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The Word of the Year Program

01 October 2019 - Dr Jan Orman

At the beginning of her book “Simple Self-Care for Therapists” Ashley Davis Bush starts by telling a story about a guest on her online talk radio show who introduced her to something she called her “Word of the Year Program”. That program involved finding a word that resonated with her values and spend the year living by it. Ashley tells us that the caller’s word of the year for the previous year had been “self-care”. 

Thus, Ashley segues into her excellent book about therapist self-care which I heartily recommend - but the Word of the Year Program idea got me thinking in another direction as well.

Is it Better than a New Year’s Resolution?

People are always making resolutions about behaviour change. Take New Year for example – peak-hour for resolutions. We all know from our own experience what happens to New Year’s resolutions. Mine have usually been forgotten by my birthday (for me that’s 5 days after New Year), especially if they have anything to do with diet or exercise (which they inevitably do).

This “Word of the Year“ idea strikes me as having value, because it provides a theme rather than specific goals. It allows for change in not just one but a range of areas of life. And if you modify it a little to be “Word of the Week” or “Word of the Month” it leaves room for smaller more manageable increments of change and more frequent celebration of success.

I know lots of office teams pay lip service to this idea, but what would happen if we took it seriously?

In the Mental Fitness Challenge that you can find on the BITE BACK website positive psychology-based strategies are engaged with for just one week at a time. A week seems to be long enough to make an impact and it’s easy to make things go on for longer once the idea is established. Week 1 is “gratitude” and that’s not a bad place to start if what you are after is an increase in positivity in your life.

So, how you might choose your “Word of the Whatever”?

Bush talks about your word “finding you”, but this strikes me as a little too spooky for most people. Maybe a conversation about aspirations would help you find the right word? Or a conversation about values?

A few years ago, I made my most successful New Year’s Resolution ever and now I’ve come across the idea I think it might be because it was more of a “word of the year” than a resolution. My mother has not been around to advise and guide me for a very long time, but I have always remembered her favourite piece of advice about being true to yourself. “To thine own self be true” she would say in so many situations when doubt and anxiety were threatening to overcome me. She didn’t have much education, so I suspect she wasn’t even aware that she was quoting Shakespeare, but I know she genuinely believed in the sentiment.

One year I hit upon the idea that, instead of making a resolution for the new year to lose weight or get fitter, I would aim for a year of “authenticity” in honour of my long dead mother’s wise advice. It’s not been an easy thing for someone like me who worries a lot about what other people think of them, but I have stuck with the authenticity guideline pretty well ever since. It’s been very satisfying. I’ve found it’s not so bad to be real after all, even if some people reject you for it, and it feels very good indeed to live by a strongly held value.

Is it worth giving this idea a try?

To do something like this you might want to start small with a week of gratitude for example - before plunging right into a lifetime of authenticity. Or maybe there’s some middle ground and something thing else you might like to try for a few weeks or a month?

How about joy, tolerance, flexibility, enthusiasm, kindness, calm, simplicity or engagement as possible words of the (time frame to be specified) for you to consider?

Or how about falling back on “self-care”. It can’t hurt to try!




  • Simple Self-Care for Therapists – restorative Practices to Weave through Your Workday by Ashley Davis Bush – W W Norton & Company   ISBN 978-6-39370837-0
  • BITE BACK Mental Fitness Challenge
  • Polonius’s speech from Act 1 Scene 3 of Hamlet by William Shakespeare  (BillMurray as a modern Polonius)
Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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