Tuesday, September 15, 2015

But Mom, I am just checking email...

I actually planned to write this article yesterday but then I received an email from a client and had to answer it right away. After sending off the email I realized my coffee mug was empty so I had to get that refilled of course. Can't function without coffee. The coffee in the pot was lukewarm which got me thinking about those fancy Nespresso machines. Each cup made to order so I guess you always get a hot cup of coffee. Sitting back down at my computer I opened up Amazon (just out of curiosity) and started checking out the prices and reviews.  $200 for the machine and 80 cents a capsule!!?? Maybe next quarter... Closing the Amazon window I noticed that it was almost noon, time for lunch.

Does any of the above sound familiar? According to a study by Dr. Piers Steel, one of the leading researchers on procrastination, 80-95% of college students procrastinate... which means that 5 to 20% of college students lie to survey takers. Everyone procrastinates. The difference is whether the procrastination is chronic or not and whether it is affecting one's job or life.

I touched on this subject in my last article about study habits. There has been some buzz in the last few years about the benefits of putting things off thanks to Frank Partnoy's book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay . He points out the possible benefits for business people and entrepreneurs of waiting until the last minute to make decisions. While there are some interesting (and appealing) ideas there, the need for students to get things done remains high. Kids who get their work done ahead of time are more likely to get better grades in school. They have more time to review, are less likely to rush through the work, and may even have a window of time when they can confirm with a teacher that they are answering the questions correctly. Better grades in high school means acceptance to a better college which increases our kid's chances of finding a job. I know what you are saying now, "Sure, we all know putting things off is bad but what can we do about it? My spouse and I still procrastinate ourselves and apart from screaming at our kids and taking away their video games, how can we teach them to do their work first and postpone playtime?"

The first and most important point is for all of us to remember that procrastinating is normal. Self-regulation is related to the actual physical development of young brains and often we just need to wait (that word again) for them to grow up. So, cut them some slack, they may actually be trying really hard to follow our instructions (if not our bad example). Here are some additional steps we can take to encourage the right habits.

For younger kids, phrasing chores in more concrete terms can help. Dr. Sean McCrea found in his study that asking your daughter to pick up her legos was more effective than telling her to clean her room. This reminds me of the rules for goal setting; break a larger goal into smaller more achievable ones. Setting mini goals of either time or content can help for both toddlers and teenagers. Encourage your son to concentrate on first writing 100 words of his 450 word essay without getting up rather than yelling at him to finish it.

Remove distractions. This is good advice for all ages. It is much more difficult these days with the internet and smart phones but we can still try to make the environment more conducive to getting work done. Start with turning everything off that is not connected to the homework. TV, phone, Wifi (no email, skype, youtube, etc). Interestingly, I would have thought that working near a window would increase the chances of getting distracted. While that be true, studies of office workers showed that sitting by a window actually increased productivity.

Finally, set a good example. If you have something that needs to be done, let your kids know what it is and how important it is. Tell them how you would much rather be doing something else but that this is your job much like being a good student is their job. They watch us all the time, even (especially?) the teenagers, so give them the right model to copy.

By the way, for those readers who are counting, this is article 100.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

From 9th grade to 2nd grade - Study Habits

Today is the day. He is off to his first year of high school and therefore only 4 short years from graduation and college (hopefully!!). I am still taller than him and can do more pull ups in a row than he can but how much longer will that last? When did my little boy suddenly become a young man? Along with the emotional turbulence from pride in his growth and maturity conflicting with the wish that I could still carry him on my shoulders is the anxiety about how the next 4 years will impact his future. In the oft quoted book (at least here on my site), How Children Succeed, the author points out that success in college is very closely linked to a child's GPA in HS (regardless of the quality of that HS). This is contrary to the theory behind standardized testing which puts a premium on SAT scores. The explanation for this statistic is that a good GPA is achievable only through discipline and good study habits. Both of which are important to doing well in college and graduating. So while today is all about my growing 14 year old and his new adventures, I find myself thinking more and more about my daughter. She also starts this week but is only a 2nd grader. We have 7 more grades with her to get her ready for HS. To be completely mercenary and quantitative about goals, what can I be doing NOW with her to help her get a better GPA when she goes to HS?

As with any goal planning process, we start with the quantitative goal (in this case let's say a 4.0 GPA at the end of HS for my daughter) and then break it down. To get a 4.0 she will need an A in every class. Typically, to get one A, she will need to be able to reproduce 90% of what is required on any sort of graded work for that class (tests, reports, homework). lists 3 steps to getting the grade: 1) Be motivated. Find something that drives you to get the work done. 2) Stay organized. 3) Develop good study habits. In my view, being organized could easily fall under "good study habits" so there are really only 2 steps. Motivation is a big one so let's procrastinate like we tell our kids not to do and leave that for a future article. Study habits are much more concrete. If we include organization, the good study habit list is something like this:

  1. Be organized
  2. Attend class and be on time
  3. Review
  4. Don't procrastinate
  5. Break large projects into smaller ones
  6. Give yourself plenty of time
The common myth about habits is that it takes 21 days to make one. However, the non-anecdotal studies have shown it can take up to 8 months depending on all sorts of factors. Hopefully we can make some progress in 7 years! This buffer also allows us to break down our big project of teaching my daughter study habits into smaller projects. For example, I don't think she will be getting any multi-week homework assignments in 2nd grade requiring her to create a project plan for completion. Also, attending class and being on time are largely out of her control at age 7. Perhaps this year we can work on organization and procrastination. 

We actually started last year with some lessons in being organized mainly because my daughter wanted to be just like her big brother who has a homework pad to keep him on track. She wanted one of her own so we designed and printed one out together. Which reminds me, I need to make an updated one for my son as well! You can see last year's version below. Simple, her own design, easy to use.
Procrastination is a more difficult challenge. Number 5 on the list, piano, is easily her least favorite subject. I think it is because practicing the piano is not a chore that is easy to evaluate. Is it OK to set a time and as long as she is plunking away at the keys she can stop at the end of that time? Apparently not. As Gladwell pointed out, deliberate practice is what is needed to improve. Deliberate practice when it comes to the piano is more qualitative than quantitative so it is harder to judge when enough is enough. So, with that 7 year window in mind, maybe we can work on a better way of encouraging her to stop putting off her piano practice to the end of the day. If we can get past procrastination in the 2nd grade I have high hopes for tackling the rest of the study habits in grade 3!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Can my daughter be the next Carly? Should I want her to be?

Carly Fiorina graduated from Stanford University (medieval history major!) and holds a Masters from MIT. She was CEO of HP, ran for the US Senate, chairs and supports several non-profit organizations, was diagnosed, treated for, and beat cancer, and is now running for President of the United States. At one time named the most powerful woman in business by Fortune Magazine, she is now hoping to become the most powerful woman in the world.

Whether you disagree with Carly's political views or believe that she made the wrong choices for HP while acting as CEO, it is hard not to be impressed with her achievements. HP is one of the biggest companies in the world. At the time of Carly's leadership, it was in the top 20.

Years ago, at my sister's graduation from Barnard College, the Managing Editor for the Weekend Edition of the New York Times (a prestigious position) gave the commencement speech. I remember her telling the all female graduating class that while her rise to the top of her field was rewarding, she had also made sacrifices on the way. Her message to the young women was, "You can't have everything. Along the way, everyone needs to make choices."

When I began researching more about Carly to write this article I expected to find a similar sentiment. While she certainly rose up through the ranks of business, she must have made choices that she regretted, right? Being powerful is a nice achievement but is she happy? I found myself wondering if this is a life I would wish on my own daughter? Is the price one has to pay for fame and fortune worth it?

For anyone to climb the corporate ladder, long hours, dedication, persistence, and an understanding of company politics are just the beginning. Even to be considered for the top job in a Fortune 100 company means that you have already had an impressive and successful career. Carly no doubt has proven that she is dedicated, ambitious, and intelligent. She took on challenging roles and showed that she was capable of handling them.

In her autobiography from 2006, Tough Choices: A Memoir, she talks about advising a fellow employee with the following:
You cannot sell your soul. Don’t become someone you don’t like because of the pressure. Live your life in a way that makes you happy and proud. If you sell your soul, no one can pay you back.
This does not sound like someone who wishes her life had turned out differently. She goes on to say that she has no regrets. While I don't know for sure if she is "happy", I believe that she is satisfied with her life and is confident in the choices she made. Add to that ambition and belief in herself. "Yes" I would like my daughter to be the next Carly.