Forget resolutions, choose one word

June 2016

By choosing one word, you cast forth an intention for the year. And unlike a specific goal or resolution, one word gives you plenty of room to learn, grow and adapt.

Jason Fox explains the one-word ritual he uses to guide his year, and the benefits it brings.

It all began with my attempt to counter the trend towards making New Year’s resolutions specific and detailed. Every January my feeds would be flooded with folks talking about the importance of setting specific goals and having a clear vision for your future.

And so, instead of having a specific goal and a detailed plan (and manufacturing the delusion of certainty such things bring), I began to simply choose one word to serve as a "contextual beacon" for the year ahead. Over the years I’ve shared this ritual with thousands of people, and it seems to resonate.

By choosing one word, you cast forth an intention for the year. And unlike a specific goal or resolution, one word gives you plenty of room to learn, grow and adapt.

A couple of years ago I chose the king archetype with the word "kingly". For me, this choice was about stepping up, taking responsibility, staying true to my word, and serving the greater good (rather than trying to help anyone and everyone who asks). It was a powerful year, one that saw me publish my first book with Wiley and transition from motivation science into the space of frontier leadership and work culture.

My word for last year was "pirate". For me, "kingly" brought with it a whole bunch of seriousness, whereas "pirate" conjures the qualities of the opportunistic explorer. Commercially focused, unconventional and savvy, pirates are also jolly and buoyant. They drink rum and look after their mates.

The point of these words is that they’re distinct enough to serve as a beacon — a conceptual light to bring us back to our intention for the year, should we find ourselves wandering. But they’re also fuzzy enough to allow us room to explore.

And this is something my clients have done with their teams. Not only is this a powerful ritual to encourage in people individually (and it’s fascinating to hear what word each person chooses), but it can also be very useful for any team engaged in pioneering work. For example, one of the teams I work with chose "amplify" for the year. They were getting busier than ever, but did not want to simply expand to meet the volume of work. Amplifiers work best with a pure signal. And so, at each meeting, this word served to bring them back to this intent: What’s our signal to noise ratio like? What activities will provide the most value?

Imagine your life were an autobiography

What one word might describe the past 12 chapters (months)? And what one word might describe your intention for the next 12 months?

You can choose from three broad categories of words: abstract, active, and aspect or archetypal.

Abstract words

These include words such as "balance", "lean", "care", "honour" and mindful". They can also include emotive words such as "joy" and "courage". The key to abstract words is to really make them tangible and real — otherwise, they’re just, well, abstract.

The way you make an abstract word real is to package it in a way people get. "It’s the year of style", for example, could be a phrase you use after anyone gives you a compliment (assuming that "style" is the word for your year). If you’re word is "art", you could start dropping "such art" into the things you say and do (with hat tips to the Doge meme).

Of all the categories of words, I find abstract words the most challenging to play with. If an abstract word resonates most with you, give thought to how you will manifest it in your every day. 

Active word

These include words such as "unleash", "create", "ignite", "build", "consolidate", "invigorate" and "make".

They’re verbs, and they’re usually something we can easily gesticulate. Active words particularly come to life through our projects. If you choose the word "create", for example, you can bet that people will want to know what you’re creating.

I know someone who chose the word "renovate". He has house renovations he intends to do, yes, but more importantly he’s identified a tendency to get distracted by shiny objects and new things. And so this year he’s bringing the focus back to the core elements of his business — renovating the core offerings in his business model. Digging a bit deeper into the etymology of the word he also found that "renovate" is closely related to words like restore, refresh and reinvigorate. And so, he’s taking this approach to some of his relationships — more camping with family, more dinners with friends.

Aspect and archetype words

Aspect words are used when we want to take on the qualities of something. They include words such as "tiger", "goddess", "rockstar", "explorer" and "samurai". 

A friend of mine chose the word "cat" for this year. Her intention was to bring more cat qualities into her world and work, à la Cat Woman. Think charming indifference, assumed authority, quiet arrogance, impeccable grooming — that kind of thing. This was a particularly wonderful challenge for someone cursed with generosity, considerateness and caring — for someone used to putting everyone else first, this is going to be a powerful year.

Find qualities in something worth emulating. Summon your inner lion, alpaca or frog. Or make your year the year of tiger, and insist that people play Eye of the Tiger before you walk into rooms.

Or perhaps an archetype word might fit you best for the year ahead? Maybe "warrior", "knight", "queen", "wizard" or "rogue"? These are words in which you take on the role of something and, in moments of uncertainty and doubt, ask yourself, "What would a [insert archetype] do?". Or you ask yourself, "Am I being [insert archetype]ly?".

This is a delightful ritual to have 

To help you on your way, here are three don’ts and three do’s to be mindful of when it comes to your one word:

  1. Don’t rush it: There’s art in the seeking. You don’t need to land on your word immediately, nor do you need to find it in January — the Gregorian New Year is just a convenient time near a solstice where many people have a bit more time to reflect and reset. The new lunar year could work equally well. In any event: take your time. 
  2. Don’t anchor it to outcomes: You’re on a quest, not a mission. The very point of this activity is to leave you opportunity to grow and adapt. Choosing a word such as "success" or "promoted" might detract from the journey, and set up an unhelpful pass/fail dichotomy. It’s not black and white — most of your year will be grey, involving a series of mini-wins and minor setbacks. Keep your word big and fuzzy.
  3. Don’t care too much about what other people think: It’s your word for the year. Choose what’s right for you, not what you think you should choose in the eyes of others (including mine), and certainly not what others tell you should choose (unless, of course, you are in full concordance). Be bold, risky and/or risqué.

But having said that…

  1. Do test it out: Your word needs to survive social scrutiny — the last thing we want is a word that you’re disinclined to share with others. Last year my friend Jen chose the word "honour". It had a lot of meaning for her, and fitted her well. But then the dangerlam and I killed it by promptly showing her a particularly dubious webcomic. 
  2. Do choose a word that makes you a bit uncomfortable: While your word needs to be a good, intuitive fit for you, it shouldn’t be easy. All progress and growth occurs just outside our comfort zone. And as such, your word should be something that’s a little bit audacious, and a bit of a stretch. Last year my friend Alison chose the word "unleash", and this year the dangerlam chose "wild". Make your word edgy. The edge is where we grow.
  3. Do make it fun for your friends and colleagues: The people around you will play a huge part in how your year plays out. Your word is a social trigger. It’s something people will ask you about as things progress. So, make it easy for them to hold you true to your meaningful intent. Phrase it into the things you do. For example, last year I was having crepes with friends. We’d finished our main crepes, and then they ordered desert crepes. "I’ll be good," I said to myself, resisting the urge to order. But then the desert crepes came out — burnt butter and caramel with double thickened cream. Damn, but I really wanted some crepe. I said as much, and they asked me, "What would a pirate do?" (thinking that I’d decide to order myself a desert crepe too). I did one better and seized my friend’s crepe with my bare hands! Such a pirate.

Remember: it’s a fuzzy beacon. It’s not a goal, and it’s not a plan. It’s a light to pull you back on track, and to stay true to your intention should you waver. 

Give this ritual a try.