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.

Optimizing the workforce: Learning to delegate (and learning to be stubborn)

A confession: I hate housework.

I get no joy from making floors sparkle, or from a sock drawer that is arranged by color story, and don’t even get me started on the puzzling degree of laundry room porn that keeps popping up on my Pinterest  feed.

Somewhere, a world exists where people like doing laundry so much that they devote what used to be living space to it.

Somewhere, a world exists where people like doing laundry so much that they devote what used to be living space to it.

Seriously, if I had enough money to or square footage to devote a sunny room of my home to a glorious laundry facility, I’d just hire someone to do the damned laundry. I just need the clothes clean and folded–and put away–and for the house tidy enough that I don’t feel compelled to make excuses for a mess. But even that level of tidiness is a challenge for my family: None of us are particularly particular about making things just so. We’re kind of aiming for good enough.

When I was a kid, my mother managed to keep a house of similar size and population always looking tidy through a combination of extreme editing (she eschewed knick knacks, which she referred to as “dust collectors”), practical choices (dark carpets and surfaces that “hid the dirt”), and a solid housework schedule (she cleaned/dusted/put things away all day, every day). The rest of us had few to no responsibilities for household chores. I’m not kidding. The most I ever did was straighten my room once in a while, or start my laundry, which my mom would eventually put in the dryer and fold and often even put away. It was, looking back, a pretty sweet deal for us kids and my dad. But the point is that keeping that very tidy house very tidy was pretty much a full time job for her.

The thing is, I have another, almost full-time job, and my husband has an often more than full-time job. We split the work on most household tasks fairly evenly, but that’s not to say it’s really 50/50—more like 35/35, with about thirty percent just not getting done.

However, the changing demographics of our household have made available new labor resources. My little boy and girl are now a teen and a tween—virtual minions!—who could and should be picking up that last 30 percent.  Of course they should be. But why weren’t they?  Well, because I never made them. Never really taught them how to clean their room, or the bathroom, or anything. Frankly, I never really learned these things myself.  I would tell them to clean the bathroom, and let them procrastinate. I would pick up (or more likely, just ignore) the shoes, books, sweaters, and other random detritus they leave in their wake when they walk in the door and pack their schoolbags for them before they walk out it. It was just easier to do it myself (or ignore it all) than to argue with them, or even to just take the time to show them how to do it/do it with them.  That’s because I have very, very little patience. That lack of patience (and lack of interest) is probably why I never learned these skills and habits from my mother (I am still notorious for just dropping my crap on the table when I walk in the door myself). It also makes me a total pushover—the kids know that if they whine and procrastinate enough, I’ll cave and do it for them.

So, on the advice of my husband, I’m making it a goal to learn to delegate, and to learn to be stubborn.  This week, I just stopped picking up after them at all. If they leave their shoes, a dish, or anything in the living room, I call them from wherever they are and make them put it away, even though it would be way less work for me to just put the stupid dish in the dishwasher myself. It’s a chore, really, yelling down to the playroom for them to come upstairs and directing them on what to do. But it’s already paying some dividends: Himself is getting better about picking up after himself in general, and Herself has finally started clearing her own breakfast dishes without me asking her to do it. Don’t get too excited: The dining room is still of crap that doesn’t belong there (much of it mine). But, tiny victories, you know?


Momentum Optimization Update: It’s easier when the sun is shining.

Yesterday was the first acceptable beach day of the year, and also the first beach day ever when I felt like my son was old enough to send him out on his own. So when I found him wandering toward the basement computer at 10:30 p.m., I just kicked him out of the house. He tried to roll off some lame excuses (Himself: There’s no one to hang out with. Me: They’re probably at the beach. Go see.”) I popped him a few bucks to have lunch at the concession and sent him on his way.

Long story short, he spent the day surfing and hanging with friends. After he got home and showered around 3pm, he hooked up with his cousins who were down for the day and spent the afternoon/evening playing board games and pool with them. He didn’t get home until almost eleven, and didn’t spend a moment of the day parked in front of a glowing screen.

I know quite well that, had he sat down in front of the computer, he’d have stayed there until one of his friends came and found him (he’s not the most pro-active when it comes to socializing. As in, not at all). But he is 14. I’m not making play dates for him any more, nor am I inviting every kid in the neighborhood to come hang at my house (where they invariably wind up…. on the computer) when the sun is shining.  No, he didn’t complete his list yesterday–but who cares? He was an object in motion all day, and that bodes well for the summer.

Addendum: We’ve had caveat in the “No Screens/Unlimited Screens” rule for a while:  I try to enforce “Screen-Free Sundays,” which means the kids are not allowed to use the computer at all on Sundays (as they have invariably put off doing any and all homework over the weekend). I admit that over this long cold winter, I did slide on it at times. But now that spring is finally showing up, however late, to the party, it’s in full force, and extended to apply not just to Sundays, but to all sunny days.

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  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:


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