Oh, for the promise of the New Year, a blank slate, as pristine as a field of freshly fallen snow.
No wonder each Jan. 1 people become inspired to change their lives in ways that range from the minute — a pledge to stop biting their fingernails — to the sweeping: a plan to leave town and find a new job.
We picked out four topics — popular among the New Year's resolute — and talked to experts about the best ways to carry them off: taming the clutter in your life, gaining control of your finances, improving your diet and improving relationships.
So read on, and inspiration may overtake you. Experts suggest taking on only a single resolution, writing it down and telling others so you can't pretend you never had it.
If getting your household finances in order is on your New Year's agenda, take heart. By the end of February, credit card companies will be required by federal law to clearly state how long it will take to pay off the balance if you make only the minimum payments.
Seeing that timeline staring back at you on your monthly bill could be the much-needed incentive you've needed to bury your overworked credit cards in the back of the freezer.
"People think of consumer debt as normal. It's not normal," says Jane Bryant Quinn, author of "Making the Most of Your Money Now."
To accomplish your goals, such as paying down debt, adding to your savings or socking away funds for a house, Quinn offers these tips:
* Put away your credit card: Start organizing your spending so you can pay down debt and start saving "while not using your credit card," Quinn says.
"The No. 1 thing is to get rid of your consumer debt," she says. Some people like to pay off the credit card with the highest balance first; others may find that paying down the credit card with the smaller balance first provides the most motivation.
"Naturally, you know you should pay the card with the larger balance because of the interest," Quinn says. "But it's a personal thing. Anything that motivates you to pay down debt is dandy."
* Make savings automatic: If you take money automatically off your paycheck, your savings will increase. "You may still be living paycheck to paycheck, but you will see your savings build up. Take the plunge and start saving 5 percent or 7 percent or even 10 percent," Quinn says.
* Start an IRA if you don't have a company retirement plan in which to invest your savings. Sign up to have the money taken automatically out of your check.
* Treat your gift cards like money: Spend them immediately, so they don't end up in a drawer, expired.
There are as many reasons not to get organized as there are items piled in that basement corner.
But are the reasons good ones? Christine Landino, of An Orderly Space in West Hartford, Conn., says most people prefer organization, even if it might not be organization someone else would recognize.
"I think there's a continuum of people who are organized but don't feel efficient, and people who are messy or cluttered but neat," she said. "Most people are like a merry-go-round. They get organized and get everything all neat and clean, and then they turn around and let things go again."
Landino has a background in social work, so she's interested in learning the behaviors behind the actions.
"You can ask, 'Why am I holding onto things? Why do I have a fear of getting rid of things? Why can't I find things?' " she said.
She suggests thinking about things you use, and things you don't, and to organize accordingly.
"For example, I'm not a good baker, so I've moved all my baking stuff on high, high shelves," Landino said. "You can re-evaluate your space that way. What works for one person might not work for another. It's not a quick fix. It's about behavior modification."
So, to cut through the clutter, here are five tips from Landino:
* Take a basket or bin and walk through your house: If you haven't used an item in the past year, consider donating it.
* Focus on your kitchen: Landino says if you open the cupboard and find 12 coffee cups in a household of two coffee-drinkers, you can keep fewer cups.
* Act as if you're moving, and eliminate items you don't want to bring with you.
* Do not organize the house all at once: Take it room by room, lest you get overwhelmed.
* Figure out why you don't get organized, what you have been avoiding and what you need to do to change that behavior.
So you've decided 2010 is the year that you're going to lose some weight.
Here are a few pointers culled from the latest newsletter of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity:
* Calorie counting might become easier in 2010: A provision in the House Democrats' heath reform bill would require chain restaurants and vending machines to list calorie counts next to each item.
* When junk food is out of sight, it's also out of mind: A study of six middle schools in Connecticut, conducted by researchers at the Rudd Center found that when more nutritional food was served in schools, students didn't crave unhealthful foods after school.
* Be wary of fruit juice: A glass of 100 percent fruit juice can have as much sugar and calories as, and sometimes more than, a glass of soda.
* Don't skip meals. Eating small frequent meals helps to balance your calorie intake throughout the day and also keeps your blood sugar level balanced. Instead of eating 3 big meals, try to eat five to six smaller meals throughout the day.
* Keep a food journal. It will help you pinpoint your eating patterns and modify them as needed. If possible, have a registered dietitian review your journal after a few weeks of keeping track of your food and beverage intake.
There's something about the new year that makes us take stock of our lives, and sometimes it's a relationship that needs changing. Here are some tips for people with a relationship that needs help:
* Is it over? If you're feeling fear, distrust, contempt or a lack of respect, major work is in order, says Donna Ferber, a psychotherapist in Farmington, Conn., who specializes in life transitions. She suggests therapy as soon as possible: "The longer you wait to go the doctor, the harder the cure. If you think something is wrong, chances are it is." (Of course, if violence or abuse is present, a partner should get help as soon as possible.)
Another take on this comes from Nancy Brockett, a licensed professional counselor in West Hartford.
"If every time you are thinking about the relationship, there is a dread that comes over you, that's an indication that it's probably not what you are really wanting. ... If there is a sense of life when you are thinking about your relationship, a spark, even a small spark, then you are wanting to check that out."
* When to tie the knot: Peter Kane, a licensed clinical social worker in New Haven, Conn., advises: Consider your ability to listen and talk to each other.
Says Kane: "Does the relationship make you feel more productive and energetic in other places in your life as well? Does the relationship help you, not strain you?"
One of the biggest mistakes people make, Ferber says, is to think "if we get married, he'll settle down" or "he won't yell as much." If a relationship changes after marriage, it is usually for the worse. Generally, she says, "what you see is what you get."
* Improving your relationship: Take a close look at yourself and really decide whether you are being the person you want to be, Kane advises. Ask yourself the question, "Would you want to be married to you?" This may be difficult to be approach honestly because so often people are convinced that it's their partner who is making life so hard for them. Recognizing your role in the situation is key to improving it.
* Getting over a break-up: Realize it will take some time, Ferber advises. Take time to understand what you both did wrong. "Give yourself time to be alone," she says, and don't let well-meaning friends and family push you into dating before you are ready.
If you're recovering from divorce, Ferber says, realize that it's an evolving process and that it's not just the loss of your spouse, it's the loss of an entire lifestyle. Make sure you eat well, get enough sleep, avoid alcohol and drugs. Try something new, but don't make drastic changes. Try a new exercise class, for instance, but don't suddenly quit your job and move across country. "You can't run away from the problem," says Ferber.
* Meeting someone: Tell all your friends you want to meet someone, Ferber says. Get involved in activities that you enjoy or support; this will lead to meeting like-minded people. For instance, you may want to volunteer for a group that helps others, or work for a political campaign or try a new sport. Online dating is also an option.