We each have a certain amount of willpower – an ability to not watch TV and instead get to work or an ability to not eat that chocolate cake. And we use up our willpower as the day goes on (which is why it’s much harder to avoid that cake or that TV as the day progresses). We can strengthen and increase our willpower, but it will never be infinite.
Every time your child puts his phone down and starts reading his textbook, he’s used up a bit of his willpower. So, as the night progresses, and bedtime approaches, and homework still needs to be done, he has less and less willpower to keep putting down his phone and it gets harder and harder to actually do his work.
Thankfully, there is a way to avoid depleting your willpower and get your homework done: HABITS. “Things that are habitual don’t tax your willpower” (Barker, 2014).
The more good practices that we can turn into habits, the less we use up our willpower, so we have more of it in reserves for other stuff.
So, if you are currently eating chocolate cake every evening at 9 pm, you could try changing that habit to first eating an apple and having a glass of water and seeing if that fills you up and satisfies your sugar craving. Create a new habit.
Or perhaps, when you get home from work, you know you have chores to do, but you have a habit of watching TV instead and the chores don’t get done. Create a new habit. When you get home and want to go sit down on the couch in front of the TV, lie down on your bed instead (and don’t turn on the TV or your smartphone). You’ll either get bored and decide to just get your chores done or you’ll take a nap and wake up refreshed ready to do some chores.
Or perhaps you have a habit of checking your phone every time it vibrates while you are doing your homework. Create a new habit. Turn your phone off when you start your work. Or put your phone in a different room. Or put your phone on silent. If you notice you start to check it even though it hasn’t vibrated, create a new habit. Maybe you’re checking it because you are bored? Instead of checking your phone, try a new habit of taking 3 belly breaths to help refocus your mind and maintain your attention on your homework.
The more we can help our kids develop good habits, the less they have to use their willpower, the more successful they will be at getting their homework and chores done. The younger you start working on developing these habits with your kids, the easier it is for them to develop them an internalize them.
Modeling good habits for your kids is always a good first step, like doing the dishes right after dinner instead of watching TV first or putting your stuff away when you walk in the house instead of throwing your coat over the back of a chair.
When they are young, when they get home from school, you can insist that before they play they put their backpack away and put their coat in the closet.
As they get older, you can have a rule (that becomes a habit) that they sit down at the kitchen table, have a snack, and do homework right after school.
What’s interesting is that when we have these habits, it can actually look like motivation. It looks like self-discipline. And it is those things, but it takes less willpower to be motivated and self-disciplined when we have good habits. So helping your kids develop good habits will help make being motivated and self-discipline easier for them.