Life is way too short to spend another day at war with yourself – Jillian Michaels.

Christmas is a special time, always in my family a sacrosanct holiday reserved for family, a time of celebration, of eating until you’re sick, of indigestion remedies – a colourful time of year, enjoyed and relished by many people.   New Year is often different, it brings a different vibe and I find it a time of reflection.  We often feel that this is our chance, we can start anew, and we can truly be the people we have always wanted to be.  We have fresh hope and promise of what a new year might bring.  So with the death of a dear friend on New Year’s Eve 2013 I wanted to explore what it is like to start a new year afresh and why we so often fail to achieve the promise we so often crave at this time of year.  This blog is an ode to Chris Waterfield, my friend, dearly departed, who first introduced me to the Coaching Model “GROW” whilst I worked with her many years ago.

Mid February Memories

It’s February, half way through in fact, time enough to know if the promises we made ourselves have enjoyed at least moderate success.  But we know that some of the New Year’s resolutions we promised to adhere to in 2014 are now all but a distant memory.  Some of you among us may remember Chandler and Ross from the American TV series Friends attempting, somewhat fruitlessly, to terminate the gym contract they so hastily signed up for in January or Miranda Hart in her eponymously titled TV series who, in a vain attempt to get out of her gym contract, threatens some fairly disgusting acts to the horrified onlookers.  All finding, to their dismay, that money flies needlessly out of their bank accounts and not so much as a visit to the gym for the induction has taken place and it’s June.

Causes of Failure

So why is it that we sometimes fail?  Forgive me, I do not attempt to be negative about our valid and admirable attempts to change ourselves for the better, but I wonder if, perhaps it is the very nature of a New Year being the beginning of something new, something wonderful, a different way to be, we take this opportunity, like thousands of others to try to reinvent ourselves.  Perhaps the very act of making a New Year’s resolution allows us to fail, quietly, and like thousands of others, we fall back into our old ways with relative ease.  Perhaps it may be that New Year is simply an unpropitious time to make these promises to ourselves?  Today whilst busy in the kitchen, my attention was drawn to a British Gas radio advert, its strap line is that you will all fail your New Year’s resolutions, it went something like this; ‘You know you’re never going to go to the gym, but why not buy boiler cover and have peace of mind that this is one New Year’s resolution you can stick to’ They are not far off the mark though, however contentious this advert may appear.  In fact it is reported that 88% of New Year’s resolutions fail within the first month.

How can that be, are we all just lazy and unable to embrace change?  Of course not, we often fail, simply because we set ourselves unrealistic goals that are vague and nonspecific, or we are just too hard on ourselves, we judge ourselves to be flawed, in dire need of change, we are deplorable, we think.  We need to stop smoking or drinking or swearing or lose weight, see our family more.  Often these statements come from a negative starting point, an assumption that what you are doing now is not acceptable and it must change.  Too much pressure is brought to bear on us.  Our goals are multiple and this becomes an insurmountable problem that we can never begin to make sense of.  We end up failing and struggling more and more to change, assuming that is, of course, that we need to.

Ironically, we do what we try not to do

There is some science behind this phenomenon.  In trying hard not to do something, psychological research (1) suggests that, paradoxically, you’ll probably end up performing more of those negative behaviours. This is called ‘ironic mental control‘.  Imagine a New Year’s Resolution to give up white wine, a cool crisp Sauvignon Blanc; you drink this wine most nights, not too much but just enough to relax you after a hard day at the office. Then you say, on the 1st January I won’t do this anymore, I won’t go to the fridge each night and take out the bottle and pour myself a glass.  But your subconscious fixates on this act, you imagine the wine slipping down, you can feel the tingle on your taste buds and that warm familiar glow of the first sip, observing as you drink, the drops of dew that form around the glass as it meets the cold refreshing liquid and despite your best efforts you find yourself at the fridge.

So if New Year’s Resolutions don’t work then what will?

Empowerment is key

John Whitmore in his seminal book Coaching for Performance (2) writes that our universal internal block to change is unfailingly fear of failure, lack of confidence, self-doubt and lack of self-belief and it is from this that we usually make our  New Year Resolutions. These resolutions perhaps feed the self-doubt that lurks within us and our fear of failure prevents us taking the action required to make a change.

Whitmore introduced the new step change in coaching in the early 80’s.  The idea transitioned from the world of sport and had its basis in the Rogerian person centred counselling approach (3) to which empowerment is key.  Whitmore proposed that the answers to our issues are within ourselves, we are not empty vessels in which to pour information.  Most people, when asked, will be more than happy to tell you what you need to do and how to go about it. Take their course of action at your peril, they will have approached their ‘similar’ but not identical issue using all their own experience (which you may not have had) and they will approach from their stand point using their values and beliefs (which may be very different to your own) couple that with different people in the mix in both circumstances and perhaps a different time and environment this might mean a very different outcome for you?  And if it all goes wrong you may hold them accountable, not you. Let me illuminate this.

Whitmore observed that ski instructors had more success coaching tennis professionals than the tennis coaches did.  Surprising though it may seem, it does follow a logical line. The ski instructors had no prior knowledge of the sport, they simply asked questions to make the individual think for themselves, they allowed the individual more opportunity to develop their own way of doing things. acornsTennis coaches however had, understandably, a propensity to impose their own view and ways of doing things which in turn can lead to bad habits.  Whitmore says that we are small acorns that with guidance and support we can grow into mighty oak trees.  This positive stand point that empowers us to tap into our potential means that your New Year’s Resolutions can and will succeed.  The GROW model emphasises the need for structure when setting goals for change and should aid you in your quest to keep New Year’s Resolutions. It gives you the clarity needed to allow you to succeed in your goals and hopefully find yourself in June and beyond having achieved much of what you set yourself in January.

The GROW Model


Goal – What is it that you want to achieve?  Remember your habits have been formed over many years – why would you expect to break them in an instant?  Be kind to yourself and affirm your requirements to change as specifically as you can.  We might make resolutions that are multiple and seem unachievable.  Try to stick to one goal and work in small steps to achieve it, if you want to get fit a 10k run might seem too much to bear but a 1k power walk might not feel so insurmountable, for now, build on your success, that 10k run is not too far away.  How many times have you done something that you thought would be difficult only to reflect and say, well that was easier, better, more enjoyable than I thought? This model can allow you the freedom to ensure that you will feel this more often than not.  Set you goal in the positive, don’t limit yourself to goals that can appear to be unachievable as failure will only make you feel worse than before.  Set your goals in a positive context; explore the real reason for your need to change e.g.  If it is weight loss, imagine not the depravation a diet can bring but what the benefits of weight loss can bring, empower yourself for change, don’t say you can’t as you will feel deprived and this can lead to failure.  If your goal is to lose weight don’t say you can’t each chocolate, say you don’t eat chocolate, it’s a small but subtle difference that can help you stay in control.  Research has shown (4) that the language we use to describe our choices can enhance or impede our goal directed behaviour. Don’t is a choice, can’t is not.


Reality – In this part of the model, once the goal is established you can explore if the reason for change is real or perceived.  This part of the model invites you to look as objectively as possible  at the situation to ensure that what you see has basis in some fact (although arguably true objectivity can never exist and is subject to the distortions, judgements and prejudices we use to make decisions) from which solutions to the issues can emerge. The reality section of the model is important to the overall success of achieving your goals as your values, priorities and beliefs can be the things that make your goal an issue that may not be an issue for others.  Ask yourself some key questions to gain insights about the issue you have identified in the goal part of the model and why it might be a problem for you.  Questions here might be:

  • What do you think was really happening?
  •  How have you verified, or would you verify, that that is so?
  • What do you think X person’s perception of the situation was/is?


Options – Ways in which we can we achieve our goals;  if it is to increase our knowledge there are multiple ways in which we can deliver this goal and one option may seem more palatable than the others but all options must be explored before being discarded.

  • How else could you approach this issue?
  • What if you knew you couldn’t fail?
  • If you could think of three more things, what would they be?
  • What possibilities for action do you see? Do not worry about whether they are realistic at this stage.


Will – The golden question is if I could have it now, would I want it? Often we are comforted by our past behaviour which can be hard to change. This is why we often fail by 31st January.  If we want to lose weight (45% of the population are estimated to have set this as a New Year’s Resolution) a blocker might be all the beautiful clothes that you own in a bigger size, the attachment to these clothes can be multiple, the financial cost to replace them, the way they make you feel when you wear them.  When we look at reason not to change they can be as compelling as the reasons to change.  If the goal is to give up smoking often people feel attached to the habit and not yet ready to give up, so pursuit of an unattainable goal is fruitless.  To explore a person’s motivation to achieving their goals is key, if all you have a list of resolutions written down or stored in your head that mean nothing and you have no desire to achieve then simply look again at what you have written and find the most meaningful and important goal to work on.  The goal has to be yours and yours alone, if you goal is to give up smoking or drinking but it’s because your partner wants you to, you are unlikely to succeed. The goals you set yourself have to come from your desire to change, not the desire of other people. Questions here could be:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how committed are you to this goal?
  • What could stop you moving forward? How will you overcome this?

Hopefully these ideas have given you some pause for reflection and I recommend John Whitmore’s book Coaching for Performance to you as a useful tool to support your learning. Good luck and Happy New you.

Debs Barker


1)    Ironic processes of mental control By Wegner, Daniel M. Psychological Review, Vol 101(1), Jan 1994, 34-52
2)    Coaching for Performance – John Whitmore
3)   Information about Carl Rogers and Person Centred Counselling.
4)    V.M. Patrick and Hagtvedt (2012) ‘I don’t versus I can’t’  When empowered refusal motivates goal directed behaviour, Journal of Consumer Research