How I limited screen time by offering my kids unlimited screen time.

As a freelancer who makes her own hours,  I’ve learned a few things about personal momentum. I’m a morning person, and my peak productive time is before 10:00am. If I start my day by sitting at the desk at, say, 5:00am, and digging in on actual work, I’ll keep going all day. If I start the day by, say, cleaning the kitchen or folding laundry or phaffing about on the interwebs, I’m in trouble. And if,  God forbid, I sit on the couch and flip on The Today Show, all bets are off; I’m not moving until bedtime.  I think of it as Newton’s Law of Personal Momentum, for I am an object that will either stay at rest or stay in motion, based on where I am at 5:30 am. 

My kids are the same way. And because they are youth existing in the 20teens, they are drawn like moths to glowing rectangular screens as soon as they wake up, and given their druthers, would spend the entire day glued to the Interwebs, killing zombies or mining diamonds or whatever. I know all the reasons why that’s a bad idea, but since my kids are growing up, I don’t feel like it should be up to me to find ways to entertain them. At ten and thirteen years old, they should be figuring out what to do with their own time themselves. But of course, I shouldn’t be surprised when they want to DO MINECRAFT now and do homework later. The problem is, frankly, I’m too lazy to argue with them. I don’t want to do homework, either.

So, I stopped arguing. They need to learn to prioritize their time, and I need to figure out a way to make sure that they get all the things they need to do done without me having to do it.

Which brings me to the Momentum Optimization Project (MOP), or it is more commonly referred to in my house, The List.

The List is simple, it’s short, and in a six month trial at my house, it has shown promising results.

The List is just a list of things things they needed to do EVERY SINGLE DAY. I printed it on a 5 x 8 purple index card, like so:

The Momentum Optimization Project

They’re rules. Not Guidelines.

 [[A quick note on comics]]

I posted The List on what has become the MOP Command Center (i.e., the kitchen cork board) and I told them, sure, you can use the computer, or watch tv, as much as you want, as long as you do ALL THESE THINGS first. 

No compromises. No complaints. No Negotiation. Just do these things. And once those things were done, they could HAVE AS MUCH SCREEN TIME AS THEY WANT.

[Edited to add: Ok, sometimes there are compromises.]

Yup. Complete The List by 8:00 a.m., and you are free to rot in front of the monitor until your eyeballs bleed.

I know what you’re thinking: Surely these two vidiots will devolve into pasty, nearsighted dunces. But that’s where Newton’s Laws come in. I know that if I get them up and out the door bright and early, they’ll be out playing all day. But let them sit down in front of a screen, and they’ll stay there all day.  Like me, they are all about momentum. The simple direction to “do something creative” would get Herself started drawing, or building. The first week, she figured out how to use a hot glue gun and devoted an insane amount of time to constructing a bizarre three story building, complete with a spiral staircase, out of cardboard and wine corks. Himself picked up a novel and wound up blowing through five in two weeks. Homework was suddenly getting done without me nagging. Brownies were baked. Rooms were tidy. And computer time, while still substantial, was contracting. 

It’s been six months, and while the results haven’t been perfect, they’ve been impressive. I’ll update with details soon, but for now, why not get started on a list of your own? You can view my lists here. Let me know if it works for you.

EDITED 6/9/2014 to add: Check out the summer edition of The Momentum Optimization Project.

EDITED 6/11/2015 to add: A Momentum Optimization Project Update

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208 thoughts on “How I limited screen time by offering my kids unlimited screen time.

  1. Excellent. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s all about momentum…once we stop moving it’s over. It all comes back to self-discipline: self-discipline is borne from being consistent. This is why I encourage people to start the day with Daily Body Maintenance. 4minutes of movement. You can read about it on my site: youasamachine (dot) com.

    • I love this idea! Iam a list maker and follower myself. Take my lists away and I cant function, I have our day broke up into 4 parts with a list of thimgs to do in each. I do jot do time because some days saying something must be done by 3pm doesnt work here. But saying from “3:30 -8:00 PM — — must be done” works for us. I may do a list for screen time ontop of things. I think it would work well for my family

      • I started this last week with my 9 and 5 year olds. I am SO HAPPPPY with how its working out. My 9 year old runs inside after school each day to check off everything on the list. Within 10 mins of being home today, he had emptied his backpack, emptied the dishwasher, and started his homework WITHOUT BEING ASKED!!!

        He hasn’t realized yet that the items on this list take him 90% of his night and his laptop time has been at MOST 20 minutes (vs. 2-3 hours)…

        I love this idea, thank you SO MUCH for posting it.

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    • I don’t really think of books as screen time. In our house, “Screen time” is kind of used to mean video games and watching nonsense on youtube (Eg, youtube videos of people playing video games). We all read newspapers and our favorite blogs on the ipad, and also books on our kindles, and I do not count any of that as screen time–it’s reading time.

      • So my 26-year-old daughter pointed me to your blog in an effort to help me help my 14-year-old son and her brother. I’ve been scouring everything and when I came to your comment about “watching nonsense on youtube”, I couldn’t help but break out in laughter and relief. My son isn’t the only one out there spending hours on his phone or his computer watching “nonsense” videos. Thank you!! 😉

        Come this fall when he goes back to school as a sophomore, I plan on trying this out!!

      • Ha! I only started ths whole system because my older sister kept complaining that her now adult sons still don’t make their own beds, and telling me “Don’t do what I did!”

        I found the whole plan works great with my teen son–my younger daughter is stilll a bit of a work in progress. My only advice: Don’t wait til school starts!!! make a longer summertime list and start when this school year ends. They’re teenagers already…we only have a few years to make them into responsible young men before heading out off to college!! (I tell my kid I’ve given up on him becoming an outstanding student, but I”m pretty sure we’re raising him to be an outstanding husband).

      • “…watching nonsense on youtube (Eg, youtube videos of people playing video games).” LOL
        I am so glad (yet sad) to know this is a phenomenon happening worldly, as I can NOT understand why my son does this! He was introduced to video game Youtube videos from a friend and now it’s his constant activity (when allowed)! And it’s because of this problem (it has become a serious problem for him) that we were all ready setting up a plan of action such as your list for his summer. He will not be allowed unlimited screen time after completing his list to start off with, though. It is just too much of a problem currently.

        Our problem lies particularly with him being an only child (not by our choice), as he doesn’t have siblings to play games with or do activities with. We do these things with him often, but sometimes we have things we need to do too.

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    • As a teacher I often used comic books in my classrooms, particularly with reluctant readers. It was successful with many of my students as they used the images for picture interpretation and as the need for meaningful, more information theit reading vocabulary improved. I could see they were using the picture clues to assist with reading for meaning and enjoyment, thus, progress was made. Anything to turn the kids on to reading. ( I’m not advocating Playboy or anything like that!!!!!)

    • A comic book is a book, it’s in its name. Words are words and comic books help build reading comprehension and context clues. Sometimes I need to read a comic book before I can read a fiction or non fiction. It jump starts my brain to make pictures in my head. Please don’t hate on the comic books. Once we censor what they are reading, they learn to hate reading. Let the children read, anything, anywhere, anytime. I have said my piece!

      • Man, comic book fanatics are defensive! Nowhere does it say I’ve banned comic books. I don’t have to beg them or bribe them to read comic books. But I’m defensive, too: I’ve tried to post explanations of myself twice (links are embedded in the original post). The point of the list is to get them to do the crap they DON’T want to do. Nonetheless, I appreciate your enthusiasm. I personally think a book’s not worth reading unless someone has decided it should be banned. Rock on/Read on–Read All the Things.

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  6. Reblogged this on e-Quipped and commented:
    Part three of e-Quipped’s #TakeBackScreentime Series. This post is reblogged from Narrowback Slacker, a US-based blogger. Her blog includes lots of handy ideas for family management. You’re going to love her “Momentum Optimization Project.”

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  11. Love the idea and the philosophy behind it. Some concerns:
    – Worried that the list actually turns creativity and reading into “chores.” A kid will blast through some text so he or she can get back to Clash of Clans. What about having the free time to enjoy the text, or ask me if she doesn’t understand a given word? What about reading a book for 2 hours straight?
    – “Something creative, active or productive…” Again worried that this leads to rushed drawings. “Hey mom, I’m done with this drawing, can I get the iPad now?” Instead of really working and following a passion.
    – Worried that the creative and active stuff has time limits, and the screen time doesn’t. Seems… backwards.

    Our rules are simple (and like yours they are rules, not guidelines):
    – 4 hours of screen time allowed per week. No more. No less. That’s 4 hours for the whole week.
    – You can have screen time Friday after school, Saturday or Sunday (before 5pm). If you have 1 hour Friday and 3 hours Saturday, congrats on the binge! You’re done!

    The limit is arbitrary, but now our boys read or play board games before and after school. And most week-ends they take about 3 hours of screen time, since they are busy with other fun stuff.

    Just an idea – again, love your post and thought process!

    • All good points, and yes, it’s counterintuitive in a lot of ways, and won’t work for everyone (and it doesn’t ALWAYS work for me, but it MOSTLY works). The thing is, my kids like reading, they just forget to do it because they’ll be obsessed with video games. By pointing them to something awesome that’s not a game, it’s like I’m gently reminding them that there’s a lot of other great stuff to do besides video games. When they find the right book (or creative activity–for my daughter it’s drawing manga) they’ll get absorbed in reading/drawing the same way they would get involved in a game. Creative and reading have never become “chores.” But you know, actual chores are still chores. They don’t lose track of time because they become extremely involved in picking up dog poop.

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  14. I just came across this article this morning. We started something similar a few days ago, with basically the same list of rules: homework, 30 minutes of reading, 30 minutes of physical activity/play, one helpful act (chores around our house or a neighbor’s), and dinner together — THEN you can look at screens until your eyes cross. I like the other things you list, too. Schedule time with mom or dad to study? Brilliant!

    We haven’t tested this over a weekend yet, but so far, my two kids have spent a combined total of 0 hours mining or watching YouTube videos of other families having fun. And I don’t think they’ve missed it. We are actually having our own fun together, and it is awesome. You’re really on to something there with that idea of momentum. A family at work/play remains at work/play when not acted on by a glowing force. Genius.

  15. I just came across this article this morning. We started something similar a few days ago, with basically the same list of rules: homework, 30 minutes of reading, 30 minutes of physical activity/play, one helpful act (chores around our house or a neighbor’s), and dinner together — THEN you can look at screens until your eyes cross. I like the other things you list, too. Schedule time with mom or dad to study? Brilliant!

    We haven’t tested this over a weekend yet, but so far, my two kids have spent a combined total of 0 hours mining or watching YouTube videos of other families having fun. And I don’t think they’ve missed it. We are actually having our own fun together, and it is awesome. You’re really on to something there with that idea of momentum. A family at work/play remains at work/play when not acted on by a glowing force. Genius.

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  17. I may start this for the upcoming school year. I wonder though – how do you handle screen time with multiple children of different ages? Do they have to complete the list by a certain time each – I’m thinking for my youngest it needs to be completed by 5:30 and she has until 7 to complete screen time. My middle – a little later and my oldest even later. I struggle with keeping my other children out of the space of the one watching the show/playing the game.

  18. Great idea. I like that you don’t have to keep track of screen time (20min. here, an hour there…) that is more work for me than I care to have! We may try this over the summer. Unfortunately, “no screen time before homework is done” during the school year has resulted in some very rushed, messy, incomplete homework. So when checked, the battle begins about how “done” the homework really is.

    • I’ve had that battle. It’s easy with math–done is done, done correctly is done correctly. I just check that it’s done, and that’s that. If I see something obviously wrong, I can tell them to maybe do it again. With essays and longer projects, I try to look the assignments with them and figure out how long it should take, and tell them they need to work on it for at least X minutes/hours, and that’s when we consider it “done.” I tell them I’ll be assessing the quality before they can get on the computer, but often, I fail to do even that. They are not superstar students, and I can’t make them superstar. I mean, I guess I could if I really devoted myself to it–god knows lots of parents do–but I think at their ages (11 and 15) they should be doing this on their own, and I don’t feel like it should be my job to be checking that everything is done, every single night. On the other hand, I don’t want them to think I think it’s ok to do crappy work. It’s a fine line to walk, and I’m never sure I’m walking it correctly.

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    • It totally applies to me. In fact, it it completely rooted in tricks I use to stay on task as a work-at-home freelancer. The other grown up in this house doesn’t struggle with his attention at all–he is one of those poeple who just mentally is able to attend to one thing at at time, and do things on a schedule he sets in his head. He gets up on his day off and decides: Today I will accomplish X and Y and then I will play videogames until dinner and the I will watch the Mets game. I sometimes wonder how we manage to get along so well.

      • I can so relate to this! My husband doesn’t understand why, the moment the kids leave, I put on my headphones and power through the house (literally sometimes running & jumping over dogs…) to keep that momentum going. I’m a rock star on those days! And here I am now … not really rocking it 😉 Loving this idea. Funny how we can apply things to ourselves but not think to do the same for our kids (and of course the reverse is opposite as well – I make sure my kids eat amazingly and me? not so much…) Thanks for a great post. Eager to read more!

  21. So far, this has helped make our summer really pleasant! I am always scrambling my brains to come up with a best solution, but everything is always too labor intensive, or complicated and we dont follow thru more than a day. This has SOLVED that problem. And while my kids complained at first that I was going to ruin their summer, they already actually LIKE this system! My 12yo dgtr says it gets her out of bed in the morning. Her friend texted her at 11am and said she just got up. My dgtr had eaten breakfast, walked the dog, completed a painting on canvas, watered the garden, cleaned her room and bathroom, and took a bike ride by that time! So pumped. And like you said, they dont even spend much of theor screen time because the creative active juices are flowing!!

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  31. I just wanted you to know that I, a mom of five in Utah, was really grateful to find this. I had been thinking about what I wanted to do with my children and as soon as I read this, I knew it was the framework I’d been looking for. We’re doing our own broad interpretation of it, but this was totally the foundation for our new system and so I wanted to say THANK YOU. We’re just finishing week two and it’s going so well.

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