Friday, October 29, 2010

Procrastination and real consequences

There's a decent body of research that shows that the way around procrastination is to commit to doing something at a particular time, in a particular place. Once our brains have visualized the what and when and where, our followthrough rate increases dramatically. So if I need to work on a project that I really would rather avoid, the trick is to say to myself, "After lunch I will get a cup of tea and sit at the end of the sofa and begin writing." Specificity saves the day.

Teaching kids to overcome the tendency to procrastinate is another thing. It's a hard concept when they're too young to have a real sense of time, or of tradeoffs. Saying, "If you spend your time playing now, you won't have time to do X later" is way too abstract -- and who cares about later when you're six?

I have no research to support this, but I suspect there's something about not being the center of Mom's attention that brings on a veritable plague of procrastination.Today I spent half an hour reading Beowulf aloud to Dancer. Little Guy -- who had to fold his laundry and put it away and get dressed before starting his school work -- was suddenly unable to stay on task for more than 27.5 seconds.

This kind of thing can make me nuts. And yet, what kind of nut am I to think that a six year old boy is going to follow through on a series of tasks, unsupervised, while Mom pays attention to someone else? Who's really the source of the problem here?

Time passed, progress was slow, and we had to leave at 11:15 to take Snuggler to speech therapy. From there we were heading directly to our last medieval arts class. Little Guy loves the medieval class, and today they are doing their performance of Chanticleer. And so I did something I often do when there's a big I-wanna-do-it sitting out there later in the day: I told him that we would go, but he wouldn't go into class until his work was finished. He would sit outside the class until he was done with his math and his reading and his writing.

This is far more effective than saying we won't go. I came up with this approach because I needed a legitimate consequence that does not punish my other kids. And I find that the mere fact of being on the way lends a level of gravity to the situation that I can't generate at home. And finally and most importantly, this approach makes getting the work done my child's problem, not mine. He wants to go to medieval class, and -- "No, I did not say you could finish your work on the way home; I said you could sit outside class until you were done" -- he will figure out how to do what he has to do.

Which he did. He carried and borrowed his way through his math problems as the train clattered downtown, then swerved his way down the sidewalk reading his Magic Treehouse book. And just as we arrived at medieval class he finished the last chapter.

"Mommy, would you really have made me sit out?" he asked. I looked him in the eye, and raised an eyebrow.

Yes. Yes, I would. Because the only way one learns to be efficient is if there are real consequences to procrastination. And besides, I knew that at worst he'd miss ten minutes of class.

1 comment:

  1. I would concur on the not being at the center of Mom's attention business. I totally see that happen.