Dear Uncle Mat

Special New Year’s resolution rescue edition

Dear Readers, 

By the time this column runs, we will be beginning the third week of January, and many of you will be letting those pesky New Year’s resolutions fall to the wayside (if you didn’t drop them on the third day). Apathy and defeat are set to throw their annual victory march across your broken will. Fear not: I’m here to help you rain on that little metaphoric parade.

Last year I talked about how to set fail-proof resolutions of vague and grand proportions. Simple statements, such as “I will improve my health” or “I will achieve financial stability,” allow for a lot of small victories and also make it difficult to define complete failure. Unless of course you die or run Chrysler.

Those were my resolutions last year, and while I still have more debt than I like, and I kind of started smoking again in December, I also secured a new job, a promotion, and health insurance in 2008. I still have room for improvement, but I win anyway. Stacking the deck in your favor is totally fair when it isn’t really a competition as much as a personal trial. This system for self-improvement doesn’t even require a new year, so if you already ditched your resolution, or are looking for a way to keep it fresh and exciting, this plan is still available: Set large, idealistic goals based on small, concrete achievements.

For instance: When I was at the gym last week, I overheard a woman telling her trainer that she had one goal for the new year — divorce her husband. At first I thought she was joking, but the conversation proved she was serious. She is going to get in smoking-hot shape, secure a promotion at work, and move out. This is a perfect example of my system, because it allows for a structured set of goals, requires continued focus, but offers small rewards along the way. Once in full motion, it can easily be adapted to her life, whether she achieves her ultimate aim by December 31 or March 2010. (I suspect that this is not going to be a surprise to Mr. My Wife Takes Out Her Frustrations With Me on the Poor Exercise Bike. No wonder these things are always broken at the gym.)

Making resolutions and goals based on deprivation and negative rewards will get you nowhere. A friend told me she isn’t going to eat anything from a can or a box this year. This is ridiculous. I live off of food primarily from these sources, so, failing to understand how this is possible, I suggested she change her resolution to “I am going to starve to death.” Alternatively, she could change her resolution to “I will learn how to cook.” She could sign up for cooking lessons, which would be fun. She would have to learn how to grocery shop for fresh items and could buy herself gifts like pots and pans and kitchen gadgets as rewards. 

Here’s how I’m applying this method to 2009. I have set a goal, also involving the gym, but no divorce (there are benefits to not getting married). I’m going to train to be able to swim one mile by the end of the year. This will require me to learn how to swim more than a modified dog paddle and to quit smoking. The big goal takes the pressure off of those rather challenging resolutions and puts them in a much more exciting and romantic context: I’ll be a swimmer! Whatever that means. I also made the general resolution to do something that surprises me at least once a month. Undefined and fairly simple, this goal leaves room for interpretation and 12 fabulous accomplishments.

My final key to self-actualization in 2009 is to stop wearing my iPod to work out. You really learn the most fascinating things about people at the gym if you just listen. That same day a little old man said that the magi were not astronomers but astrologers, and the Bible was written to predict the birth of Jesus. I still don’t understand how that totally makes sense, but I am definitely thinking that being over 80 might be more fun than I imagined. You get to yell everything and laugh even when there isn’t anything funny being said.  

Much love and resolve, 

Your Uncle Mat

Uncle Mat answers questions about relationships, sex, pets, and art. Email him at
[email protected],, or check out the Dear Uncle Mat Page on Facebook. Your true identity is safe with him.

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