Adapting to Limitations: Forget Goals, Try a Theme Approach

January 30, 2016

by Joan Friedlander

This is the time of year that inspires people in the modern world to wipe the slate clean and set new goals for the coming year, hopeful that “this will be the year they finally (fill in the blank).”

If it’s been what we deem a good year, we set goals to get to the next level. If it’s been a crummy year, we set goals with an aim to have a better year. Having done the same myself, I understand this drive. However, I’m not sure it’s a healthy one. Simply put, most people set goals (specific, measurable outcomes) under the operating assumption that life will flow as planned, with no accounting for contingencies.


In my experience, people living with a chronic, rare disease – and those who care for them – have gained the “privilege” of knowing otherwise. Life has taught us that the mind can wish, hope and plan all it wants, it is still not the final authority over what you’ll be able to actually do. Does this mean you should give up before you start, or is there another approach that would be more supportive because it’s more fluid?


A couple of weeks ago an alternative approach emerged, one that enables you to create some strategies without locking you into a time-table that is difficult to predict. I’m calling it the Single Theme approach. Interestingly enough, one of my coaching clients used the approach this year, but it wasn’t until we talked about his new theme for 2016, that I saw it as viable, healthy alternative to the more detailed, time-driven lists that I have helped many business owners create, and used myself.


Here’s how it works. Instead of developing a list of goals/objectives and supporting milestones, identify a single organizing theme for the year. In my client’s case, the organizing theme for 2015 was “Secure the Fort.” All major business decisions were measured against this single theme.

He successfully negotiated a lease renewal that included expansion of his operating space. He trained the newest member of his staff to be a reliable, competent member of the team. And, he and his team worked together to shore up important policies and procedures. These projects and tasks arose within the framework “secure the fort.” He did not push, he responded to what was in front of him. Furthermore, right timing revealed itself.


His new organizing theme for this year is Communication. He identified 8 project areas in his business that are expressions of the theme, and a Role for himself (Ambassador for The Work). As he was talking I started doodling and created “The Wheel of Communication,” which follows.



The Wheel of Communication 2016

An Ambassador for the Work

circle of communication example 1 - client

I am a huge fan of the simple and empowering, and this is both. If he ever gets lost, all he has to do is take a look at the Wheel and review the associated project areas he identified. He can share this simple plan with his staff, he can assign responsibilities, and if he wants to he can develop a more detailed timeline for some of these items.

What if you’re coming out of a difficult year with your health and/or work? I’ve created a second sample wheel to illustrate the versatility of this approach using the same theme, Communication. Instead of 8 areas, I identified 6. There are no rules for this.


If this Single Theme approach calls to you, please do give it a try. If you’re artistic or just love colored pens or pencils, by all means, deck the Wheel out in style. If you feel comfortable sharing your results, feel free to post in a comment. Your Wheel might inspire another!


The Wheel of Communication 2016

An Ambassador for My Health

circle of communication example 2 - fictional



Joan Friedlander is the author of “Business from Bed” and co-author of “Women, Work, and Autoimmune Disease.” Joan is an expert in working and living with chronic or serious illness. Through her books and coaching, she helps small business owners who need to recalibrate business activities in the wake of a health setback. For more tips from Joan, visit

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