Is the New Year the best time for a new start?

Many people look at the beginning of January as an opportunity to improve their finances, work situations, health, figures and love lives.

But experts say change can happen any time of the year — as long as you soul-search, plan and focus.

“I always recommend that people don't pressure themselves to make New Year’s resolutions (search) for Jan. 1 … it doesn’t work, it sets you up for failing,” said Illinois-based psychologist Maryann Troiani. "Most people are in a fog from the holidays on Jan. 1 — I have them start any other time."

Elizabeth Stirling, a Santa Fe psychologist specializing in change, agreed that when it comes to life-revamping, too much emphasis is placed on the beginning of the year.

"It's about small changes. Don't say on Jan. 1, 'I'm going to lose 50 pounds, get a new job, a new fiancé.' Take small steps. And don't expect to get it done in January," she said.

Whether it's Jan. 1 or March 24, Troiani said change starts with self-scrutiny.

"You have to ask yourself heartfelt questions ... imagine a picture of what you want most in your life. Imagine two to five years go by and you haven’t made that change already. This will help you create a vision for your life, a mission statement," she said.

Then: make two to four little goals, with a specific start and finish time, Troiani recommended.

"If you want to lose weight, you’ll want to break down into tangible parts. 'Starting Feb. 1. I will exercise four times a week. I will do that by [certain date].' Just saying you're going to lose weight or quit smoking isn't going to do anything," she said.

Stirling, like Troiani, also recommends tackling resolutions with probing questions, followed by a plan of action.

"I don’t think it’s possible to change in every area — pick and rank your priorities. Pick one of the areas you've had success in — finances, personal, health — [ask yourself] did you take off a couple of pounds? Not did you drop 50. In your work life, look at where you're happy. What seems to be bothering you — do you have a boss you don't like, a co-worker? What exactly do you want to change? Then think of a small step you can make," she said.

Stirling also said it's very important to enlist help from others when you're attempting a new beginning.

"You can get support from a church or some kind of spiritual group. If you have people you know where you exercise, friends — friends that are really going to say that’s great, give me a call if you're going to give up. Not people who are going to be envious of your change," she advised.

As for getting in shape — one of the most popular New Year's resolutions — Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise (search), also recommends thinking long-term ... and forming a detailed plan.

"Be realistic about what you're going to accomplish — specific goals — rather than just saying, 'I want to get in better shape.' Kind of define what that means for you. And make sure it's realistic — working out every day is not going to happen. Thirty pounds over three weeks is not going to happen, at least not safely. Really think in terms of making small steps in improvement," he said.

Do this, and you might see a whole new you by New Year's 2006.

"You can transform yourself if you take a long-term approach," Bryant predicted.

And what if you're looking to make some new acquaintances in '05, rather than forgetting the old ones?

Troiani said the key is making yourself more interesting ... and more sociable.

"Go to the bookstore and read some stuff that interests you, so at a social event you can talk about what you learned. Act more friendly, even just smiling more, asking people about themselves. The most powerful question I know of is 'What's your background?'"

Louis Meza, a 23-year-old New Yorker, definitely believes change is possible: He's starting out '05 with a new business venture and a new fiancée. But he says any day is a good day for a new start.

"I've always been one of those people who oppose New Year's resolutions," he said. "I kind of feel like any day of the year is a day to redo something."

Lois Siegler, a 53-year-old educator, said she used to believe in New Year's resolutions, when she was younger ... but now she too believes any day of the year can be a time to make a change.

"When I was younger, I'd say I would stop smoking Jan. 1, lose weight — now losing weight is ongoing, and I stopped smoking long ago," she said. "I still think people who are younger use Jan. 1 — when you're older it’s like a crutch, you put if off until then."