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Getting Ready for New Year’s Resolutions

written by Marie-Josee Shaar and Barclay Schraff 11 December 2013

Barclay Schraff, ACC, incorporates positive psychology into her coaching practice. She focuses on disease prevention in an online Smarts & Stamina 6-week workshop series. A graduate of the International Coach Academy, Barclay studied with the VIA Institute on Character. She has earned a certificate in Whole Food Plant Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Foundation.

Marie-Josée Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, founded Smarts and Stamina (SaS) to help organizations implement healthy living as part of their business strategies. She combines positive psychology with fitness and nutrition to accelerate personal and professional health and growth. She co-authored Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance with 50 practical ways to build good health. She also licenses the online Smarts and Stamina course for other coaches to use to build online coaching practices. Full bio. Marie-Josée's solo articles are here. See also her articles with Judd Allen and her articles with Louisa Jewell.



Since the holiday season is upon is, you can bet that New Year’s Resolutions aren’t far off. According to an article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, between 45 and 62% of us make resolutions each year, and of those, roughly between 40 and 75% will have to do with health and well-being. Yet only 8% of us consistently achieve our goals for the New Year.

That’s not very encouraging, but it’s also no surprise, considering that most of us will just pick a resolution and hope to achieve it without much planning. But as Einstein would say, if we go about it differently this year, we can get different results.

Fans of positive psychology know that willpower is an exhaustible resource. David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, suggests we combine willpower with skillpower to increase our chances of success. Skillpower refers to having the right tools, relevant knowledge, and a detailed plan.



To create a solid base of willpower and skillpower, we like Katz’s Pressure System model. It borrows its name from meteorology, but in this case, the two opposing pressure systems are motivation and resistance. In his model, Effective Motivation (EM) is the net result of Motivation to Change (MC) minus Motivation to Maintain the status quo (MM).

EM = MC – MM

Logically, in order to boost our effective motivation, we need to look for ways to bolster our motivation to change or to reduce our motivation to stay the same. Here are our four best suggestions to do both at the same time:

Suggestion How it increases will-to-change (MC) How it decreases will-to-stay-put (MM)
Start with mini goals Smaller, more manageable steps are easier to tackle. For example, if your goal is to eliminate sugar from your diet, thinking of a full year without sweet foods may seem like an eternity. However, avoiding them for 2 or 3 weeks will be a lot easier. After just 2 or 3 weeks, your taste buds will have started to adjust, so increasingly smaller servings of sugar will light up your brain’s pleasure center.

You’ll also be able to observe changes in your body by now. Are you less bloated? Have your allergies improved? In case you’re still not convinced, have a large serving of the banned food, and see if the symptoms return. You might just find that you hate the symptoms more than you enjoy the food itself.

Use past experiences strategically Take some time to look back on past successes, a time when you broke a bad habit or created a great one. What helped you implement the lifestyle change? What got you going? How did you maintain the momentum? Often what motivates us to preserve the status quo is the fear of repeated failure. So think about past lapses only long enough to understand why they happened. What can you change this time around? The goal is not to live in the past, but to learn from it.
Capitalize on synergies Make your goal public by sharing your intention with family and friends. The bolder you are in announcing your goal, the costlier giving it up will become.

Family and friends can offer you support when you need it. They’ll also be less likely to unintentionally (or not) put temptations in your path or lay a guilt trip on you.

Our sleep, food, mood and exercise habits are mutually reinforcing, thanks to the biochemical activity that they produce in the body. Learn how to use these synergies to your advantage. For example, if controlling your food intake is difficult, try working on your sleep, mood, or exercise habits for a few weeks and see if these complementary changes also benefit your food habits. Our bet is that they will, while taking your focus away from the initial challenge for a while. See Marie-Josée’s Happier people are healthier.
Coach yourself One factor likely to sap your MC at some point is a lapse. Stumbling is a normal part of the process, and you shouldn’t let it discourage you. So how will you react when you mess up? Have a compassionate mental response ready for yourself so you aren’t discouraged when you fall. Then you can get back on your feet quickly. Think about how maintaining the status quo hurts other areas of your life. For example, your sedentary ways may not set a good example for your children, or your high meat consumption may be at odds with your desire to protect the environment. The dissonance caused by such inconsistencies will help you reduce MM.




We’d love to hear your best thoughts on how to increase motivation to change and decrease motivation to stay the same so we can form healthier norms for ourselves and for those around us. What ideas can you recommend?

Let’s be honest: getting and staying in good physical condition requires some serious effort, no matter how much willpower, skillpower, or motivation we have. In our world of sleep deprivation, processed foods, and jobs that are both stressful and sedentary, unhealthy habits are unfortunately the new normal. Check out Marie-Josée’s Please don’t be normal! But ideas about what’s normal aren’t only shaped by what’s most prevalent around us. They can also be shaped by what we intentionally choose to make our own norm. Let’s choose carefully.

Author’s note: Barclay is offering a 6-week online program starting January 14th for those who would like to join a community of health-seekers and benefit from her wellness coaching for their 2014 health goals. Check out the Safeguarding Your Health: Disease Prevention Through Sleep, Food, Mood & Exercise. The early-bird price ends December 20.



Allen J. (2008). Wellness Leadership: Creating Supportive Environments For Healthier And More Productive Employees. Burlington, VT: Healthyculture.com.

Baumeister, R. & Tierny, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books.

Katz, David L. & Colino, S. (2013). Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well. Hudson Street Press.

Katz, David L. (2000). Behavior modification in primary care: The Pressure System Model.

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C. & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. New York: HarperCollins.

Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.

Shaar, M. J. (2011). Why happier people are healthier. Positive Psychology News.

Shaar, M. J. (2013). Please don’t be normal! Smarts and Stamina Blog.

University of Scranton and Journal of Clinical Psychology (2012). Statistic Brain: New Years Resolution Statistics.

Photo Credit via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Today not Tomorrow courtesy of Chris Florence
Motivation courtesy of Daily Motivation
Change courtesy of Nana B. Agyei

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