3 Metaphors to Help You with Your New Year’s Resolutions

It’s January, and that means a lot of us are taking stock of how we’re doing and where we’d like to go. The result is often the good old New Year’s resolution: the habit we’re going to pick up or break, or the goal we’re going to achieve. And for you cynics out there, these resolutions aren’t made in vain — a 2020 study from Sweden found that 55% of “resolvers” considered themselves successful after one year (I’ll get into this in a few minutes). If you want to make a change, the new year is as good a time as any to start.

There are a lot of articles about how to achieve your New Year’s resolutions, like this one and this one and this one. And they’re all full of good tips! I don’t know about you, though, but lists aren’t doing it for me these days. “The 5 Steps to Do This!” and “The 3 Habits of People Who!”… I honestly just can’t remember all the evidence-based, theory-backed tips and tricks and lifehacks that I encounter on a daily basis. Hell, I can barely remember my to-do list, and it sits right in front of my face.

Lately I’ve been obsessed with metaphors. Ask anyone I’ve spoken with in the past couple months, and they’ll tell you that they’re all I talk about. I’ve become convinced that metaphors are the most effective way to communicate wisdom, and because the metaphor can’t be measured scientifically (Which is more true, ‘life is a highway’ or ‘life is like a box of chocolates’?), it is dismissed in a culture that values data and measurability and key takeaways above all else. So I’m going to try something different here: here are three metaphors that I’ve found helpful in making some of the changes I’d like to continue through 2022.

  1. Building (or breaking) a habit is like winding a long string into a ball

I stole this one from William James, often called the “father of American psychology” and the author of The Principles of Psychology (1890), which I studied in a course in my senior year of college and has remained imprinted on my brain ever since. Here’s James in his own words: “Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again.”

Building or breaking a habit requires constant dedication, just like winding a long string. Now, we’ve learned a little bit about habit formation in the past 130 years. For example, Wharton professor Katy Milkman, author of a recent (and massive) study of people’s gym habits, said, “Everyone talks about not breaking the streak, but that’s inevitable. We discovered that if you break it more than once, it’s a lot harder to get back on track than if you just have one day missed.” So there you have it: missing a day of building a new habit isn’t dropping the ball of yarn, but missing two is. Oh, and I have a feeling that breaking a habit doesn’t work the same way, so don’t drop the ball!

When you think about the metaphor a little bit, let’s say you did need to gather a bunch of string into a ball. How would you do it? You wouldn’t just grab as much string as you could in your grubby little hands and fist it into a tangle, would you? No, you would find an end and then start doubling the string back on itself, slowly, carefully, until you had something resembling the beginnings of a ball. Well, that’s how you can think about your habits. Start modestly, start slowly, and as you feel comfortable, grow your habit. For example, if you want to get in better shape, you don’t have to begin by going to Barry’s Bootcamp twice a day. Do something, anything, a jog or some squats and lunges and pushups, or some yoga or pilates — just make sure you do it (just about) every day. The goal is that you’ll get to the point where it will feel difficult not to do something. And that’s what we call a habit.

2. We are leaves on the branch of a tree

A quick internet search reveals countless variations on this metaphor, from ancient Jewish teachings to the Christian bible to the foundations of the Baha’i faith, as well as from post-Revolutionary French Catholic priests, WW1-era Italian poets, and even current-day self-described psychic mediums. I’m not sure what that says about the universality of the metaphor, but I want to talk about it in the context of goals and habits. What does it mean for your New Year’s resolution to think of yourself as a leaf on the branch of a tree?

When you look at a leaf, more often than not it looks a lot like its fellow leaves on the branch. If they’re thriving, it’s thriving. If they’re wracked by a parasite, it’s wracked by a parasite. You don’t often see a branch full of faded, wilting leaves, but with one vibrant, robust, green leaf in the middle of it. That’s because the health of the branch determines the health of the leaves.

We are a social species, and in our lives, the health (or happiness or wisdom or financial security or productivity or priorities) of the people who surround us often determine our health (or whatever). Psychologically, you can think of it as for every active decision we take, there are dozens of passive decisions we take without even thinking about it. Does everyone in your house smoke? It’s going to be harder for you to quit smoking than if you lived somewhere where nobody smoked. Do none of your friends or family like to exercise? It’s going to be harder for you to succeed in prioritizing fitness in your life.

Where we’re different from leaves, though, is that we’re not physically attached to our metaphorical branch. This past June the New York Times published an article called, “How to Rearrange Your Post-Pandemic ‘Friendscape’,” which received a fierce backlash on social media because it seemed to suggest that this was a good opportunity to ditch obese, depressed, and unhealthy friends in exchange for “studious, kind, and enterprising” friends. (The Times later deleted the offending paragraph and published an editor’s note.) The author of the article seemed to grasp the leaf/branch metaphor, as well as its limitations, but came to, in my mind, the wrong conclusion. Sure, if you want to reduce your alcohol consumption, going to the pub every night with your IPA-guzzling friends probably isn’t going to help, but that doesn’t mean you just have to ditch your friends. Maybe some of those friends wouldn’t mind taking it easy on the liver themselves. Maybe they’d also like to lose a few pounds, practice a few more downward dogs, and learn to play a musical instrument.

I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t have to try to jump to another branch in order to achieve what you want to achieve — although that option is open to you if you want it. The important thing to recognize is that it’s not all about you. We’re products of our families, our friend groups, our communities, our societies and nations and religions and more. And sometimes the key to creating a new habit is to help those around you create the habits they want to create. So, yeah, find an accountability partner, join a running club or a book club or a meditation circle — but consider offering yourself as an accountability partner, or starting a running club or a book club or a meditation circle! Ask not what your branch can do for you, and all that. Because it’s really, really hard to be that lone, thriving leaf on a moribund branch.

3. Our relationships are alive — like people themselves!

Have you known someone who makes you better — more capable, more creative, more successful, however you define success? The McCartney to your Lennon, the Abby to your Alana, the Molly to your Issa? Or maybe you have a group — your family, your best friends, your sports team or your work colleagues and collaborators — who are so much more than the sum of their parts. Well, just like Bennifer, your relationships are an entity unto themselves. People see you, they see the other people in whatever kind of relationship it is, and then they see that relationship as its own thing.

I like to think of relationships as a hot air balloon that each person in the relationship holds onto with their own rope. At their best, relationships can lift us far beyond where we could ever go on our own. A basketball team, for example, made up of decent players with great teamwork can rise above (via their hot air balloon!) a team of all-stars who play as individuals. Our friends and work colleagues can balance out our shortcomings and blind spots and grow our strengths to places we never thought possible.

And here’s the thing: when we talk about these relationships, we use the same adjectives we would use to describe another person. “That group is so fun, they’re so open and creative, but they’re also so intimidating” — these might not be words that would be used to describe any single member of the group, but suddenly they’re describing the group as if it were a person. It’s as if someone drew eyes on the hot air balloon, or if the balloon took on a human shape itself. In the way that we talk about groups of people, we act as if they were people themselves. So take it seriously! Think of your relationships as alive! What are they like? What do they need to be healthy? Take your closest friend — don’t think about what would be good for you or for your friend, but what would be good for your relationship. Because your relationship being happy, healthy, and engaged is going to lift both of you to being happier, healthier, and more engaged.

Remember that 55% who were successful in their resolutions? Well, the catch is that the subjects of the study were contacted every few months, and they very likely felt that they were part of something — yes, just a study, but still a group of people in the same position, striving to do (or stop doing) something. There was still a relationship there that caused them to succeed at a rate higher than studies had measured previously. I’m very fortunate and grateful to have lots of living hot air balloons of relationships — friendships, family, work colleagues, communities, and especially my partnership with my fiancée — that have helped me learn and do things I never thought possible. Everyone reading this, too, is part of a living relationship that means so much to me.

My New Year’s resolution is to read more poetry and become even more familiar with the metaphorical way of looking at the world. If you are at all inclined, I would love for you to share with me your favorite poems. Please send them (the whole poem or just the author/title) to robert [at] narracanto /dot/ com. Thank you!



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