The Momentum Optimization Project: Creating a self-sufficient teenager

So, an update on the Momentum Optimization Project, my counterintuitive plan to get my kids going on things that do not involve sitting in front of screens before they are allowed to sit in front of screens. While the whole concept is based on my desire to limit screentime, it dovetails nicely with my other personal goals, such as getting my kids to do their chores and getting my house in order. The kids have to complete a list of tasks before they are allowed to use a computer (or cell phone or tv or tablet). There are some things they are expected to do every day (tidy their room, make the bed) and then they must also complete one item on the chore list. I made it a point to put a mix of tasks on there, so some chores are really easy and some require more time and effort. The results have been promising, as noted previously, but of course not perfect. I’m going to start with my son (13 years old when we started, 14 now), for whom we’ve seen the biggest changes in habit. Looking at the Chore List, he immediately decided that the easiest thing to do was what I call (using language I picked up somewhere on the interweb, possibly flylady.com)  the “purging boogie,” in which I instructed him to, essentially, get rid of 5-10 things that belong to him. I kept an extra hamper in the upstairs hall, specifically for clothes they don’t want or that don’t fit, and a donate box in the basement for book, toys, whatever. Over a few months, he has weeded books, clothing, and clutter vigilantly. That, combined with a few tweaks we made in his bedroom (installing a row of coat hooks, and replacing and old, shoddy dresser with a new one from Ikea with properly functioning drawers) translated into less stuff, and no excuses for not putting the remaining stuff away. He makes his bed every day now, almost without thinking about it.

Tidy Enough.

Tidy Enough.

His bed isn’t always made perfectly, but it’s good enough for me. As he becomes more thoughtful about what he wants to keep and what can go, his room is nearing a monk-like state of spartan simplicity, to the point where he’s running out of things to get rid of, so he instead has moved on to keeping the basement play area (known as the Room of Requirement) in order as well. So, with his room in order, I decided it was time to up the ante. I changed the “chore chart” to a “chore schedule.” I’m starting out with seven tasks, written on cards, so each day he has an assignment (I use a hole punch and a binder ring to hang the on the cork board). Like so:

20140522-055240-21160705.jpg

Chore Schedule, Iteration 1

After a week, we’re down to repeating the tasks. So yesterday, when the card said “clear your dressers and dust them off,” he noted that they were already clear, because he did it last week. And I said, “that’s the point. Give them a quick dusting and your chore is done.” That, I hope, will make him less inclined to let crap pile up. He’s learning that cleaning up after oneself is a daily thing, and that if you actually do it daily, it’s less of a chore. My plan is to incorporate more tasks, so we’ll wind up with a 14- or even 28-day cycle, with some tasks repeating frequently and others just coming up once every week or once a month or whatever (so, “clean the bathroom” would come up a few times a week, while “change/launder your sheets” might come up every 2-3 weeks). Himself is really taking to this system, and I’m feeling much better about the fact that I didn’t do it sooner, because at least it’s working now, and it’s easy now, mostly because he’s old enough to do it (and also because he REALLY REALLY REALLY wants to get on that computer, so he gets his stuff done fast). My daughter’s journey has been a bit bumpier, for a variety of reasons, including her age. I’ll post on her progress separately. But for now, I’m really, really pleased with the progress my son has made.

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