Why It’s so Hard to Switch from Play to Homework

A child playing video games

Most students who struggle to get their homework done do the following: They get home from school and go straight into play; later, they find themselves unable to transition from having fun to doing homework.

This is akin to eating dinner, then eating dessert, and then trying to eat a salad. Now, I happen to like salad, and this still sounds terrible to me.

Get the order right.

Think of the main meal (dinner) as school, the follow-up health food (salad) as homework, and the after-dinner treat (dessert) as playtime. That’s the logical order to consume these things. You might want to go from dinner to dessert without eating salad, but you would never want to go from dinner to dessert to salad.

The idea here is not that salad is gross. It’s not. And neither is homework. But transitioning from dessert to salad just feels wrong, which makes it very unlikely to happen. Likewise, transitioning from video games or playing with your friends to doing homework makes math problems and history reading seem kind of gross.

So start your homework right after school. Then play.

What about the need for a break?

You spent all day at school, so you deserve some time off to have fun or at least relax, right?

It turns out, this is less about what you deserve than it is about what’s functional. And you did actually get a break after school. The travel home from school was a break. If you ate a snack when you got home, that was a break too.

If you’re still feeling tired and burned out from the long school day, take a nap or go for a walk. Get some actual brain rest. Hopping onto Discord or YouTube or your Xbox isn’t brain rest; it’s just entertaining stimulation. And, more importantly, it’s dessert before salad.

a chocolate cupcake

Of course you want to go play. Having fun will always be more appealing than homework, just as dessert will usually be more appealing than salad. That’s why it’s so hard to choose homework over play. So I’m not saying it will be easy to do homework first. I’m saying it will be less difficult than the alternative: trying to transition from play to homework later.

What about weekends?

The same principle applies here too. Start with homework. Ideally, finish your homework. That way, you won’t have to make the rough transition from playing to studying.

Imagine waking up on a Saturday morning and grinding out the two hours of homework you have for the weekend. Pretty rough, right?

But now imagine how you’ll feel afterward. You’ll have the whole weekend ahead of you with no more schoolwork to do.

a child clenching a fist triumphantly with the caption "Freedom!"

And as you go play, you won’t have to repeatedly pay the thinking cost of procrastination – that nagging feeling that you ought to be doing something else. I bet you’ll feel a sense of pride too. It’s obviously a tough choice to make, but you certainly won’t regret it.

What does homework-first look like from your brain’s perspective?

Doing homework first sends a powerful signal to your brain about what’s important to you. Doing homework right after school or first thing on a weekend morning says to your brain, “Hey! This matters. It’s a priority.” And your brain will respond to that message in a couple of helpful ways:

  1. Because you will have convinced your brain to care, it will devote more resources toward understanding and remembering the concepts you’re learning.
  2. It will make it easier to reengage the work later because your brain will want to finish what you’ve started.

That’s right, you don’t have to finish your homework immediately to benefit from this strategy. If you put in 5-15 minutes right after school or first thing Saturday morning, it’ll be easier to return to the work later.

This operates on a different principle than the dessert-salad theorem. Doing at least some of your homework immediately sends your brain a message about what your priorities are. The signal reads: Homework comes first and is therefore important. Having heard that message, your brain will put up less of a fight later when you get around to finishing the work.

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