As a new year begins, people often pledge to break bad habits or get a fresh start. But these days, more people are swapping the obligatory New Year’s resolutions — which often come with a lot of stress and disappointment — for a personal word of the year.
Picking a word of the year can bring clarity and focus to who we want to become and what we want to accomplish in life. A carefully chosen word is a type of mental mentor — something to help us stay motivated as we move toward our goals in 2022.
“Resolutions feel like rules after a certain point,” says Janice Simon, a leadership and career coach in Houston, Texas, who has been guided by a personal word of the year, like 2021’s “celebrate,” for several years now. “I like [using a] word [instead] because it’s not limiting. It sets an intention so that every action I take for an entire year has some meaning behind it.”
If resolutions are rigid rules to accomplish a goal, choosing a word of the year can be a guide for decisions and a gentle reminder to stay the course. But that doesn’t necessarily mean progress with a word of the year is easier or simpler than sticking to a resolution.
“So many things pull us in other directions, and most of the time our best intention is not the easiest path,” says Seth J. Gillihan, a clinical psychologist in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. “And without consistent focus, and reminders, and diligence, we tend to drift onto the path of least resistance. We don’t usually fall into being our best selves.”
That said, a signature word may be more palatable to work with. Think of it this way: While resolutions often seem to have a judgmental quality to them, a personal word of the year often is about a value. (Think honesty, openness, patience.)
“A value is something we can always be moving toward; there’s no end point for a value like there is with a goal,” notes Gillihan, author of The CBT Deck: 101 Practices to Improve Thoughts, Be in the Moment & Take Action in Your Life. His past words of the year include “steadfast” and “joy.”
“It’s more of a direction than a destination,” he says.
Moving away from New Year’s resolutions
How to Choose Your Personal Word of the Year
- Think about who you want to become, then write down words that describe that person. Cull from there
- Make sure the word is something you want to do, rather than something you think you should do. We have a better chance of following through on words that speak to our spirits.
- Resist the urge to run the word by someone before you choose it, to avoid being influenced by an outside opinion.
- Ask yourself whether you can commit to the word. If not, go back to your list. If so, congrats on moving closer to what you want out of life.
A few years ago, Simon, 53, swapped her usual resolutions — exercise more, eat out less — for a word of the year after hearing about it on social media.
So how did she fare with her 2021 word of “celebrate,” especially during a pandemic year? As an “immuno-compromised, high-end introvert who works from home and lives alone,” she says, “I felt like anytime I poked my head out was a celebration.”
Simon’s pick for 2022 is “momentum,” chosen after reading a New York Times article by organizational psychologist Adam Grant about how a lot of us, as a result of the pandemic, are languishing.
“I started a few things this year that I want to continue moving forward on” — such as finishing the first draft of a novel and turning up the dial on her work with a health coach — “and I want to move toward thriving and flourishing rather than languishing,” she says.
Katy Kozee, 60, chose her first word of the year in 2017, after “a rocky year” filled with too much work and extra stress. She traded in her usual resolutions for the word “hygge,” which is Danish for cozy or comfortable. Kozee, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, used the word as a reminder not to add anything else to her plate.
For 2022, her word is “flow.” After choosing the word, she made a vision board with “flow” in the middle surrounded by a picture of Oprah Winfrey, inspirational quotes and other motivational images.
Because “2020 and 2021 were so off-the-chart bonkers, I was like, ‘Look, whatever 2022 throws at me, I’m just going to flow like a river,’ ” Kozee explains. “I’m just going to keep on keepin’ on and handle whatever comes my way.”
Join today and get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Choosing your word for the New Year
Kozee offers a free downloadable workbook on her blog, Midlife Rambler, to help you select your personal word for the year.
Among her tips: Take time to reflect back on the previous year and ahead to the upcoming year. Jot down words to describe the kind of person you would like to become by the end of 2022 — not necessarily what you want to accomplish, but how you would like to grow.
If none of your initial words resonate with you, don’t be afraid to revisit the list in a week or two. While Kozee typically chooses her word between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the point is to relieve the pressure that typically comes with resolutions and instead find a lasting, supportive fit.
“A resolution is kind of pass/fail — either you did it or you didn’t — but life isn’t like that,” she says. “Life is more about making progress as you go along.”
The sweet spot for keeping resolutions usually is between New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day, according to Jay Thomas, 60, a life and business coach in Silicon Valley, California.
By contrast, using a word of the year as a guide tends to be more permanent because it’s “at the seat of our actions,” he says. That means it’s less likely to fall by the wayside after Feb. 14.
Beth Fuchs, from Glendale Heights, Illinois, has come to understand this difference. She says she’s tired of unfulfilled resolutions that feel more like “homework” or “projects.” Though she’s a newbie when it comes to having a word of the year, she’s pulling no punches with her choice: “fearless.”
“Even though I felt confident before, I was afraid to say certain things out loud,” says the 55-year-old certified professional organizer. “I started thinking about how I want to live my life moving forward. I’m actually putting myself out there.”
Once you have your word, try to resist the urge to run it by someone else in advance of using it, says Gillihan: “Just like a couple might be reluctant to run their baby’s name by someone for approval. Just pick it and then declare it. It really is a personal decision.”
Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children’s book M Is for Mindful.