After “mama” and “dada,” “I don’t want to” is the next handy phrase kids learn. This is just a heads up that as soon as toddlers transition to big kid beds, they’ll refuse to make that bed. Tim Pychyl, a research psychologist with the Carleton University Procrastination Research Group, says there’s a reason we all waste so much precious time, and he has a scientific method to counteract it. Pychyl’s done a little independent research on his kids, and found that productivity hacks for the younger set are simple — you just have to start doing them.
Kids Hate Doing Stuff Because They’re Kids
Procrastination and prefrontal cortex development are linked. The prefrontal cortex is that magical brain tissue that gives humans self-regulation and good decision-making power. The good news is that children grow out of it; the bad news is that happens sometime after they leave for college. Right about the time grads are supposed to send out resumes is when the brain start to mature (although results may vary). More good news: You have 20ish more years to help them develop good habits.
Doing Nothing Feels Good
Pychyl calls procrastination an “emotion-focused coping strategy.” To non-psychologists, that means your emotional brain recognizes you don’t like doing something, and tells you you’ll feel better if you don’t. “It’s hedonistic. It fits right into a kid’s M.O.,” he says. When adults put off everything from taxes to emptying the dishwasher, it’s because it feels better than doing the actual task. Same with kids. But, unlike you, they’re unable to see the big picture of why things need to get done.
Authoritarian Parents Produce Procrastinating Kids
Research points to that fact that kids of authoritarian parents have a hard time self-regulating. When they’re not given a chance to make their own decisions, kids will either a) rebel passive aggressively by saying f–k it because they can never live up to their parents high demands; or b) go about doing the tasks without ever internalizing why what they’re doing is important. The former is bad because nothing gets done; the latter is bad because you’re raising an automaton with no values of their own.
5 Ways To Train Procrastination Out Of Your Kids
1. Stop Making A Big Deal Out It
Pychyl’s 8-year-old son didn’t want to make his bed, so Pychyl made it for him while his son counted. It took 6 seconds. This is either textbook Tom Sawyer-ing from that kid, or a brilliant strategy. Pychyl taught his son to visualize the task and realize that his perception (this will take forever) contrasted with the reality (this takes less time than making a Pop Tart). “We need to help them a lot because, for the most part, we’re asking of them something very developmentally challenging,” he says. You’ve only won until they ask why it doesn’t take 5 seconds.
2. Identify The Next Action At Each Stage
Kids know that cleaning up LEGOs is Sisyphean task (even if they’re hazy on who Sisyphus is). Much like the plastic bricks themselves, break it down into smaller parts. For example, have them collect the big bricks. Next, get them to pick up all the jagged accessory parts that kill your feet. Finally, put that container on the shelf and never speak about it again. It’s less overwhelming than the vague, “go clean your room.”
3. Don’t Break The Task Down Too Much
Note that bite-size is different from crumb-by-crumb. You don’t want a task to become counterproductive by breaking it down into too many component parts. When steps get granular (pun absolutely intended) the focus goes from the next thing, to all those things in between. That’s about the time a kid’s body goes limp in existential protest.
4. Get Them Started Early (In The Day)
If Mark Twain were alive today, he’d probably be a folksy guy in a white suit speaking at TEDxHannibal about productivity hacks. Pychyl points to Twain’s famous quote, ”If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning,” as the best excuse for being morning people. “We have to teach kids that willpower is a limited resource,” he says. Have them to tackle a difficult chore first thing, instead of when they’re mentally drained after school. Unless that chore is setting the dinner table.
5. Structure Builds Good Habits
Pychyl’s trained his kids well. When they come home from school, they put their backpacks and shoes away, put their lunch boxes in the kitchen, and start their homework. This isn’t because he has awesome robot kids (or does he?); it’s because this is the routine that Pychyl established early on. Sure, he builds in 20 minutes of TV to de-stress, but he also established some mental muscle memory for them. “If you have to think, you’re doomed,” he says.