Imagining a metaphor may help your New Year’s resolution to stick

The approach of a new year is a time where many of us consider our current situations and engage in new resolutions. That is the time when we vow to get in shape, save more money, learn a new skill, or let go of bad habits. After an unprecedented year like 2020, the desire for change may be stronger than ever. The pandemic has resulted in an increase in psychological distressdecrease in motivation, and even weight gain. For many, the end of 2020 brings hope for a better year and a fresh new set of resolutions.

However, more often than not, new year’s resolutions do not stick and are forgotten by February. In our research on international students and immigrants sensemaking during the COVID-19 pandemic we came to appreciate the power of metaphors as a common tool for research, coaching, and therapeutic practice. Lakoff and Johnson, in their book “Metaphors we live by” suggested that metaphors allow understanding one kind of thing in terms of another.  By combining and reorganizing abstract and concrete features, metaphors influence thought processes, attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Metaphors helps us make sense of situations and stimulate new actions by making our experience and desirestangible, and helping us see assumptions, behaviors and resources that are likely to support our goals and desires for the new year. 

Organization development practitioners and coaches have long used metaphors as an intervention strategy, offering clients a metaphor to help them gain insights into their situations. A fundamental assumption guiding this line of work is that language not only represents but also creates reality. In our research with international students and immigrants during COVID-19, we have used principles of Clean Language and Integral Coaching to use metaphors as a way to help participants find ways to deal with their challenges. We have found that metaphors help individuals find tangible ways to achieve their goals and they feel more empowered through the process. If you have a bit of imagination, you can take advantage of this method for some self-reflection to make your resolutions stick.

4-step plan for using Imaginative Metaphors for your New Year’s resolution:

  • Identify a goal or desire under your control: The goal should describe what you want in positive terms.  It should be something that has not yet happened, contains a desire or need, and does not contain any reference to the problem. For example, getting in shape is a positive outcome that focus on what is wanted and is more powerful than focusing on what is not wanted, such as losing weight, or stop being sedentary. This is your resolution.
  • Imagine a metaphor that depicts the way you will feel as you achieve that goal. Elaborate what this goal means to you. Maybe getting in shape means going up the stairs with ease. Then ask yourself “And that is like what?” For example, being shape feels like a well-oiled machine.
  • Fully develop the metaphor focusing on details and a felt sense for the metaphor. Ask yourself “What kind of (metaphor) is that (metaphor)?” and “Is there anything else about that (metaphor)?”. For example, what kind of machine, is that well-oiled machine? And is there anything else about this well-oiled machine? You may also ask: whereabouts are you in this metaphor?
  • Identify what needs to happen for the metaphor to become reality. To be achievable, goals need to be broken down in small achievable steps and clear articulate a doing. Ask yourself – What needs to happen? And can that happen? Repeat those questions until it is what needs to happen is clear and achievable. For example, it may be that a possible action plan is to take the stairs every day rather than the taking the elevator. 

We are all ready for a better 2021. Imaginative metaphor can help refreshing our thinking and finding new ways to achieve our goals.

Making Sense of the Pandemic

I have spent most of my career studying how expatriates and immigrants make sense of new, foreign environments. When moving to a new country, individuals are suddenly confronted with a society that works by different rules. Their ability to understand situations is compromised because what they believe to be “normal” is no longer the norm, which then prompts a process of sensemaking. In these novel situations, the skills to succeed, connect, make friends, and conduct business are often different and require a new way of thinking and behaving. 

This scenario is not unlike what most of us are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented measures taken by governments around the world to curb the spread of the virus require individuals to change highly habitual behaviors. Some people need to learn to work from home and connect with others virtually, while others need to reconsider their careers and lifestyle as their jobs disappear or their businesses struggle to survive.

The process of making sense of new environments is closely connected with our identity and highly influenced by the people around us and the narratives to which we are exposed. Based on this research, I identify a few lessons that may help individuals better adjust to the changes resulting from the current pandemic, as well as to help organizations better support their employees and clients.  

1. Craft a New Identity for Yourself

The ways we understand the world around us are fundamentally linked to how we see ourselves. As we grapple to make sense of changes in our surroundings, we need not only to modify our behavior to adjust to the new reality, but also to reconsider our identities. And, as we adapt, and re-evaluate our identities, this in turn influences how we feel about the situation, the decisions we make, and ultimately, the actions we take. For example, if I think of myself as a caring teacher that builds personal connections with my students through free-flowing discussions and informal conversations, what does online teaching mean to my identity as a caring teacher? How can I rethink myself as a teacher in ways that will allow me to move forward and maintain these principles that I value? How I answer these questions will influence my acceptance of the new teaching environment and the actions I take.

It would be an oversight by organizations to ignore the effect that this pandemic is having on workers’ identity and their abilities to process change. As the world navigates through the ensuing COVID-19 crisis—and once we are on the other side of this—it is essential that organizations and leaders take the time to help their employees (and society at large) to work through issues in order to come to terms with these major changes. This is particularly true for changes that will have a long-term impact as jobs disappear or are significantly restructured.  

2. Be Aware of Your Influence on Others

When individuals are unable to make sense of a new situation, they rely on others deemed more experienced or knowledgeable to help guide their interpretation of what is happening and how their skills and value are perceived. People in a position of influence over others (managers, teachers, politicians, experts, celebrities) can have a significant impact on how individuals make sense, cope, and act in situations of uncertainty by providing them with cues about their role in the new situation. And so, as we interact with others through our professional roles, it is crucial to be mindful of the messages we are sending. These messages are not only about the external situation (e.g., how the pandemic is affecting the organization), but also about how each person is valued and treated within this new and evolving reality. 

Moreover, the pandemic has raised our awareness of the importance of some occupational groups (e.g., frontline personnel) while other occupations may be overlooked (e.g., wait staff). As some of us feel pressed to attend to multiple demands, it is sometimes tempting to focus on what needs to be done, ignoring our role in supporting others through this transition. Pause and consider: have you failed to recognize  anyone that needs your support in finding their role through this transition?

3. Include Multiple Voices in the Construction of Master Narratives

As we grapple to make sense of what is happening around us and our responses to these changes, we seek input, not only from others we trust, but also from society at large through “master narratives”. Master narratives are shared cultural scripts that tell us how to be good members of society. They are the stories we share and read on various media outlets that tell us what is expected of us. During this coronavirus crisis, people’s experiences can vary significantly: some live alone and are feeling isolated; others are finding themselves in a crowded home and crave solitude; some are unable to work and do not know what to do with their time; others are juggling a full work schedule with home responsibilities. As some narratives become popular (e.g., “Reach out and connect, “ or “Take advantage of this time to learn a new skill.”), those that feel these emerging master narratives do not resonate with them, or are unattainable, may feel excluded. Thus, it is vital to consider all perspectives and give all segments of society a voice when constructing these master narratives so that they contribute towards a more inclusive society—not only now, but as we enter a post-pandemic world. 

This article was originally published as part of the Sprott Business Insights series by the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University.”