Many of us welcome the new year with an optimistic list of resolutions; a manifesto of ‘musts’ so readily drafted yet so hard to carry out. Our resolutions may include concrete health-related goals ranging from quitting smoking to going totally vegan. They may also involve more sublime aspirations such as being more mindful of our daily experiences, experiencing more happiness, achieving enlightenment, etc. Although we embark on this personal legislative task very eagerly during the countdown to the new year, we seldom spend enough time reflecting on our previous year’s resolutions, especially the ones that never saw the light.
A recent post by The Sun titled ‘Failing at the First Hurdle’ refers to a study conducted by the University of Bristol which found that 88% of people who make new year resolutions fail to keep them. Another study conducted by the private health company Bupa produced slightly more positive results indicating that 63% of people in 2015 had reverted back to their old routines by as early as March of the same year.
Although there are plenty of recommendations on how to keep new year resolutions (such as sticking to only one resolution per year, avoiding previously failed resolutions, making resolutions public by announcing them to friends and family, among others), the fact remains that the resolutions we choose are most of the time very hard to sustain.
What I think oftentimes frustrates our ambitious plans for the new year is that we tend to focus too much on outcomes and forget to examine the daily routines and habits that eventually lead to these outcomes. A famous quote by Aristotle reads: ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit’. This quote always reminds me, whenever I am trying to change something in my life, not to dwell on particular actions or behaviors too much and instead shift my attention to examining the processes that consequently lead to these behaviors.
Psychologists, therapists, life coaches, among others, have suggested many ways to help individuals bring these processes into consciousness in order to understand and transform them. What I propose here is one particular strategy to achieve this.
I am one of the co-founders of L3b (the Arabic word for Play) which is dedicated to harnessing the power of play to help individuals and groups unlock their potential for creativity, innovation, and engagement at work and beyond. At L3b, we approach almost everything through play. Upon working with teams and organizations keen on transforming their work in creative ways, we eventually developed a very effective strategy to cast light on the dynamics and processes that shape individual and group behaviors in any given setting.
Basically, we asked the question: what if we start to think about the routines and habits that produce our daily behaviors and actions whether at work or in our personal life through forms of play? What if our actions are the product of a meta-game or a set of meta-games (meta from Greek meaning ‘situated behind or beyond’) that we consciously or unconsciously partake in on a daily basis? Rather than focus on the daily ‘moves’ we make in order to change them, what if what really need to be examined are the meta-games we play?
If this sounds too vague, the following thought exercise might help: If you could describe your social life using a game or more, what would these games be (ex. Truth or dare, Hide and Seek, Tag, Chess, a particular video game, etc)? You may apply this question to other aspects of your life such as your professional life, romantic life, marriage life, sex life, etc.
Once you start to think about these processes through game forms, you can then ask yourself the following questions:
- How have these games sustained the things I like about myself and the things I don’t?
- What game or games would I have rather played in 2017?
- How could these games change my perspective on my life?
- How would these games help me hold on to the things I like about my life as well as let go of the things I don’t?
One thing to keep in mind is that these games are not inherently good or bad; it all depends on how you play them! For example, if you have evaluated your romantic life in 2017 as a game of Hide and Seek and judged that this was bad for you, it is important to think about why this was the case? What role were you playing in this game? Were you the one hiding? If so, from what or whom? Did you want to be found? If so, by whom? And why? Why were you not the one doing the seeking? What would you be looking for and why?
Hide and Seek in itself is not a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ game. Some psychotherapists, for instance, consider their work and the whole therapeutic process as a game of Hide and Seek since it helps them better understand their developing relationships with their clients. So it is about how the game is played and interpreted and not the game per se.
Also, I am aware of the negative connotations that ‘playing games’ might have, especially when it comes to relationships. The idea of meta-games is intended as a reflective strategy to help us examine the processes that are at play in the background of our daily lives. It helps us flesh out the daily routines and automatic behaviors that often run on auto-pilot and see them through the lens of games. By gaining insight into these games, we can be more deliberate in transforming them.
A dear friend of mine, upon chatting about meta-games, wrote to me saying:
“What you mentioned about play tonight, the idea that we play meta-games in our life, is so interesting. I kept thinking about it and came to realize that for a while I intentionally chose to play Truth or Dare. It was an opportunity for me to dismantle several walls I had built through time; yet it was disorienting for a while. I had passed through two traumas in my life and my brain had successfully organized my feelings, thoughts and actions to accept these traumas and move on; until the day came when I decided to flip the situation and challenge myself to see things from a different perspective. I started daring myself to understand the truth of things. The objective wasn’t to play with my past and rebel against myself but it was more about changing reactions and actions. This game made me feel stronger about certain things in my life.”
At L3b, we have applied this strategy to companies and organizations to help them gain deeper insight into their work processes and group dynamics in order to creatively transform them. With the advent of 2018, we decided to apply this strategy to our resolutions for the new year. Below are the meta-games that some of our team members at L3b have decided to play this year:
“In my relationship with money, I’ve always played race, whereby I have several finish lines to reach and so long as I can get there without debt, I’m fine. This year I would love to change this game to become a chess game. No more running or finish lines, it’s me playing against me to ‘save’ the most out of my resources.”
“2017 was one of the major transitional years in my life. I had gone through a series of crises and radical turning points. The meta-game that best describes my mode of living prior to that year would be Hide and Seek where I always played the role of the one hiding and waiting eagerly to be found and discovered. I did this in almost all my endeavors; in my career and personal relationships. Now I feel that I want to play a variation of Tag where there is no base or safety and where I am It. In 2018, I want to be It!”
“I have been playing tag with my husband for the past few months, where I run after him, asking for time together, and scheduling our lives to make sure we have it, while he kept wanting to run away. I’ve decided he’s it. At least for a while. Ideally, I’d like us to go on scavenger hunts together and/or build a sandcastle or snowman together, something collaborative.”
As this new year unravels, I encourage you to ponder the following questions: What meta-game do you want to play in 2018? And how do you want to play it? Do you want to play Truth or Dare? Hide and Seek? Tag? Treasure Hunt? Simon Says? Race? Chess? And why? Which of these meta-games do you want to play at work? In your relationships? With your family? With your clients? And what role do you want to play in these games?
Stated simply: How will you play 2018?
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