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.