The Power of Forgetting and an Introduction to Procrastinators Anonymous

Nobody ever, having just given birth, started talking about subsequent labor to produce siblings for the newborn. "I'll never do this again" or the less articulate "You'll never touch me again" are more often heard in labor and delivery. A big head relative to birth canal size may be an adaptive advantage, but the mother to be isn't thinking about anthropology. Similarly, no one ever finished a marathon saying, "Can't wait for the next one." A unanimous chorus of "I'll never do that again!" is heard at the finish line, along with "What was I thinking?" and Lance Armstrong's eloquent, "That was the hardest physical thing I've ever done."

Nike capitalized on this feeling the day after the New York Marathon with a full page print ad in the Times: “Today you may feel like you'll never run a marathon again. See you next year.”

And forgetfulness is a good thing too. Otherwise nobody would have a little brother or sister and no one would ever experience the transcendence of running a second marathon.

For many of my students though, forgetfulness hurts rather than helps them. "I'll never wait until the last minute to get started writing a paper again." "I'll never stay up late again with an early class the next day." "I'll never play 14 hours of 'Blood, Blood, Blood, Shoot, Shoot, Shoot, Kill, Kill, Kill' again when I have a test to study for." "I'll never worship the porcelain God again because I drank alcohol." "I'll never drop a class again because I didn't study." "I'll never again spend my entire inheritance, lose my wife and children, and end up living at a homeless shelter because of my addictions."

How is it that savvy students with strong academic profiles can repeatedly make the same bad choices and get the same poor results? How is it that good kids from good families who have had all the advantages that economic and emotional support can provide can make the same mistakes day after day?

I'm going to ignore drugs and alcohol--equal opportunity destroyers--and direct my attention to procrastinators, bright enough kids who don't start off studying, writing, producing until and unless they are at the brink of failure. "I'll just shoot ten more free throws," "I'll just watch one more episode," "I'll just play one more level."

Don't tell me about the kid who "can't work unless there's pressure" and "always pulls it out at the last minute." Like natural curve ball pitchers and shepherds, I hear more about those students than I actually see them. And in any case, they don't need any help from me. I'm interested in the kids who can, but doesn't. The kid who is shooting himself in the foot, the "bright but unorganized" kid, the kid about whom teachers and parents say, "she has the ability, but at the last minute she always finds a way to fail."

Here's what doesn't work with these kids: Punishments and rewards, threats and promises, coercion and cajoling, bribes and consequences, carrots and sticks. (The research is less clear about broccoli but carrots are clearly ineffective.*) Most of these kids would do better if they could.

Here's a story I haven't heard in 30 years of teaching and counseling: "Susie was getting Cs in all her classes junior year--wasn't studying enough--so we promised her that if she started doing her homework we'd buy her an ice cream and the next day she had straight As across the board and was accepted to her first choice college."

Kids who put off for tomorrow what they will then put off for the following week don't respond to external controls. Most of them know how to study, they just don't know how to get started studying. They have phrases like "attention deficet disorder" and "executive functioning" in their paperwork. Their backpacks and notebooks are dishelved and unorganized. They mean well; they just don't do well. And what is clear is that they do not learn from experience.

How do loving parents and concerned educators help these kids to become effective learners? "Kids with Damanged Time Management Centers" is the subject of a subsequent newsletter.

Until then,

* Vegetable metaphor joke. Sorry.

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