Introducing … My Two Focus Words for 2021!

Happy New Year, readers and friends!

Have you selected your word or words of focus and intention for 2021? (If you haven’t, there’s still time!)

After a bit of grappling, my two words for 2021 are influence and cultivate.

My goal in selecting “influence,” is definitely not to try to acquire more power and authority in the coming year. I’m not necessarily interested in chasing specific titles or official roles of leadership.

Instead, I want to end each day by asking myself the question, “Who did I influence today and how?” My goal, ultimately, is to end each day knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I made a difference in some small way to someone. Most days, I want to be able to say with confidence that I influence several people.

Developing this goal has pushed me to identify who I actually do, realistically, influence. And I confess that the list I made has humbled me. I started with my most powerful place of influence – my family. Every day, I most definitely influence the energy within my own home. Beyond that, I have schools and districts I partner with that look to me for information and, often, leadership. I want to do a good job of leading and influencing these stakeholders – not just professionally, but in how I live my life.

I also have a growing group of students that I tutor and mentor. I want to continue to influence their lives – and the lives of their families, hopefully – in meaningful ways. Some of that is through the nuts and bolts of teaching reading or supporting students in college admissions. But in that process, I also model who I am, what I value and what I believe. I tell my own stories in transparent ways, hoping to challenge and inspire. I need to do more of that this year.

My church also is a place where I hope to be a positive influence this year. I have come to church leadership reluctantly, after years of staying away due to witnessing some very un-Christian behaviors within church settings. But this year, I have new opportunities to step up and do good, and I intend to do my part.

Additionally, my family has a growing opportunity to influence our community through our outreach effort, 55 and Love. This is a project where we help distribute items like hot food, toiletries, blankets and other items to people who are homeless. We also help to connect our neighbors with opportunities to give through a local food pantry. I want to continue to give, and also to inspire others to do the same.

Looking at the word cultivate, this represents a focus on building – building friendships and professional connections and also cultivating talents and abilities.

One item that comes up every January is the desire to learn some additional Spanish vocabulary. I know I need to model this for some of the educators I serve – and I know that knowing even some basic Spanish could help bring comfort to my students and families.

I also want to push myself in the area of writing. I’ve been dabbling in some humor and memoir writing, and hope to publish at least a small book of personal stories this year. One motivation for this is being able to do a small book tour after the pandemic wanes.

Some of my goals are lofty, I know. But I know that without big goals, big achievements cannot happen. And I am determined to show myself grace as challenges arise.

What are your words? Why did you choose them? How do you hope to manifest these words in the new year? Good luck!

How to Pick a Word that Works for YOU in the New Year

For years, I was a diehard New Year’s Resolution person. Each year, I would identify as many as 5-10 commitments for the new year. These often included commitments to health, learning new things and breaking bad habits.

Some of my commitments were success stories. I did, intermittently, exercise and remain calm more, learn a bit more French, or attend church with more consistency. But somewhere along the way, my resolutions stopped feeling fun and started to feel like self-loathing.

For the past few years, I’ve ditched resolutions, choosing instead to select a word or words to focus on in the new year. These words were selected because they communicated what I wanted more – or less – of in the new year. They were reminders of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live.

Through the years, I’ve had a number of focus words, including community, connection, whimsy, calm, consistency, development, steadfastness and fun. Friends have also come up with some excellent words – things like prayer, hope, faith, love, fearlessness, exploration, studiousness, intention, carefreeness, peace, challenge, learning, leadership and renewal.

Here are some tips that might help you in choosing a word for 2021.

  1. Find a word that can evolve as the global pandemic shifts. One of my words for 2020 was whimsy. Oops. After the shutdowns came in mid-March, I confess that whimsy was not a top priority for me, as I shifted, at times, into more of a survival and adjustment mode. This year, I am choosing words that can shift slightly as the year evolves. They can include, for example, goals of travel and socializing, but also can continue to work while social distancing.
  2. Avoid the “shoulds.” When I look back at some of my early resolutions, I realize I sometimes picked things I thought I should want to do, instead of things that were truly important to me. For example, I knew I needed to eat more healthily, but at the time, I had not truly reached a place where I wanted to do it. Before selecting a word, really stop and think, “Does this truly matter to me? Why?.
  3. Consider your season. Some things can be important to you, but not be realistic for the season that you are in. For example, a few years ago I picked the word “friendship” as one of my words. Some of my commitments included seeing friends more frequently, going out to dinner, meeting new people and joining a group or two. This word ended up not working for me because the season I was in realistically did not allow for a focus on socialization. The truth was, when it came down to it, I preferred to spend my time in that season focused on my elementary-aged children, my teaching and my writing. And that was OK. This can be true with career-related goals, too. Maybe you would like to pursue more leadership roles at work, but you also recognize that your family demands make this a season for holding steady or even ramping down your work commitments. Saying no to a word one year doesn’t mean saying no to it forever.
  4. Plan to give yourself grace. This experience is meant to inspire, encourage and focus you. Remember to show yourself grace if you realize that a particular word is a poor fit for the year – or for you. I have changed or abandoned words several times when I got into the year and realized they did not work for me. Whimsy, for example, ended up feeling too frivolous for me in 2020. Friendship didn’t work for me once I realized that trying to jam in more social gatherings while parenting young kids just made me feel grumpy and longing for down time at home.

Will you pick a word for 2021? What are your words? How did you pick them?

Happy New Year!

Before We Move Forward, a Look Back at 2020



Am I the only one who really struggles to even come up with words to adequately describe the challenge, the horror, and the disruption this year has presented to us? I look back at pictures and posts from this time last year and I’m almost stunned by our collective naivete. How did we not know what was coming? How could we possibly believe that 2020 was going to be OUR year – our “perfect vision” come true?

And yet, we know that when we are challenged the most, we grow. This was not a sweeping year of achievements for me – or my family. In the workplace, our goal was mostly to remain steady, remaining thankful for work when so many struggled terribly. The only certificates we received were ironic ones that I printed on our home printer. But through growth, we did achieve.

Here are the biggest things we learned (or, in several cases, relearned) this year:

  1. We can’t control our circumstances, but we can control how we react to them. For the most part, I am reasonably proud of how we handled ourselves this year. We definitely had our days of staring blankly at the wall or the TV screen or social media, in shock about how quickly our lives were derailed. That’s a natural response to trauma and there is no shame in that. But after the shock, we did a good job of analyzing the situation and agreeing as a family about what was important and how we believed we should conduct ourselves. We were (mostly) kind to each other, and that may be our greatest achievement this year.
  2. We don’t need consumeristic distractions as much as we sometimes believe we do. Before the pandemic, I often felt “busy” on the weekend. Much of this busyness was because I was swinging into stores to check for sales and new items. The pandemic highlighted some of these bad habits and helped me to correct them (again).
  3. Taking the time to assess what we are doing is essential – even if we think everything is OK on the surface. The pandemic and resulting school closures in the spring helped our family to realize that, as happy as our teenagers seemed on the surface, traditional school was not working for them as well as we thought. Both expressed a desire to accelerate their high school education and to continue learning online. This was a dramatic shift for us, and it meant saying goodbye to things like two years of high school soccer and three years of high school band. But in listening to our kids and adjusting, we are realizing that they are even happier and more “themselves” than they were before. While this does not work for everyone, it works for us – and has allowed our daughter to finish high school 1.5 years early. One of our greatest joys of 2021 will be seeing her start college.
  4. Helping those most in need is always the best way forward. Because we had more time to talk as a family and were less distracted by things like consumerism, we were able to ramp up our efforts with our family effort to support people who are homeless or living in extreme poverty. We held several canned food drives, taking carloads of food to MADCAAP, an organization in Madison County that helps provide food and other supports to people who need it. We ramped up our efforts to distribute pizza, toiletries, sleeping bags and other items to people who are homeless. Somewhere along the way, people in our neighborhood and beyond started sending us items to use in our various efforts. This has been one of our greatest joys this year, and we are committed to continuing to honor this commitment in new ways in the coming year.
  5. Focusing on what we can give instead of get in relationships sustains us. At the start of 2020, I was feeling isolated – a little emotionally hollowed out, really. Since moving back to my home state five years ago, some relationships here have admittedly disappointed me. (This is a common experience, it seems.) This year – both before and during the pandemic – I focused on being open to connecting with others, asking, “What do they need and how can I be there for them?” I stopped worrying so much about recriprocation and also focused more on making new relationships, with zero expectations attached. In doing that, I have cultivated several new friendships that have sustained me this year. I am in a very different place now and feel more connected to my home state than ever – even with the social limitations of the pandemic.

What did you learn in 2020? How did the year change you? What lessons will you take with you into the new year?