Sustainable progress | How I consistently accomplish goals by theme setting
Sustainable progress is one of the most elusive facets of achievement to master. Theme setting is a method of goal planning that has been my most proven strategy for consistent progress. Themes provide a flexible specificity that integrates into our lifestyle without belittling our inevitable moments of weakness
Theme setting is a method of goal planning that has been my most proven strategy for consistent progress. I initially discussed its merits in this article. I would like to delve into this strategy to further itemize how to employ it within your own aspirations.
Theme setting offers a degree of flexibility within concrete parameters that champions step-by-step achievement. This is more fluid than the rigid guidelines most of us are conditioned to utilize.
The odds are against you
This rigidity leads to burnout while flexible specificity integrates into our natural lifestyle and accommodates natural human growth. Only 8% of people resolutions actually achieve their resolutions by the dawn of the next year. This is because our ideas about progress are largely incorrect.
We impose inflexible parameters and lofty expectations on ourselves. These only exacerbate our sense of defeat when we encounter our innately human tendency to relapse and backslide. We expect ourselves to wake up a better person rather than to grow into one. And we forget that growth is full of peaks and valleys and mistakes and triumphs. Themes champion process over pressure. Applying process for progress respects the ebbs and flows of change. Using pressure for progress can only ever be temporary—over-specific goals quickly induces burnout.
Read below for seven key strategies to unlock sustainable progress:
Look into the future and work your way backward
I usually visualize a year in advance and attempt to visualize what I want to accomplish by then. I can then tangibly fill in the blanks between visualization to materialization, effectively creating a roadmap to a specific destination.
I’ve found that planning by foresight exposes overlapping themes that can act as an umbrella to the steps for the overarching vision. So this is where I begin. I take that umbrella theme and I begin to let it pervade my life.
Keep it simple
A theme should never exceed a few words. You want something that your mind can digest. You don’t need an entire mission statement, just a word or two. It may sound a bit too ambiguous but you already know the context within this word applies.
If you know you are having trouble deciding on a direction in life, even a word like ‘clarity’ will begin to activate your subconscious. Once you orient your subconscious, you will then allow room for sub-themes and steps to mold accordingly. Maybe if you’d like to try new things or take more risks, a good theme would be “spontaneity” or “adventure.”
Break the theme down
Now to stay on track, after I know my year’s theme, I will break down the increments even further. I start each quarter with 3-5 primary goals, the culmination of which are due prior to the next quarter. Then I apply monthly themes, using the parent theme as a north star. This keeps me on track 30 days at a time. Think of these as sub-themes, or checkpoints, along the path to the desired outcome.
This makes the journey less daunting and still allows the simplicity and flexibility of that one-word theme. My overall theme is still guiding each month’s more immediate calls of duty.
You want to permeate your life and subconscious with your theme and sub-themes. I title each week of my planner with my annual theme and then, below it, the monthly sub-theme. At the beginning of each month, I change my computer screen saver to the word. I set a daily phone reminder simply to flash the word at me when I wake up and before I go to sleep. I literally surround myself with this theme so that my life begins to look like it—so that it becomes impossible to forget or mentally get off task.
Even when I’m procrastinating, there is an incessant echo in my head that keeps me from veering off-track too long. My subconscious is so thoroughly inundated by my self-imposed propaganda, that my procrastination gravitates towards productive distraction.
Complete each sub-theme before you move to the next sub-theme
Usually prior to my embarking on my next “sub-theme,” I review my previous theme to ensure its completion before I mark it as case closed. This has been where I find the true beauty of themes. I have gotten considerably better at 100% completion of a task. This prevents me from having to revisit things in my usual scattered and randomized approach.
For instance, I had a sub-theme titled “automation.” I wanted to study and then implement automation across several itemized fields within my life and business. I could completely devote the majority of my tasks to this end until the overall theme was completely satisfied. Now I will not have to revisit automated sequences, at least in the near future, freeing up my brain and my planner to focus entirely on the next thing.
This is not to say that you can’t do any extracurricular progress planning—there were days that required me to direct my attention towards other things. But unless absolutely inevitable, I made a deliberate effort to funnel the majority of my productive energy towards actions that would guarantee completion by the end of the month.
Review your progress
At the end of each week, month, and quarter, I will review my themes and their corresponding tasks. I ensure that I completed each task according to my confidence and satisfaction and that they are falling in line with and building towards my overall annual theme.
If in my review I find that I was sloppy in my completion of a monthly theme—trust me, it happens—I will make a point to recycle it until I can confidently state that the checkpoint is satisfied.
Themes are great for founding habits, routines, and expertise. They should make the notion of your overall goal more fluid and natural. You don’t need to completely overhaul your sub-themes don’t need at the 1st of each month, but they may not need the strenuous attention that you had to provide them at first.
For example, if your goal is to ‘network’ in February, punctuated by tasks like ‘initiate small talk with a stranger’ or ‘read How to Win Friends and Influence People,” you clearly should not throw out the idea of ‘networking’ come March 1st simply because you’ve checked off each task. You need to be creating frameworks and connections that your brain can naturally learn, grow, and come back to long after your sub-theme has expired.
What’s your theme?
Strict goals can be difficult to resume if you have any backsliding. A theme is a bit more forgiving. “Writing 3 articles per week” or “losing 10 pounds” becomes a glaring obstacle rather than an encouraging aim. Even after recovering from that backslide, you feel further away from your goal than before, salting a still-open wound.
“Health” however, easily pardons your dusty gym membership or the empty Ben & Jerry’s ice cream carton. “Health” acts like a bookmark that holds your page long enough for you to be human. A theme understands human growth and error and gives it the flexibility it needs to thrive.
This theme strategy has been the sustaining force of my progress since I began employing it 9 months ago. Even when I’m derailed, I can easily realign myself to a preset frame of reference once I’m ready to get back on track. We all have those moments where your drive is just not ideal and you get fatigue or burnout or breakdown. But a theme is much easier to pick up, loosely morphing itself to whatever your current condition may be.
Do you have any of your own tried and true formulas for sustainable progress?
Share your methods in the comments!
Also published on Medium.