One Word That Will Transform Your Year

When a New Year’s Resolution is forsaken, we throw the failure upon the tall pile of disappointment in our hearts and forget about it. This year, I think we can be different. But the transformation won’t come through resolutions, it will come through a word

Fly away

Photo Credit: 55Laney69

Last week, my third-grade son brought home a class assignment in which he answered the question, “What are your New Year’s Resolutions?” He had written, “Not talking in class and stop drinking soda.”

I looked at him, eyebrows raised, because he never drinks soda and I don’t get the sense he has much intention of keeping his mouth closed anytime soon.

He looked at me with a sheepish grin and said, “That’s one of those questions where you just tell the teacher what they want to hear. New Year’s Resolution stink; they never work anyway.” 

Three Reasons for a Failed New Year’s Resolution

According to a 2007 FranklinCovey survey, one-third of New Year’s Resolutions fail by the end of January. I know it’s common to write about New Year’s Resolutions around the first of the year, but I decided to wait, because our Resolutions are in the danger zone right now.

And I think our Resolutions fail every year for three quiet reasons that never get any press: 

  1. New Year’s Resolutions often come from a place of shame within us. Here we must distinguish between shame and guilt. Guilt says, “Even if I go up six jean sizes this year, I know I’m still worthy of love. But I did eat too many cookies this Christmas and my jeans are a little tight, and if I want to be healthy, I’d better change the way I snack and exercise.” Guilt motivates, empowers, and encourages change, in the midst of a sense of worthinessIn contrast, shame says, “If I don’t lose this holiday weight, my value as a person decreases. People will see me for the person I am—lazy and undisciplined and no one loves that.” Although shame would appear to be a great motivator, it is an emotional experience akin to depression and thus it actually shuts us down. Ironically, our Resolutions will only succeed if we don’t need them to. 
  2. Most resolutions focus on the false self. Most resolutions are about looking better, becoming more successful or more admired, and making life happier and more satisfying. Meanwhile, on the inside, most of us know life is complicated and we are messy creatures, so utopian visions of personal success ring hollow. Deep down, we know we’re chasing a phantom. And it becomes exhausting, so we quickly give up. You rarely hear someone resolve, “This year I’m going accept my imperfections, or be honest about my pain, or risk rejection more, or trade in my social status for authenticity.” But maybe we should
  3. Our Resolutions don’t fail because they are too hard. They fail because they are too easy. We focus on the simple task of changing our actions and we neglect the transformation of our hearts. And the truth is, all substantive behavioral change is the fruit of a transformed heart, not the result of better personal rules and goals. Our goal must be the transformation of our hearts and souls, not the numbers on the scale.

Replacing Your Resolution With…

Two years ago, I changed the way I do New Year’s Resolutions.

Instead of a Resolution, I choose one word. In 2011, the word was “simple.” If something didn’t contribute to simplicity in my life, I eliminated it. For instance, when the car dealership offered me a service discount in return for my email address, I declined, because another email in my inbox would not simplify things. Closets got emptied. Calendars got cleared. Simple.

Last year, my word on January 1 was “risky.” Five days later, I started this blog. When I was invited to a quiet weekend with Donald Miller, I said “yes,” because it felt risky. I revealed more of myself to my friends. Risky. For a shy-quiet kid, risky became a more normal part of life.

This year, my word is “engaged.” All that risk pulled me in a bunch of different directions. This year, I want my children to feel like Daddy is deeply attentive, like they can count on me to be fascinated by their world. In fact, I want everyone in my life to feel that way. I’m not making a specific resolution, because I feel like a lot of things will have to be sacrificed for that to happen.

…Your Word

But my word is not your word.

You have a word inside of you and it’s just for you. I suspect you won’t have to search too hard for your word. In fact, I think it is trying to find you.

You simply need to make yourself available to be found.

It’s probably a word that’s been nagging at you for some time. It’s the word that pops into consciousness unexpectedly and makes your heart skip a beat or makes you tremble a little with fear. It’s the word you push back into the shadows because change is scary. Let your word come. What is it for you? Sober? Trusting? Assertive? Alone? Vulnerable? Grateful? Married? Divorced?

And when you have identified your word, it is time to start living your word. It will be confusing and messy and you will fail. You will experience the death of the word in a moment—or many moments—of your old way of being. Let yourself feel the death of the word. Experience your need for Grace in that moment.

And then begin to live it again.

Feel the resurrection of the word and the redemption of your awkward, stumbling transformation. Feel your fear of failure melt away as you come to discover your word is a doorway to grace and redemption.

What if we lived our whole lives within a Word? What if it became our center and all roads—broken roads and glorious highways, failures and moments of exaltation—led right back to it?

What if?

What if today was the beginning of an entirely different kind of New Year?

Questions: What is your word? Want to share it with us? For someone else out there, it may be the shortest but most influential blog comment of all time. Share your Word in the comments section at the bottom of this post.     

Dear Reader, You might find a few useful Words in my new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down. There are two ways to get a copy. New blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Second, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Preview: In the past, I have posted a “follow-up” to the Frida post on the following Tuesday. I’m moving away from that model slightly. I’m thinking of the second post as in the same “family” as the Friday post, but a post that can stand on its own. And I will let you know if I’m posting it on Tuesday or Wednesday of the next week. This coming week, I will post on Wednesday, and the working title is, “Why ‘Messy’ Could Be the Best Word to Live by This Year.”

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Raj Kushal Rathour

    Kelly, you have been absolutely fabulous past two weeks. Speechless is what you left me, not a word to say after that

  • Shailaja

    Wonderful idea! I always thought of new year resolutions as a compulsive thing which never works. But you have changed my perception of this,so why not try it your way this year. Let me start living my word 🙂

  • Kim

    The timing of this couldn’t be better. This moment is a perfect one to let my word come to me. The first word that feels right is “Big”. A better word might be “Worthy”…I’m not sure. Maybe “Big” is “Worthy” with a little bit of power behind it.

    I’ve spent my life hiding, making myself small, not letting my true self shine through, not defending myself or standing up for myself. It’s time for me to get Big. Not TOO big, but as big as I AM, as big as we are all allowed to be.

    Without doing it on purpose, I believe looking back, that last years word was Grace. So, I will hold onto all of that Grace and start to discover what Big looks and feels like for me. Thank you SO much Kelly.

  • Tim

    The word is FUN

  • Cos Davis

    peace

  • Kohaku

    I am a single girl who has desperately wished to be married since I was a teenager. This was my only real goal in my life. I am now in my mid-thirties as single as the day I was born, and no prospects in sight. I struggle a lot with self-worth and depression and the feeling that somehow I’m failing as a woman. I know all the things people say, I hear them and I know, it’s not what determines my value, marriage is hard, etc etc. I KNOW. but knowing doesn’t always change how I FEEL. I research marriage, learn about it, study people I know… but I am always single. (a lot of the info is helpful even in single life though.)

    So when I read your post and I came across the word Marriage, my heart stopped me and said “this is it. This is your word.” Not because I need to get married. I should be living as if I were. Because in searching for a human partner, I often leave the ONE who has always loved me. So this year I am going to attempt to live as if my heart and my faith were my husband. Maybe I can become more real.

    Thanks. I’ll probably go home and write my own blog post about this later.

  • Candice Marquette

    Forgiveness

  • Kristin VandenHoek

    A lot of changes are on the horizon for me and with that the potential for waves of anxiety and worry to engulf me so I am going to choose the word Trust for this year.

  • Jennifer Newell

    Having never looked at Resolutions in this way, I find it refreshing. There is a freedom in this that is missed in typical Lists each year. I think it is wonderful to accept that we will fail and that by embracing it we can find the courage to ultimately succeed as we begin again. Thanks for this.
    As I read this one word came to mind over and over. So this year my word is Health. It is not about a number on a scale or a certain size of clothing. For me it is about making choices that are healthy for me. That would include having a job that give me a healthy balance, keeping me way from my natural workaholic nature.

  • Catharine Phillips

    Courage

  • D

    Joy.
    I spend so much time on duty, responsibility, caring for, and keeping things going for my small family. I realize I have little daily contact with the person who used to laugh, be silly, relax (truly and expansively), and create. I want that part of me to be bigger, for myself, and those around me.

  • Deborah Suess Weaver

    Enough is my word this year. And I also added a mantra to help heal my relationship with my son, but has come to be more about my relationship to myself. “I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you,”

  • Jessie Swimeley

    Positive 🙂

  • anne

    choose.

  • Sarah Kristina

    Happy! Most of last year sucked the happiness in me dry, and I’m just starting to rebuild that. I want to keep it going this year. Things aren’t always easy, but I find that they DO get better. Now it’s time to keep it that way, and live in a way that makes me HAPPY.

    Thanks for this. I love the idea.

  • drkellyflanagan

    Grace. Big! Fun. Peace. Heart. Faith. Real. Forgiveness. Trust. Health. Courage. Joy. Enough. Positive. Choose. Happy. These are truly the ingredients of a beautiful (and messy) people. One more bit of encouragement: remember, the word came up from within you, not from outside of you. That means it’s already in their somewhere. You just have to find it. And then of course, lose it, give yourself grace, and then find it all over again. Blessings to all of you in this “new year.”

    • ichibanhappybunny

      Thank you for this great idea of approaching a more intentional way of obtaining positive growth for renewing my mind. I like to say that I hope to help people maximize their gifts, for Him, for them. Well I feel like by discovering your blog, that I may have just discovered one who truly does this. I found the article Words from a Father to His Daughter first and I have not stopped reading for the last two hours. Thank you for your walk. I am curious where I can find out more of your testimony of your faith, Your website has blessed me and I have a feeling it will continue to be a wonderful source to edify my soul and spirit.
      Prayerfully, Ann Webber

      • drkellyflanagan

        Hi Ann, I’m so glad you found the blog through the letter to my daughter and that you sense both emotional and spiritual edification here. I suppose the blog posts are the best testimony I have, so I hope that will be good enough. : ) Blessings to you!

  • Cherrie Dudash

    My word is going to be trust. I am trusting my significant other to guaard my heart as he does his own. And as I do his.
    Kelly, you are such an amazing person! I love your insight!

  • good2Balive

    Thank you for a remarkable blog that always gives me pause for thought. I often read them out loud to my family and we all agree – Kudos for Kelly 😀 Thank you for helping us to appreciate the gift of our beautiful, messy lives more and more. Brilliant.

    • Jennifer Newell

      I love that this blog is something you can share with your family.

  • Ann Marie

    My sister taught me this “one word” resolution! Thanks Sue (BTW – she’s also the one that turned me onto your blog). My word this year is LIGHT. I’m kinda cheating because there are really a three part ways that I view it. First and foremost, I want to have a light heart. Second, I want to live a lighter, healthier lifestyle. And third, I aspire to let God’s light shine through me and to recognize it in others.

    • Jennifer Newell

      I really like it…Dont think it is cheating!

  • Trish

    I’m going to say devoted because that’s just beyond me

  • Meghan

    Gentle. I find myself bothered again and again by my quick and harsh internal responses (sometimes external) to people i find frustrating. That is not who I want to be, and this is the word that presented itself to me as the solution.

  • drkellyflanagan

    New ingredients of messy-beautiful living (since my last comment): Trust. Devoted. Gentle. Light. So glad you all are on this planet with me.

  • Paolo

    My word this year is submission. According to St Rabanus Maurus, there had been four actors of our default – Adam, Eve, the tree and the serpent, and so others four elements had been, as it were, antithetic to them – the New Adam, the New Eve, the tree of the Cross and St. Joseph. If St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that the devil preferred “misere praeesse quam feliciter subesse”, of course Joseph, our Patron, our humble,quiet and peaceful earthly Father, yet holding the highest position bestowed upon the human condition, enjoyed to be subordinated to the power and richness of the Word of God rather than sadly deny the Word, the whole Word, as did the champion of the darkness.

  • Elizabeth

    Accepted.

  • Heather Strong

    Continue to love the insights on this blog – As for the “one little word” I’ve been practicing this instead of resolutions for the last five years (2013 is year 5) and have found it really really helpful and relevant. Sharing those words and what they’ve meant for me

    2009 – Simplify – lots of soul searching and deciding what was was best for me and my children, this also bleed into early 2010 as part of the simplify process was leaving a toxic mariage

    2010 – Truth – all about finding out the truth of what worked for me and what didn’t, most specifically the truth about who I really am, what my boundries are. While 2010 is long gone, finding my “truth” continues to be an on-going process

    2011 – Rebuild – starting a new healthy relationship and rebuilding my soul/life w/ a new love, new job, new home… was a pretty amazing rollercoaster of a year

    2012 – Faith – this one a bit tougher, as it took faith to be okay w/ all that I rebuilt in 2011. Faith that all the other changes that I had made in the prior 3 years where all pointing me in the right direction. Also a big deal that my oldest child joined the Navy. Needed to have lots of faith there to be “okay” with his decision.

    2013 – Release – this one just spoke to me. In part because of “releasing” the oldest child out into the world, letting the youger one take on more responsiblity. Also I would like to work on releasing clutter from my home (its amazing that even though I gave half of the lifetime of acculmulated “stuff” to the ex) I’ve still got so much stuff to take care of and need to release it. Who knows what else I’ll “release” this year but as I think all my other “words” will still be part of the entire process 🙂

    Thanks for listening – love the blog! Keep on writing the good stuff!!

  • Allison

    I love this post. I started picking words rather than resolutions a couple years ago and have found it so life-giving. I usually end up with two words for the year. Last year they were “rest” and “freedom,” and I experienced so many gifts and so much growth connected to those two ideas. I’m still pondering my words for this year. For some reason I always feel the need to sit with them for the month of January and make sure they feel true for where I’m at.

  • drkellyflanagan

    Rest, freedom, simplify, truth, rebuild, faith, release, accepted, submission. Your words continue to give me hope. Thank you! And Ann Marie, Allison, Heather, so good to hear from folks who are already doing this and experiencing the fruit of it!

  • Janneke

    Thank you for taking the time to organize and write this post. It is SO true. My previous “one little word” resolutions have been “happiness” which led me to “connection” in 2012 (like you, my quest for happiness in 2011 took me all over the place and so I sought to connect the dots in my life), and 2013 is “abundance.” I’m really inspired though by your “risky” resolution, so I might put that in my pocket for next year! I’ve already seen an abundance of knowledge and information this January and I am pretty sure that the key for me to unlock abundance of love, spiritual experiences, financial wealth, and so forth will be to have a grateful heart. I choose not to change my word, but my focus will definitely be on gratitude!

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome; thanks for sharing your experience!

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  • Alex Chew

    Boldness. I think I’m on a journey to move away from my comfort zone into unknown and uncertainty this year. So, boldness is my word. Thank you for the idea! =)

    • drkellyflanagan

      Alex, I think boldness could be a life-changing word. I hope that’s true for you this year!

  • Shiz Crazyfeet Wachira

    faith….am going back for my post graduate school…moving house etc etc….faith..when i decided it was my word it felt right..so faith it is

    • drkellyflanagan

      Good for you, Shiz! May the blessings of faith carry you into your new adventure!

  • prilla ayu wendaria

    GOD. I want to keep aware that every single thing in life is FROM and FOR GOD only.

    thanks for this beautiful post, Love it 🙂

  • Kate

    Open. I have been stuck in my own little bubble of control, certainty, security, familiarity, and predictability. I want to have a more open heart and be open to new and different experiences, ideas and people. My new year starts now. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Open. A great word! You’re welcome, Kate, and best of luck to you in your “new year.” : )

  • Anon

    Patient.
    I have decided to be patient for the year – 2014!
    Thank you Doc!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Great word, Anon! We’re going to revisit this idea early in 2014. Would love to hear more about your experience then.

  • liv

    Creative, thats my word for 2014. I have moved out of the big city and into the country. At age 54, I am creating a new life for myself and cresting new art expressions.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Liv, that sounds absolutely lovely. And creative is a fantastic word for the new year. I’m betting it’s going to give birth to all sorts of other words like beauty and freedom and joy. : )

  • Kathi Emrick Rockafellow

    Willingness to let go … allowing freedom and choices in my thoughts, relationships and actions!!! Thank you

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sounds fantastic, Kathi! And I think you’re really going to like my post this Wednesday then!

  • Michelle

    Alone.
    I have fought with not wanting to accept it and falling into a depressive sort of state because I fear it.
    I am going to live accepting that being alone is okay.

    • drkellyflanagan

      It takes great courage to make that our word. But I believe it can also bring great freedom. My best to you, Michelle.

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  • jen

    unafraid. starting with the choice of this word. (yikes.)

    • drkellyflanagan

      Be unafraid, Jen! Which, of course, means feeling very afraid but not letting it stop you!

  • Hieu

    Truth will be mine, I have been practicing that for a few months and it gives me much fear. Verbalizing what I feel and accepting that emotion plays a part of me more and more as i get older. I am accepting that I need to understand and embrace emotion instead of ignore.

  • Sherry

    After reading your “just one word” Nothing came to mind. I have really been struggling for the last 3 years. Then the word LIVE came right up through the maze. It will take me a bit to wrap my mind around that one, but it instantly brought a smile to my face.

  • Haley Lockwood

    Believe.