The Japanese Ritual I Used To Make 2019 My Best Year Yet

Ben Bradbury
Jan 8, 2019 · 11 min read

This article is a memory of tomorrow. It’s part intention for the year ahead, part reflection on the year just gone. If you want to get straight to the tactical parts you can implement, skip past my process to the final section: “How YOU Can Make 2019 Your Best Year Yet”.

January 3rd, 2018.

On a quiet flight back to New York City, I wrote what you can see above in my journal, and set my goals for the year.

Looking back a year later, I’m proud to say 2018 was the most transformative year of my life.

I left my startup to build my own business, became financially independent, and fostered a warm community of friends in a brand new city.

In 2019, I aim to go several steps further still.

This year is about intention. I’m taking radical ownership over my journey. Tackling fears and limiting beliefs head-on, and building systems and habits to transcend them. To finally become the best version of myself. Why?

Because to become the best version of yourself, you must be willing to change everything.

The Japanese have a ritual called Misogi. You stand under a waterfall to cleanse your body, symbolising intense purification. But Misogi's underlying belief is that doing something for 1 day a year can profoundly impact the other 364. Climbing a mountain. Visiting Burning Man. Or in my case, setting my intention for 2019 in a brand new country.

Exactly a year on from January 3rd 2018, I was in Amsterdam. Why? To practice Misogi. A radical environment shift. Along with my Subject Matter co-host Tom Worcester, we reflected on 2018, and planned for how we could ensure 2019 can be the best year yet. That meant calling out our BS. Challenging fundamental beliefs. It meant being prepared to change everything.

What follows is the process Tom and I developed, with the result being a manual for how I intend to operate in 2019. It is the result of 4 solid days reflecting and planning in Amsterdam. It’s a process grounded in Misogi: that doing something one day a year can move the needle for the other 364. It is my creed, my codex, my intention for the year ahead.

After this year, I’ll look back and again reflect. On what went wrong, and what went right. It’s a balance. In a year’s time, all I know I’ll absolutely aim for is the exact same as this year: To make 2019 my best year yet.

So how exactly can we make that happen?

Step 1: 2019: The Year of “THE’s”, and not “A’s”

The first goal Tom and I decided on was to not set goals at all.

Goals are static and inflexible. They don’t account for life’s ever-changing context. So instead, we created a theme.

A theme = The subject of something.

Themes serve as an anchor of thought. For example, if you’re living by a theme of happiness, you will remember to be kinder throughout your days. Or living by the theme of less might mean saying no to more opportunities.

Our theme of 2019? Make it the year of THE’s, and not A’s.

Making 2019 the year of THE’s and not A’s is a way of being highly selective about my actions.

Let’s break it down.

A big part of success comes down to the people you surround yourself with. “A” relationship can be found anywhere. I define them as people I (unwittingly) give my time to, that might be fun to hang around, but are not actually making me think differently, or helping me become the best version of myself.

By contrast, “THE” relationship is one that has the potential to last for a very, very long time. These are the people who push me forward, challenge my thinking, and most importantly want to become the best version of themselves too.

Focusing on THE relationships is helpful for our brain too. Look at Dunbar’s number: The brain can only hold 150 stable relationships at any one time. In today’s digital world, you could meet that number in an afternoon. There’s a burning need to be highly selective about who you bring into your circle.

I feel fortunate to have a head-start by finding THE partner already: my wonderful girlfriend. But beyond that, I believe everyone benefits by applying this philosophy. A young student starting their journey will propel themselves forward if surrounded by wise mentors. Likewise, those wise souls, in turn, have so much to learn from tech-savvy youngsters. If we’re all surrounding ourselves with people who truly matter to us, the world becomes better.

My year of THE’s and not A’s goes beyond relationships too. Here are 4 other areas I’ll be applying this theme:

1. My reputation and public image is not just a product — one of countless potential others. It is THE product. If the reputation is tainted, that may never leave you.

2. Ideas are easy. They come and go with barely a thought. But the work? The execution? That’s how people move from “a” realm of possibility, to “the” real deal. It’s what separates dreamers from doers. Winners from losers. I’m aiming to move faster by making speed a habit. And I can move faster by…

3. Modelling my models. Bismarck once said:

Credit: Quotefancy

There are men and women out there who’ve walked the path I seek. They are the footsteps to follow. There is no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants.

4. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King simple states: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” The work from point #2 is then a simple (but not easy) concept for me. In 2019, I’ll be dialling in on the two tasks that level up my writing to be its best yet.

So the overarching theme for this year is making 2019 the year of THE’s, and not A’s. What’s written above are concepts. Learn from THE best. Treat my reputation as THE product. Focus on THE actions that make me a better writer.

But remember, everything is a balance.

Themes and ideas are nothing without execution. So now, we shift from themes, to Principles: daily actions that practically change my life and business.

Step 2: Actionable Principles For 2019

The first principle I’m living by? Be leaner.

I love seeing the possibility in something. Whether it’s a brand new relationship or a business venture, it’s easy for me to get carried away with a concept’s potential which leads to over-indexing on its worth.

This is great, until I my time and energy gets sucked up by something which isn’t the best decision. It’s time to change that.

This year, I’m going back to startup first principles. That means interviewing users to validate hypotheses, and building minimum viable products (MVPs) first to see if a concept is worth pursuing. It’s a different way of thinking for me, but something I need to embrace.

The second principle is to call out my own BS.

I tell my client’s stories in visceral detail, and throw everything I have into making them the best they can be. But when it comes to my own story, I falter. Am I like the thousands of entrepreneurs suffering from Imposter Syndrome? Or do I simply not believe I’ve earned my achievements? The truth is, I don’t exactly know why. But I do know that the BS stops here.

Just like you reading this, I earned where I am today. I worked overtime to get my side hustle off the ground, doing everything from taking 6am calls in my Brooklyn flat to feverishly writing content at 11pm in Mexico City airport. That extra work eventually became my full time business. And that feels great.

The following 4 statements are my intention to call out self-inflicted BS and take radical ownership in 2019:

1. I’m a good photographer. It’s one of THE core skills I have. But I didn’t showcase that for the second half of this year on Instagram, 500px or anywhere else. Expect that to change.

2. I’m not just a good landscape photographer. I can shoot people and products too. Expect to see them.

3. I’m a good writer. In 2018 I was ghostwriting, telling the stories of others. This year, I’ll be consistently sharing my own perspective too.

4. I know video matters. But I haven’t taken it seriously either. This year, expect that to change.

If you’re BS’ing yourself over something (and my guess is you are because you’re human), writing out your own statements may be a useful exercise.

Ask yourself: What have I been BS’ing myself on? What really matters to me?

My big theme of 2019 is to make it the year of THE’s and not A’s. Combine that with a couple of core principles, and that’s what I intend to change this year.

But what about what’s working already?

Step 3: What Worked In 2018

Intention isn’t complete without reflection on the other side. In 2018 I built a handful of habits that were truly transformative. These predictable actions were the foundation for my success. I don’t intend to radically alter them. After all, if it ain’t broke…

1. Balance.

At the start of 2018, I was optimising for work. Finish at midnight, in the gym by 6am. Rinse and repeat. And you know what happened? I burnt out fast.

I realised that while I might be ambitious, I was sacrificing my happiness. After speaking to other New Yorkers, I realised this went deeper than just me. It’s a lifestyle. In fact, so many people we spoke to resonated with this idea that Tom and I discussed it at length on Subject Matter (check it out on iTunes or Spotify).

From that day on, I embraced balance as a core ideal. 7 hours sleep (minimum) became a priority. Time spent recharging away from work was now as important as the work itself.

Having balance in my life going into 2019 has made me less stressed than ever before.

2. Meditate.

Mindfulness meditation was the single most transformative habit I built in 2018. It’s made me more aware of my thoughts, more present in the moment, less anxious, more focused, and overall a much happier human being.

Last year I managed a 289 day streak of meditating every day. This year? I’m breaking 300.

3. Subject Matter.

Since Subject Matter launched in November 2018, I’ve fallen in love with podcasting. Right now more than ever, society is in need of people who can challenge assumptions and think for themselves, and the conflict created every week on Subject Matter teaches exactly that.

Telling stories about subjects that matter has fast become one of my favourite activities. We’re just getting started being over halfway through season 1, which was initially a pilot. Something tells me the fun doesn’t stop there.

4. Empathy

One of the biggest lessons I learned in New York was the power of empathetic curiosity. In April I had a conversation with someone I’d met for 5 minutes, but felt like I’d known for a lifetime. How? By putting myself in their shoes, being genuinely curious about how they felt, and empathising with their situation. It followed this simple formula:

1 — All the questions I asked started with: “What’s it like…?” Those 3 words are the best way to create empathy.

2 — My responses all started with: “If I were you, I imagine I would feel…”

These two phrases have created more heartfelt conversations than I can count.

5. Create.

I fundamentally believe creation beats consumption. Whether it’s writing code, recording videos, writing novels or something else entirely, what’s already there cannot compete with the act of making something from nothing.

In 2018 I wrote more than any other year in my life. In 2019 I intend to double that output.

So that’s what I’m taking forward into this year. Combine that with my 2019 intention formed from Misogi, I have a manual for my future.

The final step in my process is to make the manual memorable.

Step 4: My 2019 Intention In 5 Sentences

My intention for 2019 in 5 key points:

1. 2018 was my best year so far. 2019 will go even further.

2. To become the best version of myself I must be willing to change everything.

3. 2019 is the year of THE’s, and not A’s.

4. It’s time to get leaner, and call out my BS.

5. Balance, Meditation, Subject Matter, Empathy and Creation all work. Don’t change them.

But enough about me. Now it’s your turn.

How YOU Can Make 2019 Your Best Year Yet

If you’re planning for the year ahead, here’s how you can use the above framework to get clarity over your upcoming year:

1. Evaluate 2018.

Ask yourself, what:

  • Worked well in 2018?
  • Goals did you achieve?
  • Goals did you fall short of?
  • New habits did you build?
  • Would you have done differently?

The aim here is to get a comprehensive understanding of how last year went for you.

2. Embrace Misogi.

Doing something once a year can have a profound impact on the other 364 days. You want to be intentional about making this process as radically different from the rest of the year as possible.

Travel to a new country, or visit a new city. If you can’t do that, get as far into nature as you can. Fly, drive, run if you have to. Just radically change your environment.

3. Set Themes, Not Goals.

Once you’re in your new environment, it’s time to think about approaching 2019. Goals are static and inflexible. Instead, I encourage you to focus on developing themes. For Tom and I, the theme of “THE’s”, not “A’s” was informed by our conversations in Amsterdam.

If you have a partner, discuss your reflections and intentions with them. If you’re alone, journal on whatever you feel is most important. The mere act of connecting your thoughts to paper with a pen is blissful catharsis. The end goal? Identify themes you can live this year by.

4. Make It Tangible.

Make your themes tangible by identifying principles you can perform to develop it. For me, I wanted to maintain balance, so meditation and prioritising sleep are essential. Plus, as a writer, I know I need to read and write a lot. Turn your themes into practical actions. Because after all, in the words of Thomas Edison:

5. Use Context To Inform Decisions.

Now you’ve planned for 2019, go back to your learnings from 2018 and see what you want to continue doing. Context is everything, and in this case being able to see this year in light of how you approached last year is powerful. Stack your new intentions with what already went well, and you have a recipe for success.

5. Summarise.

Take the above reflections & intentions, and turn them into short sentences you can live by. Condensing into phrases makes you think about what things truly matter to you. These should be no more than 5 sentences. Why? You must be able to memorise them easily. This is your creed for the upcoming year, so you should be able to recite it without even thinking.

6. Tell Me How It Went!

If you found this article valuable or you tried the process yourself, I’d love to listen to your thoughts. What did you like? What did you disagree with?

You can get in touch with me via Medium, LinkedIn, Instagram (@benbradbury), Facebook or my website,


Ben Bradbury

Written by

Sharing People’s Stories To Colour Your Map of the World. Subject Matter Podcast Host.

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