How Choosing a Word for the Year Can Help You Make Great Decisions

Choosing a word for the year is a simple yet powerful practice I began several years ago out of desperation. I was in the middle of one of the most challenging seasons of my life up to that point, and I was overwhelmed. Mundane choices and difficult decisions both felt like too much. Yet, over time, as I began aligning my choices with my personal word for the year, I realized it was like a guiding light on a stormy sea, helping guide me toward the right decisions. Here’s my story of how I began this practice and some tips for how you can start, too.

A woman sits with an open notebook and works on choosing a word for the year.

Why I Started Choosing a Word for the Year

The first year I chose a word was in 2017, and I chose the word “kind.” I decided on that word because it was an area where I knew I needed much growth, and I also knew it would have to be God doing the work in me; I didn’t have it within myself to muster up more kindness.

2016 had been a hard year in many ways. The difficulties had started right out of the gate in early January when my husband and I had reached the painful decision to say no to proceeding with the adoption of two young children that we had spent months praying for and dreaming about. That excruciating decision left us emotionally raw and feeling that we were done with adoption forever.

Then, to our surprise, joy, and delight, a new baby boy entered our home later that spring. We sensed from the very beginning that this little man would be our child forever, but his intense medical needs, including open heart surgery within just a few months of being placed with us, took their toll on me.

In addition to experiencing intense ups and downs as our family grew, our church, which my husband pastored, was also growing, and our church family needed more space and improved facilities. So, we began a church building project that spring. As exciting as that was, the extremely long hours required of my husband were taxing on our marriage and family life. Amid that, people we loved and cared for and had sought to minister to for years walked out of our lives for reasons we have never fully understood.

By the end of August 2016, we had said no to an adoption we had planned for months, welcomed in another baby with complex medical needs, spent weeks with our son in the hospital as he recovered from his open heart surgery, broke ground on a church building expansion, lost friends we loved dearly, and many other things I won’t bore you with. Suffice it to say I was exhausted, broken, and hurting.

My husband often says that “hurting people hurt people.” And while I longed for the people in my life to be a little more kind to me, God began to convict me about my need to show kindness, even to those who were not just apathetic to what I was going through but were downright mean. As the calendar turned to 2017, I knew my word for the year needed to be “kind.”

As that was my first time choosing a word for the year, I had no idea how powerful selecting a word for the year could be or how many opportunities I would have to put into practice that year’s focus.

2017 proved to be an epically hard year in our ministry, even as we moved to a more stable place with our young son’s health. However, having a deliberate word in place when everything around me seemed to be crashing down helped me understand the next right thing to do. When I felt lonely? Write a note to someone else needing encouragement. When I wanted to lash out with harsh words, declaring my side of the story? Speak encouragement instead. When I felt misunderstood and maligned? Give someone else the benefit of the doubt.

Did I do this perfectly? To my sorrow, I did not. But to God’s glory, I did more often than I could have ever done of my own accord because as I memorized and meditated on what God had to say about kindness, His word did indeed “enlighten my path” and empower me to do what in my own nature was impossible.

So, after focusing on a word for the year in 2017, I was hooked. I now knew how powerful it was to have a singular focus. Instead of a vague “I want to do better,” I had a standard against which to check my everyday choices. And not just for that year’s significant, dramatic events but also for the little, ordinary, daily decisions. Choices such as:

  • Snuggle with my child or get another task checked off my to-do list.
  • Call and check in on a friend instead of waiting for them to call me.
  • Rest in God to defend me rather than ensure everyone hears my side of the story.
  • Take an active interest in my husband’s project (even though it means an evening I may not get to my own projects).

To be clear, living by the rule of kindness doesn’t mean I always choose to snuggle with my children and never tackle the housework. It doesn’t mean I keep pouring into a relationship where the other person is constantly taking and never giving because every healthy relationship has both give and take, a mutual sharing of burdens. Nor am I saying there is never a right time to state the facts as you see them and clear up a misunderstanding.

But naturally, in my flesh, I am wired to look out for myself, to put my interests above those of others, and to ensure self-preservation. Yet God calls me to something better, higher, nobler. God calls me to be kind even to those who are my enemies and do me wrong (Matthew 5:44). Living in a consistently kind and gentle manner is evidence of a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). And having the word “kind” as a guidepost that year helped me aim that direction and steer away from my natural inclination toward selfishness or spite.

Each year since 2017, I have chosen a word for the year to have as a central focus. Nothing is magical about having a particular word to focus on, but it can be beneficial, like having a guiding light that you steer your ship towards in the darkness of night. I like to think of it as the north star, Polaris, which sailors used in times past to keep their course aright in the wild, open sees.

Or, to borrow an analogy from more modern times, it’s a little like the tennis ball that smart people hang from their garage ceiling so that they always know exactly how far to pull in their car. It’s a fixed point to aim towards and to help get you back on course if you start veering sideways.

If you’ve never chosen a Word for the Year, why not start now? If you are reading this at the beginning of January, fantastic! But no matter the time of the year, there’s no better time than now to consider what word or phrase you would want to define your year.

Some Helpful Tips for Choosing a Word for the Year

  1. Pray about it. As a follower of Christ, my greatest desire is to have a year led by God. So, I ask Him to show me if there is a specific area I should focus on or an area of growth that is needed in my life.
  2. Don’t get analysis paralysis. You really can’t go wrong with choosing a word. It doesn’t have to be something really profound or nuanced. Start by asking yourself, “What is one thing/area in my life lacking or that needs improvement?” A word usually comes to my mind quickly, but others may list a few words, think it over for a time,  and then choose.
  3. Choose a key Scripture verse or quote that reinforces your word. I like to do a simple study from the Bible on the word I’ve chosen. This is easy to do with the help of a Bible app or a website like Blue Letter Bible.
  4. Let somebody know about your word! Whenever we are working on making some changes or setting a new goal, telling at least one other person about it is a great idea because it gives us more accountability. It is a simple way to ensure we are likelier to stick to it and follow through!
  5. Make or purchase a tangible object with your word on it. This could be a sign, a magnet, a piece of jewelry, or some artwork. I’ve been surprised just how often I see “my word” all around once I’ve chosen it, and I’ve never had a problem finding something with my word on it: a vase, a necklace, a wall hanging, a magnet. Having a visual reminder of my word somewhere I see it often helps keep it in the forefront of my mind and heart.
This cute little vase was a sweet find the first year I choose a Word for the Year (2017)

No matter where life finds you right now – whether you are in a calm season and life feels really good or whether you are in a stormy season and you wonder how you are going to survive another day if nothing changes – may I encourage you to pray about choosing a word for the year? Ask God to show you something that He wants to do in your life, an area of needed growth, or encouragement to faithfully continue doing what He has called you to do,  day by day.

Is there something magical about choosing a word for the year? Absolutely not, but it is a valuable tool that can help guide your ship aright as you sail the seas of your life. May you experience the joy and satisfaction of making confident, great decisions that honor God and move you in the right direction this year.

I’d love to hear from you! What word have you chosen for this year? If you’ve been doing this practice for a while, have you found that choosing a word for the year helped guide you toward wise decisions? I’d love to know, so leave a comment below!

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