Setting goals seems important, but never feels effective. I never have enough data to estimate proper terms for a goal to make it motivating instead of ignorable or daunting.

  • Should my goal be to reduce build times by 15% or 20%?
  • Should I achieve this by the end of the month or quarter?
  • What happens if I or the business decide that’s not important between then and now?
  • What happens if I literally can’t complete this because of technical or logistical blockers?

I’ll spare you my long (and boring) history with struggling to answer these questions and deal with the consequences of them. The point is that I need to either find a way to work within the typical framework or find a new one that works for me.

I’ve tried the first approach for many years. It’s time to try the second.

Theme Pact Framework

Pulling from several sources, my framework for goal setting includes:

  • Theme: a guiding light, a default decision
  • PACT Goals: specific personal outputs I commit to
  • Habits: systems for making sure I achieve those outputs

James Clear (of Atomic Habits fame) really summarizes the framework compared to traditional approaches.

You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.

I like this model because you control the direction and personal outputs. Success is therefore under your control. You won’t fail because of external forces made your original goals impossible.

By leveraging the power of direction, defaults, and habits, this framework makes success happen as a matter of course. Well, that’s the theory.

What is a Theme?

This concept comes from the Theme System, developed by Myke Hurley and CGP Grey through Cortex.

Myke and CGP Grey define the Theme System in intentionally vague terms. They want users to use their framework to build a more specific system for themselves.

The themes themselves are defined with a name, description, and a set of ideal outcomes. They call them “yearly themes” for convenience, but these can be seasons, quarters, or whatever works best for you.

For my purposes, I decided a theme has to be:

North Star: A theme is a North Star. It’s a default position. When you come to a decision, you ask yourself, does one of the choices lead me towards my north star? If so, that is your default decision. You can still obviously choose something else, but defaults have incredible power.

Resonant: A theme resonates with you as a deep desire for a high-level focus on a direction. This can be some major thing you want to change, improve, or maintain.

Flexible: A theme is flexible. It should not be overly specific. It can adjust to life (and sometimes world) changes.

Infallible: A theme is infallible. You cannot fail. It’s a direction, not a destination.

What is a PACT Goal?

This concept comes from SMART goals are not so smart: make a PACT instead by Anne-Laure Le Cunff through Ness Labs.

Anne-Laure defines a PACT Goal as:

Purposeful: A PACT Goal calls out to a purpose in your life, similar to how a Theme should be Resonant. Aligning your PACT goals to your Theme will accomplish this by proxy.

Actionable: A PACT Goal is be actionable. It focuses on outputs instead of outcomes to keep you in control of your progress on this goal.

Continuous: A PACT Goal is continuous. It is something you can do periodically and frequently.

Trackable: A PACT Goal is trackable. There should be some measure of either (1) whether or not you did a thing or (2) how many times you did a thing.

I extend this further to include:

Accountable: My PACT Goals are accountable. I share my goal with someone who can prod me when I’m not making progress on it.

Habitual: My PACT Goals are habitual. They either rely on existing habits to trigger new behavior or define new habits I’ll need to develop in order to accomplish the goal.

What is a Habit?

This concept comes from Atomic Habits by James Clear.

James defines a habit as:

  • Cue: The trigger for the habit.
  • Craving: What you want that the habit will provide.
  • Response: The behavior you perform after the Cue triggers the habit.
  • Reward: The result of engaging in the habitual behavior.

Cues need to be obvious. The best cues are location and time.

Response needs to be easy. Something you can do quickly and without much effort, if at all possible. James suggests putting a 2-minute limit on this.

Craving and Reward are two sides of the same coin. You need to make the habit result in something that you will enjoy in the short term so that you repeat it, leading to the desired long-term change.

I focus mostly on setting new good habits here, but James makes it clear that you can use a similar system to break bad habits.

Setting a Theme Pact


  1. Define your Theme
  2. Define the duration (a quarter, season, year, etc.)
  3. Set your PACT Goals
  4. If any of your PACT Goals have blocker habits: define habit breakers
  5. If any of your PACT Goals needs support from a new habit: define new habits
  6. Track your progress


My first stab at this was too much all at once. I did form some useful habits around my theme, but I couldn’t keep up with everything I tried to do.

I (re-)discovered that smaller iterations are better. If you are going from zero to Theme Pact, I suggest iteratively adding pieces until you are comfortable with a given piece. To start, define a theme OR work on forming one good habit OR work on breaking one bad habit.


If you want to learn more about these topics, I recommend the following.

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Sean Massa


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