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Tete-a-tete: Having trouble keeping your New Year’s resolutions? It could be “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” Syndrome

A formidable foe lies in wait to derail your New Year’s resolutions. It’s not a lack of willpower, a lack of self-discipline or your warm, snuggly bed. It is “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” Syndrome.

“If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” is a popular children’s book that, as the title implies, chronicles the complications that ensue when you offer a cookie to a mouse. First, the mouse wants a glass of milk to go with his cookie. This leads to requests for a straw, a mirror (so he won’t get a milk moustache), nail scissors (so he can give himself a haircut) and a broom (to sweep up his hair clippings).

The story continues, with the mouse pursuing items and activities that are further and further removed from his original intention of eating a cookie. Everything eventually comes full circle, however, leading the mouse to ask for – you guessed it – a cookie.

Just as the mouse gets sidetracked by things that are only tangentially related to his original intention, we, too, get distracted from the primary purpose of our New Year’s resolutions. Some of the things that come up do need to be dealt with in order to accomplish our goals, but we need to keep those goals in sight and not become mired in the details.

Let’s say, for example, that your resolution is to exercise regularly. You decide to start with the most obvious step: joining a gym.

But joining a gym means exercising in public, which means your stained sweatpants will most likely not be appropriate attire. So you go online in search of new workout gear.

You notice that the site from which you’re buying your new track pants also sells sneakers. Remembering that your left knee sometimes aches after you run, you do some research to find out which sneakers are the most effective at absorbing impact.

Then again, maybe a knee stabilizer would be better. You could buy one at the drug store, but these are your joints we’re talking about – you can’t be too careful. You call your doctor for advice and realize that your children are overdue for their annual physicals. After scheduling their appointments, you decide to check in with the dentist as well to make sure the kids are up to date with cleanings and X-rays.

You go to mark these appointments down on the family calendar, only to discover that the kids left the caps off the markers you use to color-code the calendar and the markers have dried up. An emergency trip to the office supply store is in order, and you might as well pick up the dry cleaning while you’re out.

Wait a minute. Wasn’t there something specific you were going to do today? You drive past the gym on the way to the dry cleaner’s, and the sight rings a faint bell.

That’s it – you were going to join a gym! And instead, somehow, you are picking up dry cleaning and buying new markers.

Here’s another scenario. Your resolution is to finally clean out and organize the junk drawer. You’ve avoided this daunting task for many years (since you moved into the house, come to think of it), but this is it. This is the year it happens.

You take out the first item to be dealt with: a screwdriver that tends to wedge the drawer shut every time the drawer is closed. Easy enough – that goes into the toolbox, which is right outside in the garage.

Next to the toolbox are a few cans of dried-up paint, left over from painting the porch last summer. When is the next hazardous waste collection day at the dump? You go back inside, look up the phone number for the town offices, and call to find out.

You mark the date on the family calendar with your brand-new markers and notice that the cat has kicked some of her food into her water dish again. Before you can wash and refill her dish, however, the breakfast dishes need to be taken out of the sink and loaded into the dishwasher.

Oh, except for that one. That mug needs to be washed by hand.

Your hand stings from the soapy water and you realize you have a cut on your finger. Ten minutes of rummaging in the upstairs bathroom produces a Band-Aid and the antibiotic ointment, which expired in 2010. It’s been a while since your last tetanus shot and since you don’t know what caused the cut, you’re off to the pharmacy for antibiotic ointment.

While you’re out, you might as well pick up the dry cleaning. And there goes your day of cleaning out the junk drawer.

I don’t think “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” Syndrome can be completely avoided – interruptions are a part of daily life, and everyone gets distracted from time to time. Being aware of the syndrome, however, can help you to be more aware of when you’re getting off track and you can then choose to return to your original task.

If you get so distracted that you miss your opportunity to work on your resolution on a given day, don’t berate yourself or give up. Instead, take a cue from the mouse: have a cookie and start over.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Jan. 29, 2015.

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