How Sarah Strategizes

How Sarah Strategizes


I love lists. I make lists for everything, from household projects I want to do, to activities I want to do with the kids. So, of course, for years I’d start each new year with a long and ambitious list of goals. Then I realized that I was actually just making the same list every year: more gospel study, more exercise, more adventures, etc. Obviously these yearly lists were not working. 

When I had kids, I felt the impression to let go of my list and focus on who I wanted to become. I decided to take a new goal-setting approach and pick a theme for the year instead—something to help me focus and really change. These themes are usually just one or two words, such as “Nurture,” “Look Up,” “Uplift,” or “Pray.”

Usually, by the end of the year I have internalized my theme and it’s a part of me. I really have changed. I really have made progress. And that feels awesome.

Choosing My Theme

I usually start thinking about what my next year’s theme will be around Thanksgiving time. I love the progression of the holidays—how we start by focusing on gratitude at Thanksgiving, then we focus on Christ for Christmas, and then we have a fresh start at New Year’s to make goals and reevaluate the direction we’re going. 

As I think about what I want to focus on, something always pops out to me as a good focus for the year. One of the very first ones was nurture. That was a pivotal one—my kids were little, and that really was the most important thing I needed to do at that time. I thought, “I’m already surrounded by the things that will help me feel happy. I don’t have to look far away or far into the future for it. It’s all right here. All I need to do is nurture them.” 


 In 2011, I miscarried a baby a couple of weeks before Christmas, at 12 weeks. The whole experience included passing out in the ER in the wee hours of the morning, very kind doctors and nurses, heartache for the little one we lost, and a deeper awareness of how precious life is. I still get teary thinking of all the angels (seen and unseen) who came to our rescue when we needed back up. Words can’t express the feelings of gratitude I feel for them.

 Fresh from this intense experience, the theme I chose for 2012 was “The Essentials.” I just had a deeper awareness that some things are essential—my husband and kids, my relationship with God, my role as a nurturer, and my connections with my family, friends and neighbors.

Photo by Ali Middleton @alimiddleton

Photo by Ali Middleton @alimiddleton

Some themes are less serious. One year when I was having a frustrating time as a mom, my phrase for the year was “Get a Grip.” This year, my theme is “Small and Simple,” a reminder of the scripture verse in the Book of Mormon: “…by small and simple things are great things brought to pass…” (Alma 37:6)

 When I choose my theme in January, it’s more of a personal thing, but in August we do it as a family. I usually come up with a theme and get full support from my husband, and then introduce it to my four boys. We talk about it at the dinner table, and in conversations about their day at school, it gives us a basis to talk about our goals and priorities. 

 The Paintings

When I first started choosing a theme for the year, I just wrote it on a Post-It note and stuck it on my bulletin board. But once I emerged from those all-consuming baby years, I decided I wanted to make my yearly theme into something beautiful I could hang on my wall. 


 This was a natural fit for me. I’ve always been an artist—it’s part of who I am. I got my Bachelor’s of Fine Arts at Brigham Young University, and I have always loved painting and creating. I’m obviously a very visual person, so I liked the idea of having my word somewhere where I would see it often, as a daily reminder.

 So I would hang these paintings on my wall each year, and soon my friends started asking me if I’d paint one for them. I had enough interest that I decided I might as well start selling them. (You can order them on my website,

 It’s been so fun to see what words people come up with. They’re often verbs, things like “work hard,” “encourage,” “simplify,” or “embrace.” I love the idea that something I create is helping people to grow and change. 

About the Author


Sarah Nielsen is an artist and mother of four boys. She teaches weekly art classes for toddlers, as well as workshops for children and adults. Her mission is to make art accessible, so everyone can afford to have art hanging on their walls. Because what we see has a profound impact on who we are. (Photo by Kari Hennefer,

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