“And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

There are dozens—okay, hundreds, or maybe thousands—of articles on how to keep your New Year’s resolutions. We all know the drill: Set small, realistic goals, enlist support, expect relapse, 21 days to a habit, it’s all about commitment. None of it has ever worked for me. I make the same resolutions every year, and I almost chuckle at this point as I proclaim, “This year, I will be organized. I will not procrastinate. I will eat healthy foods.” It’s still the first week of January, and already I have created a paper stack that contains . . . I don’t know what it contains. I have already procrastinated (writing this article). And I decline to incriminate myself by revealing what I had for dinner.

It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys: The Seven-Step Path to Becoming Truly OrganizedAnd yet, I have hope this time. That’s because I spent the final days of 2012 with my nose in a book called It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys, by Marilyn Paul, Ph.D. (from Yale, no less). This author and I have a lot in common: Our lives have been full of years of being late and disorganized, yet somehow we pull out a successful finish, albeit under an umbrella of stress and panic. In her case, she eventually hired an organizational consultant. But within a week, her pristine desk was right back where it started: buried. Thus, she is keenly aware that the solution is not external—it’s within. What finally worked for her was to hire an organizational consultant and a therapist.

The whole book is full of individual stories and useful advice, but the first third talks about the foundation for lasting change—in any area, really—and it was nothing I’d heard before. She says you must become aware of your thoughts, moment to moment. Not an easy task, considering that “we talk at 100 words per minute, read at about 250 words per minute, and think at about 800 words per minute.”

There is a reason we stop in our tracks in February and wonder what happened to those adorably optimistic resolutions we made a month earlier. Besides erroneous thoughts like “I’ll read this later” and “I’ll have time for that tomorrow,” we have underlying beliefs about what it means to be organized (cold), or to skip dessert (deprivation), or to take action immediately (fear). There is an internal state we fight against—an unease—when we try to change our lives. Instead of sitting with the discomfort and trying to face it, we surrender (quit) and call ourselves failures. The truth, though, is that we are simply human. We have usually created the systems we have, either in an effort to protect ourselves from pain of one sort of another or because we have not stopped to consider the pickle fully.

In my case, since organization, overload, and a murky relationship with time are my bailiwick, I paused and, as she suggests, first noticed what I was doing right. One thing: My keys are not in fact lost. Years ago, after making my son late for school one too many times, I put a hook on the back of my front door. If he could ever catch the keys not in their place, I had to give him a dollar. He is disappointed that I’ve paid him a total of $5 in the last 10 years—but at least he was on time a lot more often.

Moving on to what is wrong, though, took only a glance around the rest of my home. Although the décor is all of a piece, there is a lot of layering—wool rug on sisal, arrays of small paintings instead of just one, and every bookcase shelf is two-books-deep, with papers and files stacked in various corners. The biggest problem is that not everything has a home. And the reason not everything has a home is that I fear getting rid of things because I may need them someday. But it’s more than that. (Cue therapist.)

When I was about 2 years old, my father died suddenly in a car accident, and my mother moved with my sister and me to northern California to live in an apartment not far from our grandmother. It was one of those boxy buildings with long blank white walls, and in the few photos that exist, it appears that my mother brought nothing with her but the barest of necessities. There is nothing on the walls, and almost no furniture. So of course I have tended toward the Old English Country Style home with lots of artwork in frames, floral chairs crowded in by the fireplace, bookcases stuffed to the brim . . . anything but those white, empty, blank walls. They represent a cold void to me, and a sense of being confused and utterly lost.

Sadly, as Dr. Paul points out in her book, the effect of my coping mechanism is that my calendar and my closet and my psyche are too full, and thus I am often . . . confused and utterly lost. I love this line of hers, about one of the examples in the book: “Note the differences between what you were trying to accomplish—accumulating information so that you could be on top of things—and what you did accomplish—burying yourself under a mountain of old articles that are difficult to access.” It’s a good idea to start by becoming aware of the gap between intention and reality.

Just as there was a purpose for the crowding-in (or the sweets, or the delays), I would need a purpose for the letting-go. She says, “When you create order not for the sake of order alone, but to manifest something that is deeply important to you, you get the fuel for change.”

The next two thirds of Dr. Paul’s book contain equally novel approaches to tackling systemic change, and while the focus is definitely on organization and management of our life’s precious and finite resources—time and attention—the information is useful to accomplish any goal. She speaks of utilizing mindfulness to remain present; of the rhythms of creating order; and of something she calls “Getting to Ready.” If we were “at ready” in general, we would be in a position to take advantage of synchronicity when it greets us, and our life’s purpose might suddenly become clearer and more accessible.

And finally, she discusses healing our self-neglect, speaking to ourselves in new ways, and the physical things we can do to reduce mental overwhelm. She helps the reader identify what is really at work “in the shadows” with multiple exercises and journaling ideas. Ultimately, she says, the goal really is to find your keys—but it’s the keys to ourselves that we need. Once we have unlocked those mysteries, the room called Change can be accessed. And then maybe we can make this same old set of resolutions for the last time and let 2013 be, as Rainer Maria Rilke’s beautiful quote suggests, “full of things that have never been.”

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  • Diane Dettmann January 7, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Jennifer, move those Goodwill boxes fast! I know how that rummaging through process refills a closet or drawer. Keep sorting. 🙂 Best to you in 2013!

  • Jennifer Cheyne January 7, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    Thank you, Diane, D.A., and Toni! One of Marilyn Paul’s points is that so often we don’t tell others about our ‘state of affairs’ and end up feeling like we’re the only ones – but really, we could start a club, I think!

    And Suzanne, you made me laugh out loud. That’s ideal, right? And yes, you certainly can – just look at your beliefs and skip the feelings-aspect. That works too. ;0)

    Good luck everyone, with your resolutions this year! I have cleared 8 boxes so far and am feeling lighter and less ‘confused’ daily. Now if only I can get the boxes to Goodwill before I start rifling through them, pulling things back out…

  • Just One Boomer (Suzanne) January 5, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    So, is there any way to do this if one would rather not get in touch with one’s feelings?

  • Toni Myers January 5, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks, Jennifer. Your article really speaks to me, though I tend to blame aging on my tendency to leave keys in the door overnight, to lose things in plain sight (well, under layers of paper), and to waste precious time riffling through all the stuff in my house. I plan to get the book now.

  • D. A. Wolf January 5, 2013 at 11:53 am

    This hits close to home. (I know where my keys are as well, but…)

    Insightful observations on the complexity of change.

  • diane Dettmann January 5, 2013 at 9:45 am

    Jennifer, I almost used my normal approach, “I’ll read this later” but decided to read LOOK DEEPER before organizing my writing tasks for the day. Glad I did! It was a lot to take in, but I really identified with many of the challenges of life changes and keeping resolutions in your article. Thanks for sharing Marilyn Paul’s book, I’ll check it out! http://outskirtspress.com/snowangels