Difficult Topics, Executive Functions Training, Great for All Ages, Motivating the Unmotivated, School Advice, The Happy Student Podcast, The Procrastination Problem, Use Your Summer Wisely

#106 3! 2! 1! Blastoff! How To Get to Work

If your kid doesn’t believe in getting started on homework as soon as possible; if procrastination is a problem; and if tasks are often left to the last minute, your child most likely struggles with the executive function skill called task initiation. Fireborn’s here to help with 8 tips for building task initiation skills this summer!

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IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT…

It’s hard to get started working. Most of us have to use at least some willpower to stop doing something fun in order to start doing something not fun, but necessary. 

Another problem that can lead to procrastination is anxiety. If you are scared you don’t know how to do the homework, you may want to avoid it. And then you avoid it for so long that there is no possible way to finish it in time and you’ve done two things: 1. You’ve reinforced this belief that you didn’t know how to do the work, so now you are scared for tomorrow night’s homework. Or 2. You don’t really have to blame yourself because you didn’t have enough time to finish and if you had, then you might be able to tell yourself that you could have done it. Therefore keeping your pride intact. 

The summer is the perfect time to practice building those task initiation skills because the stakes are lower. Once you’ve got some task initiation skills and you go back to school when there is more pressure, you’ll already have some skills developed.

Today we are going to talk about finding ways to practice this executive function skill over the summer. 

  • Your child can practice with any reading lists, math packets, or stuff like that from school. 
  • If your child is going to camp and there is homework or practice for something like a play. 
  • Or maybe your child is taking swim lessons or tennis lessons – practicing at home like juggling a tennis ball on the racket could be seen as “homework”. 

You can set some goals at the beginning of the summer with your child. These goals should be child-generated. Having fun this summer is definitely an important goal. And then you can figure out what your child plans on doing to have fun. From there, talk with your child about some other goals. Just because these are things your kid wants to do, doesn’t mean they will actually be good at leaving video games behind to do it. So it will require practicing task initiation, at least at some point.

You can teach your child these 8 task initiation tips.

1. Use a “Rocketship Countdown”. 

  • Simply countdown like they do with rocketships, “3, 2, 1, blastoff!” and on “blastoff” you “blastoff” and go do whatever it is you need to get done. 
  • Being enthusiastic can be really helpful. 
  • Modeling it for your kid can encourage them to just do it too.

2. Create a music playlist for work time

  • Build a music playlist that does not have any words. Words in the music can take away brain power from reading and other verbal skills you need during homework time. 
  • Every time they are working on something, play the playlist. The playlist will eventually become a habit – it will cue that it is time for work and will help your child get into the working mindset. 

3. Develop routines. 

  • The nice thing about routines is that we don’t have to think about them – we just do them. So, if you can start making some work routines this summer, and the cues are the same in the school year, it can help them just work when they are cued.
  • Cues can be things like… 
    • the time of day, 
    • a sound, 
    • or a set of activities.

4. Work in short bursts with breaks

  • The thought of working for an unknown quantity of time can be intimidating. If your child just has to work until “it’s finished” – that can really dissuade them from wanting to get down to business because who knows how long that could take. 
  • They are also more likely to realize that the work is not as bad as they thought and they might get on a roll and keep going for longer, but maybe not and that’s okay too.

5. Preview the work and then take a break

  • By suggesting that your child just preview the work and not actually do any of it, you remove a lot of potential stress about how difficult the work will actually be. 
  • While they are having fun taking a break, their brain is still thinking about how to approach the work. So then when it’s time to get back to work, they already have some ideas on what to do, making it easier to just get started again.

6. Start using “Brain Breaks”

  • As Stacy Vernon from the Center for Brain Health writes, you need to “take frequent brain breaks to ‘recharge’ your mental energy.” Pushing yourself beyond the point of mental exhaustion stresses the brain. 
  • Building in brain down-time every day helps alleviate the stress that builds up throughout the day and can result in a feeling of mental exhaustion and low-level anxiety. 
  • Consider the 5 x 5 method, “taking 5 minutes of down time 5 times throughout the day.” Spend these times doing something that is relaxing to you! These brain breaks are meant to be times of zero effort thought – not zero thought at all.”

7. Use explicit instructions. 

  • When you have clear goals and steps to achieve the goals, it’s much easier to get started on the first step. 
  • You can help your child by giving them explicit instructions when you ask them to do stuff and by going through any assignments, cooking instructions, engineering project instructions (like Legos) with them ahead of time and answering any questions they have about what they mean, or showing them what those instructions mean. That will give them practice understanding what it looks like to follow instructions or to figure out the steps based on what is assigned. 

8. Figure out if you should do the hard stuff or the easy stuff first.

  • Talk to your child about what you prefer to do and point out opportunities that they have to figure it out for themselves. 

Resources:

Brain Breaks

Center for BrainHealth

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When It Isn't Negotiable and How to Get Their Homework Done!
The Procrastination Problem

When It Isn’t Negotiable and How to Get Their Homework Done!

 

We offer our kids choices after choices to give them a sense of autonomy and to make the day run a bit smoother.

Do you want to wear a white shirt or the blue shirt?

Do you want to color or play with the blocks?

Do you want carrots or peas with dinner?

Do you want to do Spanish or German lessons after school?

Do you want to practice the guitar for 30 minutes and then do homework or do you want to start your homework first?

Do you want to start with your history reading or your math homework?

But there is one thing that is not negotiable: Homework must get done.

Despite this being “non-negotiable,” homework often does not actually get done.

Instead, our kids procrastinate. They play video games or Snapchat with their friends. When we ask them (or maybe even yell at them) to do homework, we hear “5 more minutes!” in response. By the time kids actually sit down in front of their schoolwork, they do not know where to start, or it is so late that, even though they had enough time to finish their work, they no longer do. This routine, left untreated, can continue for what seems like an eternity and can also escalate into serious arguments between you and your child.

What is a parent to do?

Talk with your child. 

“Jack, I have noticed that recently you have had a difficult time completing your homework. I know that you are capable of doing your homework. I have noticed that you start your homework so late that you do not have enough time to finish. Then when you turn in your homework, it is not your best work, and you do not get the grade you deserve. I imagine that is very frustrating. What do you think?”

Once your child agrees that you have an accurate understanding of the situation, move on to brainstorming.

“So what do you think we can change about our current system to make it easier for you to get your homework started earlier in the evening?”

Wait for his ideas. Try to figure out how at least one of them could work.

Jack says, “I do not have enough free time after school. I’m always working! I need more playtime.”

So perhaps you say, “Okay. Typically you have one hour of free time after school before you start doing your homework. How about we change that to an hour and a half hours of free time? We can try it for one week. However, if homework is not done, then we will try one of my ideas.” (If he actually starts homework after an hour and a half, then he will actually be starting earlier than he has every other day!)

Have some of your own ideas ready to suggest now, but only try them out next week if the homework situation stays the same. 

If the homework situation improves but is not completely perfect, adjust the new routine. Ask for their input. Try to make that work first. Then you can offer up some of your own ideas. Perhaps they need a snack after free time as part of the transition back to school mode. Have them work in the kitchen so that after their snack, they are already in their study space. Let them come up with solutions and give their choices when it comes to the means, but the end is always the same: homework gets done.

Back to School Prep, Difficult Topics, Executive Functions Training, Middle School, Motivating the Unmotivated, The Procrastination Problem

The Procrastination Problem and Your Future Lazy Self

A common technique when training children to plan, organize, manage their time effectively, and self-regulate (all of which are executive functions skills), is to ask them to picture their future selves. What is your future self doing? How is your future self feeling? If I want my future self to be done with homework and relaxing this evening, then what do I need to do? I need to plan my time accordingly and then I need to execute my plan. If I am able to picture what “being done with homework and relaxing” means and looks like, then I am better able to plan and execute that plan to achieve my goal.

This future self is done with work, all packed up for school tomorrow, and feels great that I have the freedom to chat online to my heart's content until bedtime!
This future self is finished with homework, has an organized backpack all packed up for school tomorrow, and feels great that she has the freedom to chat online to her heart’s content until bedtime!

Without this picture of my future self, it is much harder to figure out the steps necessary to reach my goal, making it that much more difficult to motivate myself to start working. My goal is fuzzy, so I am more likely to procrastinate and do fun things.

THE PROCRASTINATION PROBLEM

According to psychology professor Dr. Timothy Pychyl, “The essence of procrastination is ‘we’re giving in to feel good,'” (Wang, 2015). It is tied to impulsiveness, “a tendency to act immediately on urges” (and not perfectionism as most people expect) (Wang, 2015).

Part of this impulsiveness and difficulty delaying gratification may be related to “temporal myopia” whereby a person has a hard time clearly picturing his future self and how his current decisions affect that future self. “Their vision of their future selves is often more abstract and impersonal, and they’re less connected emotionally to their future selves. Temporal myopia may be largely due to their higher levels of stress which can shift their focus to more immediate rather than distant concerns” (Wang, 2015). Because she has a vague vision of her future self and that self feels emotionally distant, a person with temporal myopia tends to give in to her impulses, seek relaxation now, and push work and stress to “later”.

How I feel about myself when I do procrastinate.
How I feel about myself when I procrastinate.

To combat this pattern, executive functions coaches work with kids on picturing that future self more clearly and creating a closer emotional connection to that future self, by asking questions like “How will it feel when…” and by pointing out that the uncomfortable feeling (dread) of having work hanging over his head will go away faster if work is done now instead of later.

Executive Functions Coach, Paige Davis, pushes that connection to her learners’ future selves even further – she asks them to “Picture your future lazy self.

YOUR FUTURE LAZY SELF

I love that adjective because it is so true. Often we actually tell ourselves that our future selves will be more productive than our current selves are. I do that almost every day when I write my To Do list for the following day. But my future self is just as lazy as my current self and my future self is often mad at my current self for thinking otherwise.

How I feel about myself when I do not procrastinate and then I can be lazy later.

By calling my future self “lazy”, I am strengthening my connection to that self because it is both humorous and true and I can easily picture a lazy me in the future. If that lazy me is stress-free because I have completed all of my work, that is even better.

The problem is my current self has a much stronger connection to me than my future self and I want to relax now! However, if I am able to delay gratification, if I can self-regulate and control my impulses, if I can picture my future lazy self and plan and execute the plan, that future self will be even happier than my current self with a break. My current self with a break has anxiety over starting work and that future self has the stress of being overwhelmed by work. Without that break for my current self, I avoid a lot of stress and get to the future relaxed self faster.

Dr. Pychyl along with collaborators Dr. Piers Steel and clinical psychologist and doctoral student Alexander Rozental suggest reminding yourself (or your learner) that “Putting off the task won’t make it more enjoyable” (Wang, 2015). I would add that putting off the task will actually make it less enjoyable because you feel bad while you are procrastinating. With that knowledge plus a clear picture of your future lazy self, it is harder to put off work.


References:

Branstetter, R. (2014). The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Executive Functioning Disorder. Adams Media: Massachusetts.

Davis, P. (2015) Personal communication.

Wang, S. (2015). To stop procrastinating, start by understanding the emotions involved. The Wall Street Journal. 

Ward, S. & K. Jacobsen (2013). Executive Function Skills – Practical Strategies. Cognitive Connections.