By Popular Demand: A Momentum Optimization Project Update

In April 2014, at the behest of some friends, I wrote a little post called How I Limited Screen Time by Offering My Kids Unlimited Screen Time. As of today, that post is at over 700,000 views, and I achieved a minor life goal: I got reblogged on one of my favorite sites, Lifehacker. It’s a strange feeling knowing that so many strangers have looked at photos of one’s kitchen bulletin board, but there you have it. Thanks to everyone who liked, forwarded, tweeted, reported, and commented. Since so many people asked, I figured it was time for an update.

The List. © A. Kirby-Payne

It’s been almost two years since I first implemented The List. At this point, most of the chores on it—making the bed, read for however many minutes, etc—are habits for both my kids. But doing them all on their own, in a row, before they wander toward the computer? Not so much. They will not complete The List on their own, and if I’m tied up with work or just get distracted and forget to say “DO THE LIST,” they will just wander off to go online. So every so often, we all lose momentum, and you know, an object at rest falls off the Momemtum Optimization Project wagon. That’s certainly been the case over the past month or two.

The good thing is that this low-tech system makes it pretty easy to get back on. The kids—and especially the older one—are kind of thinking about these things the same way I do. They’ve begun to notice the correlation between how much time they spend messing around on the computer and their grades (not to mention the state of the house and the grumpiness level of the parental units). My son in particular is becoming much better at prioritizing his time, and self-correcting when he realizes he’s not allocating it well. He’s been known to say to us “I need to get back on that list,” when he gets a bad grade or forgets an assignment. And we do.

As it turns out, the individual habits of The List are stronger than The List itself. My teenaged son makes his bed just about every day, and keeps his room pretty tidy. He declutters his stuff regularly, does his own laundry, changes his own sheets. All this is becoming automatic. My daughter will do these things, but she still needs to be told. Other household chores, like cleaning the bathroom or unloading the dishwasher? I have to remind them to do those—but I only have to remind them once. They’ll both immediately pause whatever game their playing (it’s not like I’ll interrupt homework) and just do it, because they’ve learned that it really will only take a few minutes to do, and then they can get back to their preferred task (that would be… screens). They’re still getting “unlimited” game time, but not at the expense of other things I want them to get done.

Essentially, The List has made them into helpful laborers, but they still require a foreman. And sometimes, this foreman slacks off.

I’ve been reading a lot about habits this year (check out Charles Duhigg’s excellent The Power of Habit and Gretchen Rubin’s fun and friendly Better than Before if you’re interested) and as the lingo goes, to create a habit loop—that is, make a habit automatic–you need to link it to a cue. For the kids, me telling them to do something  is the cue. The problem is that I’ve never figured out a way to make being that cue that a more consistent habit for myself. That’s my goal for this summer. (For the record, I’m in the house all day, and the spouse is not, so I can’t really pawn this one off on him. Which is a shame, as he is an absolute creature of habit and would never have to read a book to figure any of this out.)

So, the question behind all those clicks on the blog: Has screen time decreased? I’m not sure—mine is not an empirical study. Right from the get-go, my data was flawed, because I was using the term “screen time” to refer to only a specific type of screen time—what I like to refer to as “idiot time.” My son’s homework requires a computer; I don’t call that screen time. He uses the computer to practice guitar; so I don’t count that, either. He’s still a hard core gamer, but he’s a teenager and I’m becoming quite comfortable with the idea that he’d rather be playing with a small group of carefully curated friends online than out doing things other teenagers like to do. (Also: Himself  likes to point out that there’s a future in videogaming). And finally, he got himself a job, so he doesn’t quite have as much time to kill as he otherwise would.

The List wound up taking my daughter in an entirely different direction. She still games from time to time, but the focus on “productive/creative” activities prompted her to start spending more time on creative pursuits like drawing, writing, and reading. Now, that’s pretty much all she wants to do. She does much of this on the computer, but I don’t feel as inclined to limit it the way I would say, playing games (or watching youtube videos of other people playing games). For the record, it turns out drawing and reading can make your kid slack off on homework just as much as playing Minecraft can.

So, there’s my update. I guess I should post more regularly, seeing as people seem to like this stuff. Maybe I’ll try to make that a habit, too.


How We Turned a Reluctant Reader Into a Habitual Reader (Or: I Lied on My Kid’s Reading Log and the World Didn’t End)

My son is a reader.  He likes books. He reads plenty.

But: He is not a voracious reader. He’s not one of those kids who gobble books up like Pac-Man chasing down dots. He doesn’t romanticize, Hermione-style, over the smell of ink on paper, nor does he have any desire to browse aisles at bookstores, read through reviews, or sit in on a book discussion. He prefers real paper books, but has no attachment to them as objects once he’s read them (I suspect  I’ve had some influence here, with my constant reminders to purge stuff, and my own “books are not bricks” mantra). He wasn’t an early reader by any stretch: He learned to read in school, not at home. And while he was read to plenty as a baby (he was the first child, after all), he never had any particular inclination to gravitate toward books on his own. He was behind the curve in reading in the early grades, and getting him to finish a book was a chore. And yet, now, at fifteen, he is a reader.

I often detail this evolution with book-loving friends who worry that their young children don’t read as well, as independently, or as much as they want them to. What I found with my guy is that while he never felt any intimate connection with books, he LOVED stories. Big stories. Sweeping stories. Huge, epic stories where you really get invested in characters and there’s a solid chance things might not end well. The thing is, books for very young readers are usually pretty benign. Once Himself got into the third in the Magic Treehouse series and realized that Jack and Annie were probably going to escape any real danger (how else would they get to book 4, 5… 25?) he completely lost interest.

Twenty-eight volumes to go!
I don’t think the protagonists have anything to worry about.

The thing is, at seven or eight years old, he just didn’t have the decoding skills to read more complicated stories yet. So, for most of second, third, and even into fourth grade, his independent reading pretty much consisted of me leaning over his shoulder to make sure he read X number of pages, or more often, me just lying on his class reading log and saying that yeah, he’d read for 15 minutes (I’m not ashamed).

But while he was faking reading, he was really, really into stories. Mostly movies at that age—Toy Story and all things Pixar were in a constant cycle of watch/rewind/watch again.

At my husband’s insistence, we had strategically hidden everything Star Wars related from him until he was seven years old—the age my husband had been when the first film came out—and then launched it with great fanfare. (It goes without saying that Episode IV comes first.) It was well worth the wait, because at seven, he was mature enough to really understand the humor, the humanity, and the eternal struggle with good and evil—along with the awesome light saber duels, droid banter, and space battles. Rather than getting caught up in hitting people with light sabers disguised as sticks (as I’d seen so many toddlers who got initiated too young do), Himself latched onto the Hero’s Journey theme of the tale. He was enamored of Darth Vader, blasters, and light sabers, of course… but still more concerned with Luke and the good guys ultimately defeating evil. We invested in some great Star Wars like books this one (which he paged through endlessly, looking at pictures over and over, until the spine finally split), but his dad’s 1970s original Han Solo paperbacks didn’t tempt him at all.

The #1 Christmas gift of 2007 at my house. 

We talked about Star Wars endlessly (something my husband and I liked to do long before we’d ever had kids). We did the same thing with the Lord of the Rings films, and Harry Potter, the latter of which we listened to on audio in addition to watching the films. Doctor Who became a ritual, as did parsing each episode and theorizing about what might come next.

We found stories elsewhere that grabbed his attention, and unexpectedly challenged him to not merely enjoy a narrative, but to read.  We binge watched Lost, and found that one key storyline was told entirely in subtitles. which we had to read aloud for him… until we didn’t anymore. As someone who does not enjoy video games at all, it took me a while to realize the long-form RPGs he was playing with his dad were yet another form of storytelling—and that they were actually really text-rich experiences that challenged him to read constantly, as bubbles popped up on screen and demanded he decode, understand, and respond quickly (ETA: Added bonus: he also learned to type as fast as Mad Men–era secretary).  By fifth grade, with the help of all those video games and subtitles (and you know, I’m sure school helped) his reading skills were catching up to those of his peers.

Once he was hooked on stories, we needed to step in our role as his supplier. I had a conversation with our local librarian about how I was having difficulty getting him to commit longer novels. When I told her really gravitated life-or-death epics, she excitedly handed me Gregor the Overlander, the first in Suzanne Collins’ fabulous and somewhat overlooked Underland Chonicles. My ‘reluctant reader’ banged through the entire five-book series in a couple of weeks. When he finished the last one, he cried for a day or two, just because he was so sad it was over.

It’s still his favorite book.

He had become a reader. He still is one.

But I don’t know if he’d be a reader we hadn’t actively worked to make him one. The key had not just been encouraging him to read, or reading to him, but finding books he would want to read, and then reading them with him (my husband and I both read Gregor as well). He wasn’t born a reader, but proper care and feeding, he grew into one.

So, if you’re worried that  your young one is not a reader, don’t. Just be patient, and enjoy some stories with him while his skills catch up to his interests. I sincerely believe that the best way to get a kid reading is just to unleash your own inner geek and nerd out with your kids. Indulge in stories—across all sorts of media—together:

  • Watch an epic film together.
  • Find an appointment-viewing style show to watch together each week, and then discuss it, water cooler-style, over dinner or while driving in the car.
  • Treat yourself to great graphic novels, and share them with your child.
  • Have him or her explain the plot of a favorite video game to you.
  • Download an excellent audiobook and listen together.
(Image: Library of Congress)

(Image: Library of Congress)

Audiobooks; Not just for the car. 

Once a kid becomes a story addict, he’ll start jonesing for the harder stuff. He’ll take on longer, more difficult narratives, and gradually his reading skills will catch up with his appetite. Keep on putting really good books in front of  him, show him that you think they’re worth reading yourself, and limit competition from other, shinier interest for just a little bit of time each day.

With a little legwork, you can make books just as accessible, convenient, addicting, and social as the Internet. And books can become as much of a habit as video games are. Also, free from your local library, and totally portable.

The Attention-Challenged Freelancer’s Toolkit

When I first started freelancing, I was terrified. I don’t have ADD, but I sometimes act like I do. I have always had real issues with distraction–particularly noise–as well as a tendency to put off things I just don’t want to do. So, I thought I’d have a really hard time keeping on top of my work without a boss breathing down my neck or a humming office full of productive people peer pressuring me to stay on task. But surprisingly, I was able to get down to business and stay on task and meet deadlines, even while sitting at home.  According to Gretchen Rubin (whose excellent Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Everyday Life I highly recommend), I’m an obliger: I work because I am obligated to work.  Put simply, I work because if I don’t, I won’t get paid. I’m obligated to bill hours. My obliger tendency is also the reason that I don’t really tend to this blog very often: there’s no deadline, no client, no payoff. So I put it off. And put it off (did you miss me?).

Anyway, in a world full of distraction, I’ve found that working at home is, suprisingly, less difficult than working in an office full of interesting and entertaining people was. But that’s not to say that I still don’t get distracted. Working is not fun, and other things are, and nobody is looking. The internet is shiny. There are treats in the refrigerator. There’s laundry to be folded. There is a beach right down the block. And one of my biggest and most ironic time wasters (and I use the term lovingly) is the time I’ve spent over the years researching productivity methods and tools to make me less distracted.  I’ve been at this for almost 15 years now, and so I thought it might be nice to share the fruits of my labors, the tools that I use to work with my tendencies and stay productive (and in stay in business).  So, here, in no particular order, are some of the tools in this distraction-prone freelancer’s tookit.

Freedom. That probably sounds like a smug self-employed person talking about the perks of the gig economy. But no, I’m talking about Mac Freedom, a simple program that shuts down your Internet for a given period of time. You click it, and it asks how much Freedom you want; you set the clock and that’s it. The Internet is out of reach, and you can write/edit/work like it’s 1991. When I’m in full-on procrastination mode, or have to deal with a piece of manuscript that is just really difficult, I set freedom for an hour and suddenly, there are no pinging emails or going off on random Google tangents. I’m suddenly alone with nothing but the words. I usually only need to do an hour or two on Freedom to get myself started; once I’m into the project, I tend to keep going. With any project, getting started is the worst part. Mac Freedom helps me to tune out all the shiny distractions so I can get started.

I was an early adopter of Mac Freedom; it was still a free app back then, for Mac only, when I first stumbled upon it via Lifehacker.  I liked it so much I made a donation then, and I have repurchased for new machines a few times since. It’s available now for Windows as well, and while it’s not free, it’s only $10. If you’re writing for a living, it pays for itself rather quickly. And if your tired of finding your kid killing virtual zombies instead of writing that English essay, it can help them stay focused, too. Can it be hacked? Sure. But it’s a pain, and if you set your intervals short enough, you’ll keep working knowing that your treat awaits in just XX minutes.

Anti-Social. I can’t mention Freedom with out giving a shout out to its sister app, anti-social. Sometimes your work requires the Internet. This is especially true for homework: Kids do all their research online, so it’s not really possible for them to work like it’s 1999. Anti-social blocks specific apps–starting with sites obvious distractions like Facebook and Twitter, but you can customize to remove your own specific temptations. You can purchase it for $15, or bundle it with Freedom for $20. I use it to block Facebook, Twitter, various news sites I like to crawl, Amazon, and yes, WordPress.

A desktop timer. I’m a huge fan of the pomodoro productivity method, which involves setting work and break intervals using a timer. A typical interval (referred to as a “pomodoro” in honor of the classic, tomato-shaped kitchen timer) is 30 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break. Because I require longer intervals to get more deeply involved (and because I bill my work by the hour), I set my pomodoros at 1 hour and give myself 10 minute breaks between. I fiddled with various pomorodo apps on my iPhone and on chrome, and found them all over complicated and clunky, so I just use a timer. I have had a different ones over the years, but I finally found this bad boy, and I’ll never go back:

Marathon Count Up/Count Down Timer

It’s big enough that I can always find it on my disaster of a desk, which is probably the most important thing. It also it has a super simple interface with a big STOP/START button, which makes it easy to pause instantly if I need to stop working for a moment to tend to the kid or answer the door. I set it for an hour, hunker down on work, and when the bell goes off I take a break for ten minutes to stretch, eat, pee, etc., before settling down for another hour.

A distraction bucket. Even if I turn off the Internet, I sometimes find my mind wandering. Sometimes that wandering takes me to interesting, creative places–but when I’m on a deadline, such distractions don’t pay the bills. So, I keep a special notebook open on my desk, on which I write any fleeting thoughts that occur to me, that might prompt me to stop what I’m doing and research a product on Amazon, check Twitter, see if there’s a better productivity tool out there that I”m somehow missing. I call it the Distraction Bucket, even though it’s not a bucket (I just think “Bucket” is a fun word to say, and it doesn’t come up in my day-to-day life nearly enough). Each day I write the date at the top of the page, and then just punk down any thought that threatens my concentration. While I’m working, I find that the simple act of writing down something to think about later helps me to just let go of it and get back to the matter at hand. When my pomodoro timer goes off, I can look at the list, and tend to anything that had distracted me during my working hour. Tellingly, 99 percent of the things that had distracted me during my work hour are not nearly as interesting when I’m off the clock. Sometimes it just says “Twitter,” or “defrost chicken” or “Mets game” or even “pee.”

Google Calendar. I’m still searching for that perfect online planner, one that will integrate a task list and not only show “to-dos” but also “dones” (as in, show a list of the tasks I completed each day right on the calendar, indicating the date they were due and the date they were done). I had this mythical program on a PowerPC Mac clone I used on the job in 1997, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was called, or why it has not been replicated by any calendar program that I can find since. But I’ve settled down and realized the Google Calendar is my best bet for now. I love that I can add events right out of Gmail and that I can see the spousal unit’s calendar and he can se mine. My teenage son is just starting to use it, too, so we all know when he’s working and when he’s off. And every morning, it emails me an agenda, which helps me plan my day and has prevented me from forgetting appointments. I’ve even started putting in recurring tasks, like changing the sheets or sweeping the sidewalk, so they become a regular habit rather than just another item to bump down on the to-do list when I’m busy. Google Calendar is definitely one of those things that becomes more useful the more you use it: Go in deep, or go home. We don’t even use the paper calendar in the kitchen anymore. Google Calendar is free, but I highly recommend pairing it with the phone app  Fantastical, which lets you make appointments verbally, using natural language, a big plus when you’re making appointments on the go.

ETA: I neglected to mention in my initial post one app that has become such a part of my routine that I don’t even notice how much I rely on it anymore. The Dayboard Chrome extension is a simple add on that allows you to put your five most pressing tasks into a to-to list. The key is that every time you open a window on Chrome, you’ll see your list first. It’s designed for teams, but I find that it’s great for helping a lone gun like myself to task. I try to keep my list limited to things I can actually accomplish in a single day; what I don’t do get’s bumped to the top of the list tomorrow.  So, if I’m in the midst of a big edit, the only thing on my list might be “Five hours on chapter 12.” I don’t limit it to work stuff, though. It’s great for reminding myself to do little things like make dentist appointments. Today’s list, as you see, is not all that daunting:

Today's pretty clear. So, yes, I will make that mammogram appointment I planned to make 10 days ago.

Today’s pretty clear. So, yes, I will make that mammogram appointment I planned to make 10 days ago.

A planner that is not a planner.  I still keep a good old fashioned desk diary, but  I don’t use it as a planner. I use it to log my hours and keep track of  what I’ve done–not to plan what I have to do. After a lot of trial and error (why are so few planners set up in columns?), I settled on the MyAgenda from MomAgenda, which has the best page layout: It shows a full week at a time–including full columns for Saturday and Sunday–and allows me to track hours by project with ease. I use the “kids” columns to track each project, and tally up my hours each Sunday; the top “my day” section is where I list specific completed tasks.

Lovely column page layout planner, from Mom Agenda.

It’s made with nice quality paper, and it’s very pretty. Pet peeves: I can (and do) do without the ridiculous “lists” they put in the extra pages in the back (seriously, a bunch of blank pages would be so much more useful than empty lists of vacations, wines, and books (and I like two out of three of those things a lot, fwiw), and the oh-so-pretty design might be a little too twee for some users (manly men need agendas, too, after all).  I prefer the spiral version, which is cheaper and easier to customize (it’s a sixteen month calendar, so I just rip out the redundant months when I start my new one each January). I trick mine out with Post-it tabs so I can easily find the current week and the frequently-used lists I made in the back (deductible expenses, invoices out/in, etc).

Earmuffs. Ok, I don’t really use them anymore, but when my kids were little and my office was on the main floor of the house and it was just noisy as all hell after school, I would put these bad boys on and ignore everyone and anything that wasn’t work.  I had even painted the words “GO AWAY” on the side with white out to remind them that MOMMY IS WORKING. They got a little hot during the summer, but as God is my witness, there are books out there today that would never have been published without them.


3M Peltor H10A Optime 105 Earmuff 

The Momentum Optimization Project: Sometimes, an object needs to rest.

I started this post four months ago.

I can explain.

It was a busy summer and early fall, consumed by a large project that was running late. I was, for the most part, waking up every single morning to tend to manuscript bits and bobs, and trying to finish up early enough to do some actual summertime parenting in the late afternoons (first world problem alert: I do realize that spending time at the beach is a weird factor in the “busy” equation–but it is something that competes with time spent cleaning house or working on paid projects). Anyway, by the end of September, when I started this post, I was in the endzone on that project, and the next year’s projects were just starting to peek through the snow, so to speak. Essentially, I was heading into a work lull.

I should have been proactive. I know. Really. I tried to be. I made plans to get ahead—to jump in with both feet on next year’s work, and oh yeah, while it wasn’t too busy, to go ahead and write a ton of content for this blog that I could have just sitting on my computer, ready to post for all my loyal readers (hello, friends and family!) at a leisurely pace. I would get all that holiday shopping done early, work the sales. I would learn to sew and reupholster my couch.

None of this happened. I did, however, trudge down to my basement lair daily and prepare to work. I sat at the desk. I opened the books. I looked at the manuscript, but didn’t really edit much. I watched course videos and read news articles related to a new discipline I’m working in. I started mulling, and researching, different directions in which I might take my career. I began researching ideas for a new project to develop on my own. Realizing that I probably needed to update my resume, I looked at some colleagues’ for ideas on how I might do it. Essentially, I fussed about on the edges of work–but didn’t get any substantial work done.

I was distracted even from my distractions. I spent countless hours window shopping but didn’t purchase any Christmas gifts until about a week before Christmas (thank you, I started several blog posts, but they were shite and just festered in my WordPress drafts folder, underdeveloped and unfinished. I served jury duty. I cleaned the house. I weeded the closets and the pantry and more. I spent hours clicking through Pinterest and Apartment Therapy looking for solutions for troublesome areas of my house, but made little progress because I wasn’t really “working” and thus could not really justify spending money on said projects. I bought a sewing machine that I have no idea how to use. I researched ways to help my kids with schoolwork, looking for a better understanding of the challenges (and opportunities) of the common core, and investigating ways to help them build better study skills. I found a ton of books for my kids to read and ordered them from the library. Ironically, I spent a lot reading blogs and articles about procrastination and productivity.

This happens every year. The Spousal Unit refers to it as my Seasonal Affective Funk. It’s partly that–I am pretty much solar powered, and so the dark days do take a toll. But a peek at my billing history, which provides a fair accounting of how productive I really am every week of the year, reveals that I usually slow down in late fall and then pick up just after the new year, when the days are at their darkest. It happens, quite simply, when I put one project to bed after working on it for the better part of a year. There’s a cycle in textbook publishing, and that’s the lull. It’s when, per Newton’s Law of Personal Momentum, I am abruptly transformed from an Object in Motion to an Object at Rest. Because if I don’t have a LOT of stuff to do? I’m not going to do a lot of stuff.

The irony here, of course, is that I’ve spent a great deal of time here talking about how I magically transformed my kids’ habits by just making a list and sticking to it. But no amount of list making seems to snap me out of this annual funk (although I suspect there might be some drugs that could help). Yes, I sat at my desk and pretended to work. I might as well have been playing video games.

But not really.

A long time ago, during another autumnal work funk, I stumbled upon this fabulous post extolling the virtues of structured procrastination. We procrasinators aren’t doing nothing; we’re just putting off important things to tend to “marginally useful things.” Why beat ourselves up over it? Even the less pressing things on the to-do list need to get done. For example, I’d been ignoring the clutter in my house for months while I was very busy–I needed to catch up on that, and now my closets are quite a bit less cluttered. I absolutely needed to spend some time looking at resumes, as my industry is changing profoundly in the digital age, and my lone promotional document was clearly written in 2001. And while I haven’t quite gotten around to reupholstering the couch, I did tag some solid directions for creating summer slipcovers out of bleached dropcloths, and set a goal to learn to use the machine well enough to pull it off by next summer. Pressing issues? Maybe not, but I am I’m fairly certain they’ll cumulatively improve my house, my work, the kids’ schoolwork, and my mindset moving forward. But you know, at the end of the day personal growth won’t pay the bills.

No matter. There comes a point when the procrastinator can procrastinate no more. Come the first week of January, when the kids go back to school and I crack open my new desk diary, I always hit the ground running. And here I am, at the end of my first full week of 2015, and I have billed a solid week’s worth of work, tended to some PTA stuff, and I’m fairly confident that I’ll be finishing this blog post today.

Anyway, welcome to 2015. Nap time is over.

The Homework Map: Charting their courses

Homework was never easy or enjoyable at our house. Honestly, I kind of resent having to have anything to do with it (I did my homework back in the 1980s, I should be done by now). But alas, I’ve come to peace with the fact that my kids are not necessarily self-starters, and require some degree of parenting to keep them on track. This is especially the case when it comes to getting homework done.

When the kids were little, at least the entire concept of homework was pretty straightforward: Here is a list of things to do. Now do them. All that changes in middle school, when suddenly the kids are faced with five or six different teachers, each with their own quirks and demands. It can be overwhelming for students, and exhausting for parents–especially if you’ve got more than one child.

We are lucky that the school my kids attend, which runs from 6th through 12th grade, requires teachers to provide homework sheets for each class, each week. It’s a huge help for students to have the teachers articulate the learning objectives and assignments very clearly, and leaves no room for excuses such as not writing it down, or in my son’s case, not being able to read what you wrote down.

Still, with five or six different teachers handing out just as many homework sheets, there’s just a lot to sort through. My kids are getting better at doing their work, but they’re still struggling with the executive function portion of the equation–that is, figuring out what they need to do, when, and how to prioritize lots of competing tasks and activities.

So, I’ve found that the best thing to do is for me to sit down at the beginning of each week and sort through all the assignment sheets and the family calendar and synthesize a weekly list for/with each of them. Making that weekly list into a visual chart is even better, allowing kids (and parents!) to clearly see what assignments are coming up, and spot potential roadblocks in advance, so the kids can address them with teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors long before deadlines start rearing their ugly heads.

Enter the Homework Map. It’s a simple chart, similar to a weekly planner but customized for school work.


Homework Map

You can buy a planner that does the job for them, but I’ve never found one that works perfectly. I find it easier (and cheaper) to just work with this simple MS-word document, which I print out and fill in in pencil. You can click on the links below for a pdf file that you can print out, or to download a Microsoft Word file that you can customize however you like.

The Homework Map [printable pdf]

The Homework Map [downloadable word file]


Here’s how to use it:

Use it with your homework sheets–not in place of them. Make a quick note of what needs to be done  in the cell for each subject. You don’t need to go into detail–just note the general gist of each assignment (for example, “Read and answer 5 questions”) and refer to homework sheets (or your teacher’s website or whatever) for specifics. If the kids don’t get assignments in advance, just have them fill it in as best you can as they move through the week. Oh, and start nagging your school to start posting the assignments to the web or via email. It’s 2014, for God’s sake.

Use the “what’s happening” section to track after school activities. Jobs, service commitments, family obligations (including babysitting younger siblings), sports or clubs may be competing for students’ time after school. Be sure to schedule in all of these commitments so kids can factor them in when planning their time. Seeing it all in one place will help them to visualize how how much time they really have to tend to homework, so they can adjust their schedule as needed.

Plan seven days–or even two weeks–ahead! If Monday to Friday are looking kind of busy, kids will see it–and may want to get ahead on next week’s assignments over the weekend. One of the reasons I hate most weekly planners is that they include only a tiny section for weekends. Students who do a lot of activities may want to use some weekend time to catch up or get ahead–so factor that into the map.

Set benchmarks for big projects.  If a student has a big project due on Friday, he or she can break it up into smaller tasks over the course of the week, and do a little each day. Setting firm benchmarks is a fantastic way to approach large projects. For example, rather than just writing “essay due friday,” take a few minutes to figure out individual steps and plot them on your map. For an essay with a deadline that’s a week away, your map might include daily benchmarks for researching, outlining, identifying evidence, writing the body, the intro, and the conclusion, and revising/finalizing the essay).

Busy day? Tweak the schedule. If a child sees that they’ve got a ton of homework on Wednesday, plus two hours of team practice after school, they might want to move some tasks from Wednesday to Tuesday, or talk to their coach about cutting out early if they have too much work to do.

Prioritize work vs. leisure. If a child sees that they’ve got a ton of homework, they should know that it’s not in their best interest to turn on the TV when you they home. Remember Newton’s Laws, and stick to the Momentum Optimization plan!

Schedule your fun time, too. On the other hand, if you KNOW your kid is going to want to watch the big game  (or in our case, this week’s  Face Off ) on a particular night, go ahead and put it on the map. That way, they’ll know they need to get their work done earlier in order to have it out of the way when prime time rolls around.

Make it a team effort. My goal isn’t to organize my kids’ lives for them–it’s to teach them to organize their own. I’ve learned with my son that sitting down with them and making the map, and then checking and adapting it each day as we move through the week makes the worse less daunting for him and less stressful for all of us. With my daughter starting middle school this year, I’m glad to have the system in place already and hope we can get her started on developing good habits right away.


The August Adjustment: Getting ready for back-to-school

I know many kids around the country are already back at school, but here in NYC, we do not surrender summertime until after Labor Day. And for the first time in a few years, my kids are more ready to go back than I am.  My summer was incredibly busy with work, and the corresponding non-attentiveness to childrens’ needs with which most work-at-home parents are probably familiar. I’m just coming up for air now, taking a few days to attend to school shopping (I totally missed all the sales) and helping them to finish off their summer work. Seems like a good time for an update on the Momentum Optimization Project.

The general takeaway for Summer 2014: Inconsistent enforcement, but nonetheless promising results. Here’s how it went.

Herself–age 11, entering middle school in the fall–is the night owl of the family. And yes, she stayed up too late every night and slept too late every day. I am not proud, but that’s our reality. I would lose billable work hours fighting to get her doing things in the morning, so we just adjust to her natural clock in the summertime. I work from 5:00 am until around 1 o’clock, at which time she’s just getting ready to join the living. Beginning in August, we set slightly firmer bedtime parameters (close-up screens off by 10, but she can stay up and watch tv after that), just to get her a tiny bit in tune with the non-vampire world.

Her operating on such opposite internal clock from the rest of the family is a real challenge. By the time she is ready to work, I’m fried from having spent 6 or 7 hours in front of my own computer thinking and sorting and editing. And so,  I didn’t stick to my guns on  The List as much as I would have liked. I certainly cannot claim that I adhered to it every day. BUT: Just doing it on some days made a huge difference. There was no fighting or whining over homework, other than occasional prods from me to “Just sit down and read (or write) for twenty minutes” or “Do your list” before I let her go play on the computer (or watch tv). A bunch of little spurts of energy devoted to it here and there, and at the end of the project she had put more time into each assignment than she would have had I insisted she get it all done the first week of July, or whenever. Oh, and she did clean the bathroom, walk the dog, and do her other chores almost every day.

If it weren’t for the fact that by the time she was awake enough to work, I was too mentally spent to work on school stuff (we’d usually just make lunch and then head to the beach), we probably would have been done with her summer work much sooner. But the weather was exceptional this summer, and the beach was beautiful, and what’s the point of living here if I can’t get my kids in the water most days.

3pm, Rockaway Beach, NY

So, yeah, we still have a lot to do this last week. But we don’t have to do everything. Even though I was not particularly good about leaning on her to spend the planned 15 minutes per day on homework, she did read quite a bit all summer long, and she completed two out of three written assignments over the past four days. (She’s read the third book and just needs to work on her essay this week). Her math assignment is something I put off–it involves making a Power Point presentation, something I haven’t had time to figure out. So, she’s doing the research this this, and her brother or dad will help her with the technical aspect of presentation before school starts.

So, end result: Not perfect, but promising. She had a fun summer, which should really be the first priority for an 11 year old. She spent her waking hours at the beach and nights playing Minecraft. And she did her work, and seems to have done it pretty well. I think that she’s finally starting to understand that projects are far less onerous when broken up into manageable chunks. That, hopefully, will lead to better habits all around.

That’s certainly been the case for my son. He’s 14 now, about to enter high school, (although his school goes from grade 6 through 12, so it won’t be the same kind of transition it is for many kids). He is an early riser like me, so when he wandered into our Room of Requirement (the basement is an open space that hosts both my home office and the family rec/computer area) each morning, I’d just remind him to do the list before he got started on the machines. He was pretty good about it, too. He’d do his chores, then read.

For the month of July, he was excused from school work at home because he was attending a full-day HS prep program at his school, during which he was working pretty intensely on math and reading his books during his free time. So, we devoted August to his English assignments. He had a choice of several non-fiction titles, one of which was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers. Given my interest in habit building (I’m midway through The Power of Habit myself as I write this), that’s the one I picked for him. (The rule in my house is: If you don’t want to go shopping–and my kids HATE shopping–you take what mom gives you). I ordered the audio version for myself so I could discuss it with him, and whenever he finished a “habit,” we would have a little informal discussion about it while we did other things (making dinner, walking to the beach, etc).

Long story short: He really liked the book, despite his initial misgivings. He started his essay on it last week, and for the first time, stretched out the process of writing the essay over several days. My son is a great reader, but not a great writer, and he finds writing such a chore that he tends to rush through written assignments, and avoid revising at all costs (which can make his editor mom’s blood boil). So this time, we spent some time at the whiteboard and just worked on an outline for two days (by which I mean: two 15-minute sessions). He wrote his draft over the next two days, and then we worked together to finalize the draft on the fifth day. All told, he spent several hours on the essay, including discussing, outlining, writing, and revising, in addition to reading the book. In the end, he was really, really happy with his essay, and admitted that it hadn’t felt like all that much work because he’d broken it up into smaller bits. So, a win for me, and for the Momentum Optimization Project.

That’s not to say any of it is a “habit” yet. When he started on his second essay yesterday (this one in response to a fiction book), he tried to outline and write the essay on the same day. The result: Total meltdown. I had to practically smack him out of it, reminding him that the goal for the day was just to figure out the main point and maybe locate some evidence for his outline. (There was also a five minute argument over the fact that the Kindle edition of the book I bought him did not include page numbers, which he swore were the only appropriate way of referencing the text. My son and I are on opposite sides of the paper v. ebook divide). Clearly, the key will be consistency (never a strong point for me) and providing constant reminders that slow and steady is the best way to finish–if not necessarily win–the race.

LearnToMod: “A gateway drug for computer coding”

Well, this looks promising:


LearnToMod is a program that teaches kids to code, and to use code to create their own Minecraft mods. I love the idea of kids becoming producers of technology, not just consumers, and it’s becoming clear that coding is a key skill that the workerbees of tomorrow can apply to just about any job or any situation. I love this summary, from Teacher Gaming founder Joel Levin:

“Kids are passionate about the game and they quickly understand that they can extend and enhance their Minecraft experience by learning some basic programming…. And that’s really what we want, isn’t it? To have kids realize that with code, they can improve their life in a way that’s relevant to them.”

Check out the full story on WIRED:

FROM WIRED: New Minecraft Mod Teaches You Code as You Play

My daughter is dying to learn to code for Minecraft, and as someone whose skills are pretty much limited to typing, I had no idea where to start. The software, developed by ThoughtSTEM, isn’t available until October, but you can preorder here. I’m planning on holding this particular carrot out in front of her through the first part of school year–she’s a homework procrastinator, so if she can break that habit in September, there will be a nice prize in October.

The media ominivore’s dilemma

When I first posted about the Momentum Optimization Project, I was expecting just a few friends and family members to read it. But it must have struck a chord: As of today, it’s been viewed more than 100,000 times (although part of me suspects it’s my mom, clicking over and over again just to feed my ego). The traffic kind of freaked me out, to be honest–I’m an editor, not a writer, by trade, and I’m not really used to having people whom I don’t know read, comment, even ask me for advice based on something I’ve written. I should probably make it clear that I’m not an expert on anything, more of a curious questioner. And as far as getting my kids to keep things really need and orderly? It’s kind of hilarious that anyone would look to me for advice, because: I am a disaster. Seriously. I need one of these just to find my keys at any given moment.

Anyway, 100,000 views are bound to yield a few criticisms.  A few readers inferred that my insistence on the kids reading “real text (not comics)” meant that I don’t want them reading comics at all, or that I don’t think comics are valuable. Others thought that by limiting screen time and insisting on “creative time,” I was implying that computers are not in fact tools that can be used creatively, or that I think gaming is stupid. All of which is kind of hysterical. Seriously, media–tv, books (including comics and graphic novels), movies, music, online gaming and computers–makes up a huge chunk of our family budget, in terms of time and money. Technology and media are kind of priorities in our lives. We’d rather have new machines than go on vacation (and so, we don’t really go on many vacations).

My goal with the Momentum Optimization Project wasn’t to make the kids not play on the computer, or not watch TV. It was to remind them that there are other ways to spend their time, too.

I know that as a child in the 1970s and early 80s, I watched as much TV as I possibly could. But in reality, there was just not that much TV to watch. Five channels, with maybe three hours of programming per day that might be interesting to a child of any given age, all running at the same time. No DVRs or TV on demand, no streaming media, no 24-hour Nickelodeon or MTV yet. I could watch All The TV There Was To Watch, and eventually, run out of TV to watch. I’d get bored, find something else to do.

Today’s kids have no such limits forced on them. There is so much entertainment, available the touch of a button, that can be delivered right to their faces. And, despite the existence of some really terrible stuff (I’m looking at you, Real Housewives), much of what’s out there is ABSOFREAKINGLUTELY AWESOME. I’m quite certain that if I had Internet when I was a child, I’d have spent my entire adolescence sitting in my room watching SNL clips and searching some kind of irrefutable evidence to prove, once and for all, that REM was better than U2. (Because they were). And if I were a kid in the 2000s, I’d probably have grown pasty looking for LOST spoilers and theories or watching Epic Rap Battles of History until I, like my kids, knew every word to every single rap battle. I get that Everything is Awesome, but I would by happy if my kids would be motivated to, say, follow up on Stephen King vs. Edgar Allen Poe by perhaps reading Carrie or at least looking up Poe’s biography on Wikipedia.

So, really, I’m not looking to put an end to computers (or comics) or to even put strict limits on either of them. I’m just trying to raise well rounded, media omnivores. As I’ve stated before, Newton’s Laws of My Family state that if they get involved in a video game early in the day, that’s pretty much what they’ll want to do all day. If I don’t point them toward other things, and give them a little shove, I know they’ll waste their free time away in a Minecraft or Steam bubble at the expense of all the other awesome stuff–music, sports, books, podcasts, movies–not to mention sunshine and face-t0-face socializing–that they could be enjoying, exploring, and learning from.

Anyway, when I started instituting “creative time” last winter, I generated this little Wordle and hung it in the kitchen. It’s just a hodgepodge of ideas so I always have an answer to “I can’t think of anything to do.”



There’s exercise, chores, good deeds, and even some ideas for using technology creatively. When it’s cold or rainy, or when they’re in the height of swimming season and don’t really need to be pressed for more exercise, I’ll let them slide on the “glowing screen” aspect, and suggest they do something active or creative–say, research some topic of interest or make a video or go on a photo treasure hunt–which might involve a computer or tablet. For me, the key is to make them use technology actively and creatively, rather just having them passively absorb content while sitting in a chair.




Something to consider: Kudoso’s new router is a screen time management system

So, Engadget reported this week on a Kickstarter campaign for Kudoso, a router/software combination that enables you to limit kids’ screen time and encourage them to complete chores, schoolwork, play outside, etc. Essentially, it locks kids their gadgets out of the internet, and via an interface that parents control, allows them to earn time on various sites by completing particular chores or activities. It looks like it might be a few hours of set up time, but if it works, it could simplify things some families.

Kudoso's new router/software system limits screen time.


I’ve moved toward the “unlimited earned time” model with my kids, but I think something like this might be super effective in helping younger children to diversify their behavior and learn some good habits, while still allowing them to engage with media. I like that it links with existing electronic tracking and teaching tools, like Kahn Academy and Fitbit, which can make it possible for some rewards to automated.

However, one question many parents have asked me about my system is how to confirm that kids have, indeed, completed their chores if you are not  at home to check that the bed is actually made or the laundry folded. I’m not sure (yet) how to work around that, with this or any system.

I’m not quite intrigued enough to plunk down the cash at the moment, but will be following the reviews.

Here’s the story from Engadget. And here’s the Kickstarter page.

If anyone tries it, please let us know how it goes.



A quick note on comics

Quite a few people have taken issue–and reasonably so–with my distinction between comics and “real text.” I regret my word choice here: I hadn’t intended to imply that comics are not “real” text. I am a huge fan of comics and graphic novels for kids, and they make up a large portion of my kids’ media diet. However, my goal for the List was to get my kids to prioritize their time–to make them tend to the tasks they MUST accomplish before they settle in for hours on the computer. During the school year, that means getting their assigned reading done: my daughter would have pages in textbooks or an assigned novel, my son is expected to read five news articles per week. Invariably, they would put these tasks off, or not do them at all. And they never seem to think of it as  “homework” since there’s nothing to hand in. My first iteration of The List (which was a hand written scrawl and is not posted on this blog) did not make this distinction, and my daughter responded by reading only graphic novels (and mostly ones that she had read before). I don’t want to discourage that behavior, but she needed to be pushed to engage in longer and more challenging texts. So during the school year at least, comics and graphic novels are considered part of “creative” time, since it doesn’t feel like a chore to have to read them (I make no such distinction in the summertime edition of list). In fact, I treat my daughter to a new comic as a reward whenever she finishes a text-driven book.

I’ll post more on this later, but for now I just wanted to acknowledge those who felt my wording did a disservice to comics and graphic novels, because on review, I totally agree with them.