my life. But also because there is often a single word that is repeated over and over and over again across different steps of the process. I hope the repetition isn’t caused by a limited vocabulary, but by an unconscious desire for a particular word to emerge as the frontrunner. This year the word “joy” was all over my desires, goals and affirmations. It was the thread holding everything together.
Mistake #2: I Didn’t Bring My One Word Into My Daily Life
Another mistake I made with my first attempt at a word of the year was that I couldn’t figure out how to use it on a daily basis. The next year, I realized that I needed to do more than announce it on Facebook and take one immediate action, so I decided to try integrating it into my existing daily habits.
My husband and I are die-hard daily writers. Every weekday at 10:00 am you can find us at our dining room table, setting a timer, and writing. And every morning before we set the timer for our first sprint, I open up my Hobonichi and review what I need to accomplish that day.
These are 2 rock solid habits so I placed my word of the year between them to make a sandwich. First I write my three affirmations and then at the very top of the page I write my one word (see the template below).
It’s easy, it only takes one minute, and it’s effective because the simple act of writing my one word every day presences me to what I’m trying to create in my life. It’s also delightful at the end of the year to flip through my Hobonichi and see my one word written 365 times and consider how much my relationship to that word grew and deepened over time.
Mistake #3: I Didn’t Understand How One Word Could Change My Life
Let me get even more specific. The habit of writing my one word every day in my Hobonichi brings it into my daily life in a concrete way. But the transformative power of the one word was not in selecting it or even writing it every day.
The magic happened when I let it sink into my bones throughout the year as it shifted from a daily awareness to a way of being. When that one word became part of me it began to act like a filter through which I made hundreds of in-the-moment micro-decisions every day. It was the cumulative effect of all of those small choices that felt life-changing.
For example, my one word for 2018 was “evolve”.
As my first year of retirement, 2018 was an enormous year of transition. I had no idea what my life would be like after 7 years as CEO of a rapidly-growing start-up. But I was certain that as I moved from full-time employment into retirement, my deepest desire was to evolve in every area of my life.
With that in mind, I wrote “EVOLVE” every day in my Hobonichi. After a few months I started looking at big decisions through the filter of evolving. And by the middle of the year, it became a habit to ask myself throughout the day if any choice (large or small) would help me evolve.
- Is going to hot yoga this afternoon going to help me EVOLVE?
- Is binging on Netflix tonight going to help me EVOLVE?
- Is reading Trump’s Twitter feed going to help me EVOLVE?
- Is moving from a big house to a small condo going to help me EVOLVE?
- Is ____________ [whatever choice I need to make in the moment] going to help me EVOLVE.
It’s the totality of these decisions that reshaped my life — not from the energy of guilt, shame or should’ing myself into submission — but from conscious choices to move towards what I desire. In my case, that was evolving from a chapter of life dominated by the demands of full-time employment to a retirement chapter that demands self-created structure, a strong non-job-related identity, a renewed sense of purpose, and a new definition of success. In short, it required evolving every day in every way.
For me, the magic of the one word is that when I use it, it becomes part of my daily life, and then it gradually becomes a filter for making empowering decisions that are aligned with the big vision I have for this new chapter of my life.
What’s Your One Word for 2019?
It’s a bit embarrassing to share the mistakes I made with my first word of the year. But I hope sharing both my mistakes and the corrective strategies that worked for me will be useful to you.
I look forward to hearing if you are selecting a word of the year for 2019 and if so, how you plan to make your one word part of your daily life.