What is your annual theme?

Today we start a new year, and it is great to start it with renewed purpose and motivation. To do that we use a tool called “annual theme”. You can have weekly or monthly themes, but an annual theme is more appropriate. Today’s selection of articles is very good. Do not miss a chance to read here, here, here, here, and  here.

Themes in our life

It is impossible to focus on everything at the same time, so we set up priorities. Then we see things that correspond to our priorities. When my wife got pregnant she saw pregnant ladies everywhere. The pregnancy was a theme and everything appropriate to the theme caught her eyes. Quite often during our college studies, we fail to notice other important things: we rarely think about money or parents or high school friends. When working on an exciting project, programmers sometimes forget to eat.

A theme, in the sense I mentioned above, is something we are acutely aware of, something that follows us in our dreams, that attracts our focus effortlessly and quite often even if we do not want to. Unlike a mission, a theme does not require planning or actions. It is simply there every time we look around.

An epic example of an annual theme

Do you remember the Bible? In one story, Joseph who was sold into Egypt becomes the powerful advisor of Pharoah, who is having bad dreams. In one of the dreams, Pharoah dreams of seven fat cows, devoured by seven starving cows. In the second, seven ripe, healthy sheaves of wheat are devoured by seven shriveled, dry ones. Joseph correctly predicts that this means: “Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After they will come seven years of famine and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. As the land is ravaged by famine, no trace of the abundance will be left in the land… And let Pharoah take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and organize by taking a fifth part of the land’s produce in the seven years of plenty. Let all the food of those good years that are coming be gathered and let the grain be collected under Pharoah’s authority as food to be stored in cities. Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.”

What you can probably aim for

There several repeating themes in our lives:

  • Learning. Some years are simply dedicated to learning. If you read this blog and want to learn all your life, you will probably want to focus on learning every year. This is not very effective. We can learn all the time, without making a theme out of it. Even university professors take a vacation every seventh year to learn new things. It is effective to focus on learning during the first year of every new school or degree. After the first year, learning is pretty much automatic and we do not need to focus on it. Not only formal learning counts but occasionally we need to acquire a new skill on our own and this becomes an annual theme.
  • Career. Occasionally we need a push in the career. There are make it or break it years, especially in very young startups, or when we get a promotion to a highly demanding job. The career should be a theme when we are professionally lost, or when we have a great threat or a great opportunity. Do not make it a theme of your entire life. You are not defined by your job alone.
  • Family. Marriage, divorce, the birth of a baby, serious health or social issue of a family member can draw our focus. With everything digital and everybody polite and cheerful, the family is as close as we get to the real world. When we die we wish we had more years focused on our family. On the downside, the family can be emotionally very exhausting. Taking care of family members can have a strong toll on us.
  • Recreation. From time to time, everything in life is OK, and we can relax. Recreation in itself is not yet a good theme – at least not for me. After all, how can we effectively focus on resting? Usually, I dig one level deeper: traveling, artistic interest, sport, meditation, lifestyle are all great themes. In this sense, an annual theme allows us to generate new habits, acquire new hobbies, spend time and money on something we would usually deny ourselves. From time to time it is OK to live simply to enjoy life. This is also a good way to recover emotional resources and gain emotional intelligence.
  • Legacy. If we can afford it, and we should find ways to afford it, we can focus on long-term effects of our lives. Invest properly for the sake of your children, start a social entrepreneurship, write books, create art. True richness is not conspicuous consumption, but deep and special experiences, and ability to make the world a better place. How do you want to be remembered? How did you change the world for the better? What is the purpose of your activity beyond survival and reproduction?
  • Survival. There are years when our focus is survival. Car accidents, wars, disease and other disasters are still here. Sometimes we need to fight for our life, and sometimes we simply prep for some possible scenario. Survival is the most basic of human needs. We can hope for a year of recreation, and instead get a year of fighting for our lives. This is something we might not want to accept, but there is no point lying to ourselves.

New year resolution

Think about the previous year and its theme. Did you handle it properly? Did you find the right tools to do the job? Did you focus on the right things? What helped you? What was the biggest issue you could not handle? How will this year be different? What kind of annual theme do we need to choose to handle the biggest challenges in your life?

If you want to make a major change in your life, make sure your annual theme supports the change. Otherwise, you may simply have fewer mental resources, time and money, social support and energy than required to do the change.

Write down you annual theme and see if it can be further divided into specific goals, milestones, or research direction.

Remember “A Christmas Carol” a novella by Charles Dickens with a visit from three ghosts? We can take a similar approach.

The ghost of the past

Revisit your places of memory. When in the past did you have a similar theme? What happened then? How did it make you feel? Maybe you need to diffuse negative memories before you can continue with your plans. We can change who we are by changing how we remember things. The past is anything but unchangeable. It is enough to change our perspective, and we will see the past in a different light. While we cannot alter the events, we can definitely alter the way we remember the experience.

The ghost of the present

“Flow” might be the most interesting and joyful work-related experience. When in “flow” we are totally focused and yet we do not get tired, we are very alert but not emotional, we are very “here” and “now”, and yet we are totally absorbed by the challenge we try to handle. To get into the “flow” state we need a strong challenge and a strong personal capacity to handle the challenge. Quite often there is a long build-up of both: while we acquire new skills and understanding of the challenge, we also learn to appreciate the size of the challenge. Then we generate a plan of action. And only then we approach the challenge directly. To do that, we should be curious about the challenge, we should allow ourselves to be absorbed by the challenge.

When we choose an annual theme, we effectively choose which aspects of life will take us into the “flow” state. We can get into the state doing some complex project at work, playing with children, writing a book, mastering a new survival skill or learning a new subject. If the activity does not correspond to our long-term theme, we might skip the build-up required to get into the state.

The ghost of the future

Innovation is something we are quite passionate about. A smart person changes the world, a wise person changes himself. I am sure there is also a higher, divine level of experience when you are your true self and the world changes simply by observing you. Since we are still far from this level of existence, we invest heavily in various forms of innovation: research, communication, new ways of doing things. For our innovation to be effective we should have a clear vision. And we need to update this vision now and then, perhaps once a year. When we select the annual theme, we imagine the shape of our experience for the next several years, and this shapes our vision. Quite often our vision will be guided by some sort of sponsor: a mentor, an organization, a family member, a social expectation. It is usually OK to follow the trend and accept the obvious. Rarely we can express ourselves by taking a more dangerous contrarian position and explore what is important to us instead.

Managing personal values

Some people list their personal values, annual themes, and visions, the most life changing experiences. Personally, I keep a very minimalistic diary and a very active blog. I do see the benefits of a more complex diary, one that you can review and learn from it how you changed as a person. Each time we choose a different life theme we become a slightly different person. Occasionally we change so much, that we cannot even understand what guided us when we were younger.

I do not think most of us can handle management of a complex life diary, but we do have the capacity to list our current values and annual theme so we can focus on the right things and make life better.

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