Episode 160: Yearly theme instead of goal?


Choosing a yearly theme is a great way to guide your brain in a new direction. Unlike specific goals, themes are there as a guiding principal. A theme is broad and is often something that will cross several areas of your life.
Themes are also more flexible in nature because they are here to increase your awareness, there is no specific end target. If you’re not a fan of goal setting consider trying a yearly theme. If you do like goal setting a yearly theme can help you reach those goals.


Stacy Westfall: Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. In this episode, I’m going to share something that I’ve been doing for over a decade and I don’t think I’ve talked about it yet. I remember explaining this concept to a group of people back in 2008, and I know at that point I’d been doing it for at least a year or two. So I’ve been doing this for a while. I know that I heard about it, that’s why I got started with it, but I cannot at this point remember where I first heard about it. So here’s the idea. The idea is picking a yearly theme. In this episode, I’m going to explain why I do this and how I find it helpful. And then I’ll share with you my 2021 theme so that you can see the idea in action. The thing I like about having a yearly theme is that it helps guide my mind. It kind of gives me something to look for. It’s almost like having these little clues that are laid out and my brain is looking for this theme to show up everywhere. It’s really helpful if you want to establish new habits if you have a theme that points you towards that. And it’s also really useful if you want to break old habits so you can get a little bit creative about what you’re training your brain to look for. In a minute I’m going to share my 2021 theme, but I’d also like to discuss a common problem that a lot of people report to me so that I can show you how this could work for you.

Stacy Westfall: So I was looking back through and looking for a theme that is frequently reported and here’s the one that jumped out at me, and it was written over and over and over again, sometimes in different ways. But the number one way it was written was in a single word. Time. Not enough time with my horse, time, adequate time, a lack of adequate time, not enough time to ride, time constraints. Time, time, time was over and over again, a common problem that I was seeing when I was looking back through different surveys that I’ve done and the reason that I find it helpful to start with like–something like a problem or an old habit or a new habit, some kind of a view on that is because what we’re trying to do with this theme idea is we’re trying to rewrite the story about your life. And so if you keep practicing the story of, there’s not enough time, you’re going to keep finding evidence for that because your brain is always looking for evidence to prove its own story true. So when you pick a theme, you can actually use that to help guide your brain in a new direction. And so I actually want my theme to be broad. So if I was going to look at something like time, not enough time with my horse, for example, then I would want a theme that would impact my time management in my entire life. So in general, I want something broad. So a theme that might work really well would be, year of balance, and that would train your brain to look for balance where it exists, where it doesn’t exist, how you can go for more balance in your life, or year of focus. And you can see where if you had one where you were having a year of focus, you could begin to focus on things like how you spend your time, how you spend your money. Like, am I focused in all these areas? What area seems fuzzy? Because there’s going to be this idea that the way you do one thing is going to impact you across the board. So if you just start to learn to be more focused in one area, it’s going to start bleeding over. So these themes are going to help increase your awareness. So if you were feeling kind of overwhelmed, you could have a theme like the year of less. And so maybe that overwhelm involves that time component. And so you could have a theme like the year of less and then that would be able to possibly increase your awareness of how you spend your time, the things you surround yourself with, and it subtly plants that idea that you’re aiming for reducing or for less. And so any of those themes would be more broad than the specific phrase, “not enough time with my horse,” or the one word, “time”. But it would also impact your time because your time is going to be impacted by things like balance or focus or less, so that kind of is a little jump start into the way that this works.

Stacy Westfall: So I want to give you a more specific example from what I’ve done and then I’m going to share some other just idea ones that you can try on because it’s a really good idea for you to find one that really works for you. So for example, if I say something like the year of focus and you have a negative reaction to the word focus, but you like the word balance better, go with the one that you like better because if you’re having a negative reaction to the word, it’s not the right word for you and you can generally find a different flavor of the word. I see a relationship between balance and focus, but I can also see that balance might have a softer–but for some people, balance is going to feel more unattainable because of the way that they view the ebb and flow during a year where another person is going to like focus. And so it’s very important that you find this word or phrase that’s going to really work for you. So in 2021, my theme was relationship and results. Now, when I say that, you can hear that I’ve dropped kind of the traditional “year of” kind of phrase at the beginning of it. I could have put, “year of relationship and results.” I don’t like how it rolls off. I actually found myself writing R&R through my journal because relationship and results was this thing that I wrote down over and over and over again. And if you look back at my first podcast episode of 2021, you’ll see that it was titled Can You Have Relationship and Results With Your Horse? So my main goal in choosing this as a theme for the year was that I wanted to explore that theme even more. And I wanted to remember to share it with my students because to me, it was this very–the idea for me was it’s not an either-or. Because I think a lot of times that the more traditional way somebody might express would be relationship or results. And I wanted to really explore the “and” part of relationship and results. And I think that when I look in the horse world in particular, but really, I mean, you see it in movies, you see it in different things. You can see these underlying themes of the way that certain things. Like, for example, work is highly correlated in movies with sacrificing relationship as kind of an either-or. And I wanted to explore for myself and in my podcast and different materials the–the idea of and because I know I can have both with my horses. And so I wanted to really keep it in the front of my mind. So back in Episode 111 of the podcast, listen to this, I wrote, “Three reasons people are afraid to set big goals.” And they were these: Number one you’re afraid of how it will feel to fail. Number two, you’re afraid of how you might treat your horse while trying to achieve the goal. And number three, you don’t know how to get there. Can you hear how number two is all about relationship or results? You’re afraid of how you might treat your horse while trying to achieve the goal. So I really wanted to make sure that I was reflecting on this so I could bring it up on the podcast, but also so I could explore in all the areas of my life. Because if I make it my theme, I might see it coming up in an area like horses that I know really well. But I wanted to see it across my entire life so that I could have an even more broad experience to teach from. And so the way that this worked for me and the way that it’s been working for me for more than a decade is that when I spend some time and I come up with this word or phrase, this theme for the year, I then want to practice it on the regular. So this last year and for the last several years, I’ve been journaling pretty much daily, and I wrote it at the top of every single journal page. And so I would flip a page, write relationship and results, fill up that page and then write it again at the top. So if I wrote three pages in my journal, then I wrote relationship and results at the top. And I’ve done that all year long in the past, depending on what I was doing. I’ve made the phrase into a screensaver that was on my phone or my computer. I’ve made a sticky note that was stuck on the side of my computer or somewhere that I was going to see it regularly. I’ve gone as far as having an alarm that went off every day at the same time with the phrase on the alarm in my phone. It can be anything that helps it be on your radar during–during the day, so it’s got to be brought up to your mind. This is how it’s worked best for me because if it’s not coming up regularly, it’s not going to help me make my decisions or view my day in that lens. And just in this last year, when I was doing this, it was really interesting because I started with that idea of like relationship and results because I wanted to look around life and see that happening. And as broad as that was, it’s like all of a sudden it went from like relationship with my horses and getting results. But then I started seeing it pop up like, what is my relationship with my adult children and what is that resulting in? What is–what is my relationship with exercise un am I looking for results, what are the results of that relationship? What is my relationship with sugar? That’s something that I’ve explored over the years. You know, what’s that result? What–where am I at with that relationship, that result? And so it has been a really fun year exploring just those two words that phrase over and over again. And then what I noticed was that even inside of an area that I know really well, which happens to be horses for me, I noticed some subtle things. So one example would be that for me, it’s very possible that I could go out to the barn on a day when I feel busy and I could go ride Willow for an hour or 45 minutes. And I have a high enough competency level that I can go out there and ride with less focus and I can still get results. But what it was really interesting was that by having this phrase relationship and results, I could also feel the moments where I was sacrificing that relationship, not greatly, not massively, but I could feel where that was coming up more and the way that I would, you know, compare that would be, you know, if you’re spending time with a person and you’re with them and let’s say you go out to–to, you know, go out to eat with them and you’re both there, but you’re kind of on the phone, but you’re there, but they’re on the phone, but they’re there and you’ve got that kind of distracted feeling where it’s like, you are there, but your kind of sort of not fully present there. That was the awareness that in me was raised because for me personally, that can be a moment where the relationship is being a little bit sacrificed through that distraction. So it just was another way that I could feel the–trueness of the two words like relationship and results. And I could feel where there were moments when I was aiming for the result and I was maybe a little bit tuned out, and it was so much easier to kind of tune back in to that moment and really dial that in.

Stacy Westfall: So that’s how it worked for me in in 2021, and I actually haven’t chosen my word or my phrase for 2022 yet. I’ll spend the next three weeks or so –recording this podcast is kind of kicking off my–my transition thinking about it, but that’s another thing I wanted to mention. It’s like if you want to give this a try, if you don’t want to commit to it for a full year, you could just, you know, commit to it for a shorter time. And there’s been times that I’ve had, you know, it didn’t feel finished yet when I get to the end of a calendar year and I kept going. My favorite thing about doing something like a theme is that if you spend a year on a theme like relationship and results, if you are writing that theme interacting with that theme on just a tiny little way, even if it’s that alarm going off in your phone, it gets in your mind in a way that it almost doesn’t go away when you put it down and pick up the new one. And so the year before, I had had the phrase, “clear focus,” and because I thought it was funny for 2020 to have like a clear focus kind of a theme. And so it’s like that idea of focus has been carried through because after spending a year on getting more clarity and being clear and focused, that then rolled over and was carried along with relationship and results. So it’s a little bit different than having like this checkmark, done thing like maybe achieving a certain goal has because it’s almost like this theme where you’re practicing training your brain to think in a different way. Before this recording, I went and did a Google search for other themes or different twists on yearly themes, because it’s definitely something I’ve heard more about over the years. And I came up with a year of positivity, year of growth, year of health, year of family, year of less. And on that one, I’ve seen different twists on that one where year of less could be a theme that starts up with the idea of simplifying. But I’ve heard of people taking the year of less and having that be, you know, decluttering the house. And maybe it involves weight loss. Maybe it involves, you know, less food. And so it’s kind of interesting how if you pick a broad thing like year of less, you can start to really explore all the different ways that that could affect you. And just keep in mind, these are supposed to be broad. They should be something that guides you just basically to kind of increase your awareness in a certain area, but they allow for a lot of flexibility. So in that year of less, you could start out with the idea of decluttering your house and then it might be decluttering your computers, and then it might be decluttering the refrigerator, and decluttering your mind. And so there’s all kinds of different ways that this can go. And I know that some people don’t love the more structured goal-setting framework that is popular and that I lean towards teaching a lot. And if that’s you, maybe a yearly theme would really help you out. For me, I see the two working together perfectly. I see the theme being something that I can look at every single day, and it kind of helps me keep the bigger purpose in mind so that if I am going for a result, like winning something big with my horses, which happened to be like some of my 2021 goals involved showing, it’s like it’s OK to aim for the results. But I want to remember the relationship. So that theme of relationship and results was there along with my specific goals. That’s how I see the two dancing together, and I’m going to give it some more thought. And if you have any ideas for your theme or things that you heard that you think would be really interesting to explore. Feel free to jump over to the website and leave a comment under this post. And thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.



Links mentioned in podcast:

Episode 111: 3 reasons you’re afraid to set big goals with your horse

I love this video about themes: https://youtu.be/NVGuFdX5guE


  1. Kylie on December 8, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    Still thinking about my yearly theme but abundance is definitely feeling good for me, something like abundance, action, “let go of the outcome”

    • Pam Achnake on December 13, 2021 at 2:27 pm

      Read “Horses Speak of God” by Laurie Brock. She wrote a chapter about “collecting”. In 2021 I used it as a theme to “Collect” my life-find more time for my family, farm and horses. Kept it in front of me all year and it helped immensely.

      In 2022-think I’ll keep it but focus more on “collecting” my self-talk and thinking while riding and working with my horses. Want to stay positive, curious. When things aren’t working-need to “collect” my thoughts and actions and break things down into smaller bites. Thank you Stacey-you are the best-have a joyous holiday season!!

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