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Making realistic New Year's resolutions

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
updated 7:41 AM EST, Fri December 30, 2011
CNN.com writer Jessica Ravitz works surrounded by papers documenting three years' worth of stories. CNN.com writer Jessica Ravitz works surrounded by papers documenting three years' worth of stories.
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Clearing the clutter: A cubicle makeover
Clearing the clutter: A cubicle makeover
Clearing the clutter: A cubicle makeover
Clearing the clutter: A cubicle makeover
Clearing the clutter: A cubicle makeover
Clearing the clutter: A cubicle makeover
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Instead of making enormous resolutions, pick something simple, say experts
  • Make realistic goals, develop a specific plan of action and maintain confidence
  • Publicly declaring your resolution also ensures that you maintain it

(CNN) -- Many New Year's resolutions are flawed from the start, destined to fail.

People resolve to lose 20 pounds or stop eating junk food or stop smoking or keep a spotless house. The resolutions are too enormous, the behaviors too ingrained, the thinking too negative.

Take my CNN colleague Jessica Ravitz, a brilliant reporter who's written about untold stories of rape during the Holocaust, failed Doomsday predictions and, in lighter news, an ongoing debate over babies in Brooklyn bars. Her work is clearly important, and she's good at it.

Yet Ravitz's desk is in chaos: covered in papers, stacks of documents and unpublished story materials. The file drawers in her small working space are full. She says she has no place to put the stuff. Boxes holding documents from old investigations sit at her feet.

Her home office, she says, isn't much better: piles of papers about stories, notes about books she hopes to write, research on her family history, stacks of letters she can't bear to toss, materials on her late father, articles about places where she wants to go, people she'd like to meet, chapters in history she wants to understand.

Her mess is clearly making her unhappy and adding stress to an already stressful job, so I offer her a New Year's resolution challenge: I'll invite a professional organizer into the office if she commits to a New Year's resolution to keep a clean and workable desk.

New year means new you

Ravitz agrees and becomes part of the 40% to 45% of Americans who will make New Year's resolutions this year.

Contrary to what many think, 40% to 46% of those New Year's resolvers will be successful with their resolutions after six months, according to University of Scranton psychology Professor John Norcross. He offers these evidence-based tips for making and keeping your New Year's resolutions: Make short, attainable goals; develop a specific action plan; establish confidence in your plan; and publicly declare your resolutions to hold yourself accountable.

To jumpstart Ravitz's cleanup project, I turn to Atlanta organizer Elise Marinos of Drab to Fab Organizing. If Marinos can succeed in getting Ravitz to organize her desk, I know good things will happen. In the short-term, success causes the brain to release soothing and energizing neurotransmitters in the pleasure centers of the brain, similar to nicotine, said Norcross. You're finally taking action in your own best interest after years of neglect. Your body likes it. Yes, a clean desk.

In the long-term, successful changes in behavior convince people of their own ability to change their lives, also called self-efficacy, said Norcross. If you can successfully accomplish one goal on your long-term path to a more organized work life, a healthier life or a calmer parenting life, you can accomplish so much. Here's how Marinos helped Ravitz apply the professor's advice:

Make realistic goals

Marinos interviewed Ravitz over the phone before the visit to find out how she works and her goals for her desk. Ravitz wants to have a clear desk so she, in turn, can think clearly without the distraction of clutter. She wants to spread out the papers needed for stories she's currently writing and have a place to put them at the end of the day (besides the floor). It also became clear that Ravitz is a visual thinker, who needs to print out her story materials, write on and highlight them to develop her long-format investigative pieces.

Develop a specific action plan

A former social worker, Marinos showed up at CNN Digital's offices in surgical scrubs, carrying a label maker and ready to listen to Ravitz's hopes and dreams for her desk. As she brought recycling bins and a stray rolling cabinet to Ravitz's desk, she promised it was not the worst mess she'd ever seen. "You're myth-busting," Marinos said. "You tell yourself it's hard and tedious, and we're breaking through all that. It's not hard once you get started."

Marinos' plan was to first go through the visible paperwork on the desk and floor to see what was worth saving and what could be tossed. As Ravitz built confidence, Marinos knew she'd know more quickly what to keep, how to categorize and what to toss.

As Ravitz sat on the floor, the papers from an ongoing story underneath her, she wasn't sure she could make it through all these papers in one afternoon. But within an hour, she started seeing the papers falling into five categories: stories she's currently working on, story ideas, possible sources, published stories she needs to save for future reference and paper to toss. "A lot of clutter is deferred decision-making," Marinos said. "In the time it takes for you to shuffle around your papers, you could make a decision to toss or keep it."

Soon it became clear Ravitz needed bins -- not file folders -- to store the ongoing material for her stories. So Marinos flipped a short bookcase inward to face her desk chair and placed bins for Ravitz's ongoing stories in the shelves. To ensure she could have a clear desk, one bin was reserved for anything she didn't know where to put at the end of the day.

Establish confidence despite future slips

By the time we got to her file drawers, Ravitz's confidence that she could get through her files was contagious. Her colleagues were stopping by to admire the progress. She was building momentum and she knew enough about what she needed to toss entire files of published stories.

After six hours of organizing and two tall recycling bins filled with paper, Ravitz radiated the confidence of a changed woman. The endorphins were flooding her brain. She'd returned dozens of notepads and pens to the office supply cabinet. She knew she had a place for every piece of paper she needed, and she now knew she didn't need to keep every piece of paper. After all, as Marinos told her, Ravitz tossed all that paper herself and found the system that will work for her. Marinos supported her, encouraged her, and picked her up when she faltered.

"I feel more methodical and focused than I've been in a while," Ravitz said. "One task at a time. Take care of it, close and put away that file, move on. It feels good."

She said she's breathing more easily and feeling less anxious at work. Before, simply sitting down at her desk drove her blood pressure higher. Now she can wait for deadlines to do that.

"Look, I know the desk won't stay as pristine as it is right now," Ravitz said. "But Marinos figured out a system that clearly can and will work for me. I've got a place for everything now. I know that the damage I do in a day of work can be cleaned up before I walk out the door. She gave me a place for my piles that doesn't eat up desktop space. So for whatever story I'm working on at any one moment, only that file, that pile, needs to be within reach."

Publicly declare your resolution

Our CNN Digital colleagues have teased her about her messiness for years, unwittingly reinforcing the notion that she can't do anything to change her patterns. Friend and colleague Paul Frysh still isn't convinced. He gives it four months before the top of Ravitz's desk is covered again by papers. "She will certainly not make it to 2013 with a clear view of her desk," Frysh said. Why? "Because a leopard does not change its spots -- especially in the middle of doing its work."

But, Frysh added, "Maybe mess is just part of her process. Who's to say there's anything wrong with that?"

Ravitz knows she has doubters, but said her public declaration of her intentions will help her combat the naysayers. "I now have too many people watching me and my desk, and I guess that's just more incentive to stay the course."

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