by Will Clayton ’12

It’s February. You’re either a little more than a month in and it’s time to reflect on your performance against those New Year’s resolutions, or you’re still wondering where the time went. Either case can be one of budding anxiety and dwindling gumption. Fear not, achievers; there lies another path ahead.

Several years ago I adopted a New Year’s theme. To be clear, when I say “theme,” I’m not talking about a “Masquerade” or “Back-To-The-Future” themed party. If anything, that’s a New Year’s Eve theme. What I do mean is a single theme that embodies your hopes for the coming year.

Selecting a theme requires focus and careful, thoughtful review. But the theme itself does not carry the obligation of immediate action or behavioral change. A theme only requires you to think and ponder ideas. Most enjoyably, a theme can be engaged with a relaxed and playful mind—free from obligation—that will often later lead to the self-inspired and self-endorsing behaviors that resolutions try to legislate into existence.

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To paint a clearer picture, I’ll share a theme of my own: my favorite to date was “Gratitude.” Even as I selected this theme I began to ponder the nature of gratitude. Faced with a limited understanding but a curious desire, I began to read more until I was convinced that gratitude carried a valuable trove of benefits. Gratitude, I learned, was a choice as much as a feeling; it can be practiced; and it directly leads to contentment.

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Just a few months in and inspired by what I was learning about gratitude, I began to change my behavior. At first, I awoke and thought about three things for which I was grateful. As this went on, I developed a daily habit of writing thank-you notes to someone, anyone.

These behavioral changes were the fruit of a theme explored—not the obligatory resolutions that land on your checklist before eventually falling off as we murmur, “I surrender.”

Don’t get me wrong. Resolutions—the traditional “I resolve to…” goal-setting ritual that accompanies our transition from one year to the next—can be powerful catalysts for changing behavior. I’m quite a fan in the right context. But you need to be aware that they have a scary underbelly for determined, achievement-oriented spirits.

I discovered this in a recent holiday conversation with Mike Lewis, a partner in BCG’s Houston office. As we discussed the merits of a New Year’s theme, Mike helped me discover that traditional resolutions (and all goals for that matter) can act as powerful, often invisible chains. They constrict us for months or in some cases years to a static and dated mission. We can become enslaved to accomplishing the mission and lose sight of the purpose originally used to determine the mission. In other words, we’re so focused on unfurling the sails, we may fail to notice a change in the direction of the wind.

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If we can focus on a theme rather than a set of goals, we maintain the flexibility to react and adapt to the changing context of our lives.

With that in mind, may the upcoming 11 months of 2017 be free of obligation, full of intention, and focused on the curious exploration of a new direction. Happy New-ish Year!


Will Clayton is an associate with the Boston Consulting Group