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.


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.