We know lead dominos come in all forms. Sometimes they take the form of a task, other times the form of an action, or even a process.
For many of us, work or school is the driving force behind our overwhelm. There’s often a big project to start, a paper or proposal to write, or a test to study for. We have to remember—the lead domino for any of those scenarios is just the one thing we can do that will give us some momentum.
Here are some frequent scenarios our students encounter:
There’s an assignment due at the end of the week and you’re confused about the instructions.What’s the lead domino?Send an email.
Teachers and professors want to help you succeed. They definitely don’t want to see you fail just because you misunderstood part of an assignment. Reach out to ask for clarification, come into office hours, or even schedule a Zoom call if that would expedite the process and be more convenient. (Side note: make sure the clarifications around the instructions are documented somewhere, like in a notebook or on a Google Doc—you don’t want to have to email them a few hours later to ask again.) Asking clarification questions can save you from HOURS of work wasted on guessing. Not emailing, on the other hand, could cost hours of your future time as you redo the assignment, or the cost could be the hit your grade will take due to the points deducted. By sending this email, you’re also showing the instructor that you care about their class and your academic success overall, helping to establish a positive student/teacher relationship.
You have a test coming up and you need to focus and study. What’s the lead domino? Create a clear workspace.
Notebooks, textbooks, flashcards, slideshows on your laptop—you have so many materials to sift through when preparing for an exam. They may all be helpful and necessary, but you know what’s not necessary? Yesterday’s half-full cup of coffee, the balled-up, dirty workout clothes on your chair, and pieces of an unfinished art project strewn across your desk. There’s no room for the materials you need, so take a minute to clean your space before you jump into studying. This will save you from wasting time searching for missing flashcards in the midst of scrapbook paper, or frantically cleaning up cold coffee when it inevitably spills on your notes. Take a minute to set yourself up in a clean environment, void of distractions.
Tasks are piling up, but you’re just spinning your wheels. Where do you start? What’s the lead domino?Write everything down.
It’s hard to prioritize effectively if you’re not looking at a full list of the things you have to accomplish. If you have limited time to complete a number of tasks, you can’t always dive in blindly and hope for the best. Write down every task, assignment, or action that needs to be done. Once it’s all written down, you have a clearer idea of what things already have fixed times (class at 12:30, soccer practice at 4), providing structure to build around. At that point, you have everything you need to map out a realistic plan!
Planning is the first thing we do at Untapped when we sit down with students. We take every assignment, test date, dentist appointment, and violin lesson of the week and assign them to the appropriate days. If we don’t write down a test date, we might forget to account for study time in the days leading up to the test. If we don’t write down a violin lesson, we could incorrectly assume the number of hours available to do homework that night. Creating a plan is one of the best lead dominos, on both micro and macro levels, when you find yourself needing to get started. Whether you’re looking at your week as a whole, or you just can’t bring yourself to get to work on a specific project, take a moment to make a plan and organize your thoughts. By structuring unstructured time and using effective tools to create routines and lists, you’ll be better prepared to tackle your tasks and achieve your goals.
When we talk about the lead domino with our students, it’s often in the context of school.
If you can finish the missed homework assignment in math from Monday, you’ll have a better, more complete understanding of that section, then you’ll be able to finish your review packet, which will set you up for focused studying material for the chapter test next week…
However, we face situations where our lead domino is something outside of academics or work; it’s actually just a small change we could implement in our everyday lives that would make things run more smoothly.
One of our favorite lead domino examples to help people start their day off on the right foot is the landing/launching pad. For adults, the landing pad is where we drop our wallet, keys, and sunglasses as soon as we walk in the door. When we leave, it becomes our launching pad. Because we’re taking the step to place our necessities in the same spot every time we come home, we aren’t scrambling the next time we head out the door. Everything is right where we left it, every time. We can simply scoop up those essentials and leave on time. For students, a launching pad can be an organized backpack sitting by the front door each morning. At night, if you and your student can take the time to pack their laptop, chargers, pencils, all binders, etc., and even make lunch before heading to bed, you can prevent the majority of conflicts that usually take over your mornings.
Another lead domino that can positively affect our day is exercise—we know that exercise is the miracle drug. Exercising helps us activate neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. When we find ourselves stuck, unmotivated, or overloaded, getting up to go for a 20-minute walk can change the trajectory of our whole day and our productivity. This exercise increases blood flow to the brain, triggers those neurotransmitters, and helps us concentrate. When we return to our to-do list, workload, or whatever it is that’s overwhelming us, we’ll find that our focus has improved significantly thanks to that exercise and its impact on our brain. When students are stuck on a homework assignment and have been sitting in front of a computer for too long, the action they need to take is entirely non-academic; they just need to get up and move.
One of the most important, and hardest, lead dominos that sets us up for success, is sleep. Sleep can dictate almost every aspect of our lives: focus, mood, energy level, etc. It has the power to positively or negatively define a day, or even a week. However, getting more sleep is never a quick fix. Behind better sleep is a routine that must be developed and maintained.
The lead domino can be, but does not always need to be, an action or a task that defines your whole day. It may simply be a choice that can help you move forward in a small series of events, and you probably have a few lead dominos that you could choose from that would all result in the same outcome—you just have to get started. Common examples of this include: jumping in the shower, making a cup of coffee, or choosing to face the one task you’ve been putting off that’s hanging over your head. All of these actions can help you move forward in a small way, but that little bit of momentum can make it easier to tackle the rest of your day. Two hold-ups we see, in both adults and in adolescents, are: struggling to follow-through with the lead domino, and getting caught between two actions and not being able to decide the best way to move forward.
For example: You’re trying to brush your teeth and get out the door to go grocery shopping. As you’re putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, you realize you have a load of clean laundry that needs to be moved from the washer to the dryer. So you put down your toothbrush to go flip the laundry, but on your way to the basement you stop to pick up and put away shoes that were a tripping hazard. As you’re putting them away, you notice some empty mugs on the coffee table, which reminds you that you haven’t had a single sip of water all morning. You pause for a minute to go grab and drink a nice, big glass of water. As you set the glass down, you remember the laundry, but you also remember that your toothbrush is sitting on the bathroom sink, locked and loaded for you to brush your teeth. What’s your next move?
Brush your teeth, flip the laundry—you just need to decide. Committing to that decision and moving forward will help propel you to achieve your original goal: getting out the door and making it to the grocery store.
Does this series of events sound familiar?
As parents, educators, or just trusted adults, we can get so focused on helping students succeed that we forget—everything we relay to our students also applies to us. We’re not above facing those daily challenges, they just typically don’t come to us in the form of math assignments. When we can apply our own advice to ourselves, we model real-world efforts and accomplishments for our students, showing them the effectiveness of our lead dominos outside of school.
Some days, we feel stuck. Maybe we have a clear to-do list with reasonable tasks, maybe we have a full page of high-priority items. In both scenarios, we can feel overwhelmed and find ourselves spinning our wheels. Why can’t we just pick something from the list and get to work?
In these moments, we debate if we should choose the easiest tasks just so we can knock them out quickly, or if we should start a harder, longer task that’s the source of some tangible anxiety. Instead of getting caught between these two options, we have a third: Find the lead domino.
Part 1: Identifying the Lead Domino
Take a step back. Look at your list. Maybe even look beyond your list. What one thing could you do that might positively impact the rest of your day? Maybe it’s not a work or school task, maybe it’s just jumping in the shower. Maybe it’s pausing to really prioritize your to-do list. Maybe it’s committing to not checking your phone, email, or other distractions that can pull your attention until the task with the nearest deadline is complete. Regardless of what your specific “lead domino” is, it has the power to positively impact your day. By knocking it down, you’ve opened yourself up to a strategy and system that can help carry you through the rest of your responsibilities. One domino knocks over the next, and the next, and the momentum is perpetuated in a chain reaction.
If you begin with a “lead domino” task, you can build the momentum needed to cross off the rest of your list items more easily—even if they are exponentially larger. Often, by achieving one key task on the list, the rest of the tasks will be significantly easier.
If you set up 13 dominos in a row, each domino one and a half times bigger than the one before, the first domino could be five millimeters tall and the last domino could be more than one meter tall and weigh 100 pounds. If you knock the first domino over, after just 13 “reactions,” the largest domino would topple over easily. We can apply this idea to our lists. The “lead domino” task is like the 5 millimeter domino; if you get this one accomplished, toppling the 100 pound domino at the end will be much easier than trying to push over the heaviest domino first.
How can we identify the lead domino?
Slow down: This may feel counterintuitive when the goal is to accomplish your long to-do list, but by slowing down and taking the time to examine which tasks will help achieve other tasks, you will make your systems more efficient. Taking the time to identify the lead domino allows us to re-evaluate priorities, reorganize your list, and maximize efficiency.
Ask yourself: How do these tasks relate to one another? How can you shift the order of your tasks to best maintain your momentum?
Make a new list: Based on the information you’ve observed, make a fresh list. For example: As a busy college student, creating an email template will help you cross off the three emails that you need to send to professors, allowing you to figure out what your missing assignments are, which then will let you get to work on those assignments. All of those tasks are grouped together and they depend on tipping over that lead domino: creating the email template.
Completing your lead domino may take awhile and be more tedious than you’d like, but by tackling this task first, the other tasks will be easier to complete going forward. Your lead domino could be anything from outlining a paper to going to the gym for a workout! Both of these activities are examples of lead dominos that give you the momentum to get your work (or your day!) started.
Procrastination: “the action of delaying or postponing something.” Your definition may be “the source of all my fights with my teenager.” It’s not a new topic, but it’s a conversation you can’t bear to have one more time. What can you do?
Behind your child’s defensiveness and your frustration is a reason—the source of the procrastination. Task initiation, time management, and attention are a few culprits that often fill that role.
We’re all familiar with time management and attention, but “task initiation” puts a name on a struggle that many can’t quite articulate. We all know the feeling of not being able to start something: a task we don’t want to do, an email we’ve been putting off. Task initiation isn’t just a lack of motivation—it’s an executive function (EF) skill that not everyone has. EF skills come naturally to many but must be learned by others.
Many diagnoses, such as ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, and depression, are known to be accompanied by EF challenges, including struggling to start a task. Neurotypical kids may also face some of these challenges, and that’s normal! But it’s up to us to help them build up the skills that aren’t as strong so they succeed academically and beyond.
What can a parent do when initiating a task is a struggle
When initiating a task is a struggle, it can stem from many underlying causes. If your child cannot bring themselves to start a project, try to sit with them and figure out where their avoidance is coming from.
If they’re in college, you might be on the receiving end of a panicked phone call…are they feeling overwhelmed by the weight of the project? Are they avoiding it because they don’t have an excellent grasp of the content? Are they preemptively nervous that their project won’t be good enough?
Feeling overwhelmed is common, but sometimes we forget what that felt like at 17 or 18. It felt like the world was crumbling down around us, and we couldn’t catch a break: too much to do and too little time. If we do poorly on this assignment, it could bring our grades down, and with it, our ability to get into a good college and get a good job, and — it’s paralyzing, and that can be hard to snap out of quickly.
If you find your child in this position, remind them that teachers and professors are regular people. They get overwhelmed too, and one quick email asking for an extension is worth preventing a multiple-hour meltdown.
Please work with your child to make a different game plan for next time, and try to figure out a system where they’re open to you, holding them accountable, but in a blame-free way. If you have the human resources available, see if there’s someone else they’d be ok with holding them accountable. With middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college-aged kids, accountability is often more well-received when it comes from someone other than a parent.
Overwhelm goes hand in hand with anxiety, which can be a huge driver of task initiation challenges. Anxiety knows precisely when the project is due. Anxiety has a pretty good grasp of what needs to be done. Every minute that passes on a Thursday night, before a Friday deadline, anxiety is thinking about the project that needs to be done.
There’s even a mental outline, maybe. At 9 pm, when we finally sit down to start the paper, the (often self-applied) pressure reaches an unbearable level. Whether we can turn it in before 11:59 pm or not, it’s taking a toll on our mental health, and we need to break this habit. When your child gets some help starting the paper, or the project, earlier in the week, this race against the clock doesn’t rear its head as aggressively.
Lack of understanding or learning differences
This part can be the hardest. Procrastination, skipping class, poor grades, and lying (a punch to every parent’s gut) can all stem from a lack of understanding in some capacity. This should NOT be mistaken for lack of intelligence!
This also doesn’t mean they’re unable to grasp a concept — they may just be struggling with class pacing or how content is presented (aurally, visually, etc.). Suppose you’re consistently getting last-minute project announcements from your high schooler (Mom, I have a DBQ poster due tomorrow for history. Do we have any poster board?) or tearful, 11 pm phone calls from your college student (panicking about a subject they’ve always loved). In that case, you may be wondering: What is the hold-up? Why are they putting this off? They’ve always loved history. What shifted?
This is an easy trap to fall into. Comparing your child’s previous interests and successes makes perfect sense to you; they’re incredibly smart and love learning, yet they’re struggling, and you can’t understand why. Sometimes you vocalize this to show how much faith you have in them.
Suppose they could only see themselves and their intelligence the way you do! You know they have “it” in them; you’ve seen “it” repeatedly. Your priority is to help them succeed; this feels like encouragement from a parent’s perspective.
What they hear, for better or worse, is this: You used to be so good in history. What happened?
They know they’re smart. They know that as soon as they grasp a concept, it’ll stick with them for the foreseeable future. But after hearing that they’re smart and have “got this,” your child can’t find the courage to tell you what’s happening: they’re trying to take notes fast and can’t always keep up. It’s tough to listen, look at the board, and write or type; when they get behind, they feel defeated.
Our kids, especially teens, are rarely going to share this information with us voluntarily. They’re sensitive, and they have assumptions about how we may react. They may feel ashamed that they can’t meet the made-up expectation they think you have.
So as much as you can, with no threats or punishments on the table, ask if there’s something you can help with. Task initiation is often the easiest area to support. For many students, that’s the biggest hurdle, and once they’ve begun, they’re good to go. But, even if that’s not the big hold-up, starting a project with them can give you insight into where the struggle is coming from.
Perfectionism is the enemy of procrastination. A perfectionist would rather avoid turning something in altogether than in something they’re not 100% happy with; their fear of failure has more control over them than they probably realize. A perfectionist with OCD may write and rewrite notes until they’re color-coded to their liking, and the handwriting is flawless.
If your child has perfectionist tendencies, they may spend significantly more time completing assignments than their peers. This is especially tough if they wait until the last minute to start assignments — see if you can work with them to set time limits on specific steps of projects and encourage them to start projects as soon as they get the rubric or instructions. If they finish the project before the deadline, once they’re through all of the steps, they can go back and “tweak” things until they’re more satisfied with their final result.
The goal is to avoid settling into an “all or nothing” mindset. “If I can’t do it right, I have no interest in doing it at all” is a hard attitude to change, but it’s not impossible.
Accountability and a nudge to get started are two significant steps to overcoming procrastination tendencies, especially those that stem from trying to start an assignment. However, if your child is away at college, you may not personally be able to provide that support.
If your teen is away at college and procrastinating, what can you do to help them?
1. Please encourage them to explore campus resources: Writing centers, subject matter tutoring, and multiple other resources are offered on campuses, and many are free. If they’re open to that support, help your child discover which resources are available at their institution.
2. Look into executive function coaching or academic coaching: Ask an expert! These coaches can help your child develop the strategies and tools they need to get through school and thrive in a professional setting.
3. Consult with a medical professional: If there are mental hurdles your child can’t quite tackle on their own, that’s ok. Medical professionals can have valuable insight into your child’s challenges and help them overcome those roadblocks.
There are many tips and tricks to help prevent procrastination. But before we can get into that nitty-gritty, we must get over the biggest hurdle: initiating the task or starting the project.
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Motivation—we throw this word around so often.
Some days we wake up motivated to power-clean the house. Some days we wake up feeling unmotivated and unready to work. When we feel unmotivated, we beat ourselves up about it. What was so different about the previous day? Why did we feel excited to get work done then, but not now?
Because, being motivated is not a personality trait. It’s an emotion.
We can’t fairly categorize kids (or ourselves) as permanently unmotivated or motivated. Motivation is a fleeting feeling. I can walk out of a meeting feeling motivated to start a project, and the following day when it’s time to actually begin the work, I’ve lost all that momentum and I get frustrated with myself for the “change of heart.” It’s easy to get down on yourself. People look ahead to their goals, and feel overwhelmed by the concept of the end results that could be achieved if only they were more motivated. But that’s not fair. We can’t get frustrated with someone when they’re sad, and motivation is no different. And we can’t get too frustrated with ourselves, or our students, for motivation that seemingly disappears. There’s something deeper that sparks feelings like motivation, or an issue that causes a lack thereof. What we can do, however, is set ourselves up better to succeed, and figure out what small steps we can take to gain ground in achieving our end goal: whether it’s a project, assignment, or an overwhelming amount of laundry.
Discipline, routines, and accountability are responsible for our work getting done. In the words of our friend and Boulder counselor, Nick Thompson, “people aren’t more motivated than you, they just have better routines.” When we have strong routines, there’s less of a will-power battle. We know what’s expected, and we condition ourselves to remove that internal fight and just do whatever it is we need to do. As adults, it can feel ridiculous when students decide to flip tables and stop doing expected things that were previously non-issues. We don’t always understand why they’ve made that decision, and why it feels impossible to get them back to their previous mindsets. View it from the perspective of you falling out of your workout schedule—it seems incredibly simple from the outside, but we all know there’s an inner battle going on that’s accompanied by a lot of solvable guilt. Taking away the physical structure of school and the routine of going to class in person has removed one huge consistency we all took for granted until March. That basically opened a trap-door for students to fall into. They probably didn’t jump down intentionally, but it can be really hard to pull them back up and out of the hole.
So, we’re left with routines and accountability. They go hand in hand—if students aren’t ready or able to hold themselves accountable to following routines, parents (and mentors!) get to step in and support them. I say “support,” but we know that often just means “fight about procrastination” etc. for families. For mentors, accountability “support” looks like a discussion to find out what drives them. As parents and mentors, we know our students, and we need to shed our frustration in order to have a productive conversation with them. If school doesn’t inspire them, what does? Sports? Successful athletes are incredibly disciplined, and maybe that’s the element that needs to be brought into the discussion. Encourage your student to take an athlete mentality into school and see what happens. Support them with the shift, and make sure they know you’re always on their team—even if (when) they slip up.
Motivation and anxiety have something big in common—both terms are overused. Instead of describing a student simply as “motivated,” be more specific. Are they goal-oriented? Are they driven? Are they hardworking and it pays off? We use anxiety too frequently as well. It’s too broad of a term to accurately describe what’s happening. Are you stressed about an upcoming deadline for a project you’ve procrastinated on? Are you overwhelmed by your workload in general? Are you apprehensive about meeting the family of a significant other? Too often, we categorize those occurrences as “feeling anxious.” It’s not untrue, but there are better ways to phrase it. Which brings us back to motivation: there are better ways to phrase that. We have to find the more specific issue that is preventing a student from being productive and focus on solving that problem.
The most common type of email we’ve been seeing this fall is from a panicked parent saying, “Remote learning has been a nightmare because my kid is so unmotivated to go to class and do any work.” First off, you’re not alone. This is a nationwide issue, and students with executive function challenges are affected by this more than many. But let’s chat about your student. What’s the part that’s frustrating them the most about remote learning? Is it not seeing big friend groups? Is it feeling misunderstood by teachers? Is it an intangible feeling of dread regarding global health, but they don’t quite know how to put that into words? One step at a time, figure out how to build up that “motivation” again by uncovering and addressing the more specific, underlying concerns. With no pandemic to blame, at one point in high school, I decided that Algebra 2 was feeling like more work than I wanted to put in. After years of zero missing assignments, I just decided to stop doing math homework for a few weeks. This was unprecedented in my academic career, and my mom found out because she ran into my math teacher at Safeway (Boulder is small), and my teacher expressed her concerns regarding the quantity of my missing homework assignments. What my mom quickly realized, after bringing that conversation home to me, was that math had gotten more fast-paced and I was lost. Once I slowly figured that out for myself (with some prodding from my parents and FAR more supervised homework sessions at the kitchen table), I was able to spend a few lunch periods with my teacher, catching up and getting back to where I needed to be. I wasn’t struggling with doing homework because I was unmotivated, I was struggling because I was encountering topics that were really hard for me, and I hadn’t felt that overwhelmed by new content before. I was embarrassed that I didn’t understand what we were learning; my defense mechanism of choice was total avoidance.
So, let’s stop referring to kids as motivated or unmotivated. Parents and mentors can work as a team to figure out what the underlying issues are with seemingly “unmotivated” students. We have to continue holding them accountable, but that goes beyond threatening them with less screen time if they don’t complete all of their assignments. That means supporting the routines we can encourage or control. That means before we get mad, we pause and look for underlying reasons to help us understand why they’re not following through on schoolwork. Overall, we have to stop using the idea of motivation as a measurement that contributes to student success. If kids keep hearing adults tell them that they’re not motivated, and how frustrating that is, it rarely has the desired effect of inspiring them to focus more on their schoolwork. And remember: just because they’re having a semester where they refuse to do homework does not mean they have no hope of growing up to be wonderful, driven adults.
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Now, more than ever, our students need consistency, direction, and routine where they can find it. What does that look like during this time of school closure?
In a time of uncertainty, what can you control?
First things first: move.
Pull up a yoga class on Youtube. Hop on a treadmill or stationary bike. Do some jumping jacks or push ups to break up the monotony of sitting. Screen time is increasing for all of us, many parents are working from home, and students are antsy. Movement breaks should happen throughout the day to help parents, students – everyone – to realign and refocus.
Make a plan, follow a routine.
How can we all use this time wisely? When a student has a routine, they aren’t constantly looking for a purpose or something to do; a routine allows a student to organize their life on a daily level. Research shows that routines decrease impulsivity and increase time management skills. Set some goals with your student for the next few weeks, and figure out what needs to happen each day to accomplish them. If the main goal is to read ahead in history, then create a morning routine that involves your student reading while their focus is engaged, and they haven’t been distracted by their day yet. For example, once your student is awake, they could:Brush their teeth
-Walk the dog
-Read for 30 minutes
-Make a quick outline of key points covered
-Vacuum their room
A routine can be more detailed than that, but it doesn’t have to be! Productivity early in the day gives you options (discipline = freedom, of course!). Routines open up a tremendous amount of time, and your student can run with that productive momentum start a (read a choice book, clean their room, start a DIY project) or take time to do whatever it is they want to do (play video games, scroll through Tik Tok, watch Netflix, you name it).
The flip side: when routines are off, things fall apart. When students with executive function challenges miss school due to illness, vacation, etc., it can take an inordinate amount of time for them to catch up and get “back on track.” This time out of school can be a blessing or a curse, and it’s up to us how we frame it.
How can Untapped help?
We’re here to support you. Although we can’t meet in person right now, mentors are available to chat with students, help them catch up if they’ve fallen behind in the semester, help them get ahead, and overall, help them maximize their time out of school. Meeting remotely with mentors, regardless of what your student’s grades look like, is important to student success and maintaining consistency (and a degree of normalcy). Reach out to your mentor if you have any questions about your student’s progress or if you need more specific tips regarding building a daily, non-academic routine.