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.

5 Surprising Skills Measured by Standardized Tests

A multiple choice test answer sheet

As we’ve said before, tests like the SAT, ACT, LSAT, ISEE, and SSAT are designed to differentiate. But people often mistake what they seem to test for with what they actually test for.

These exams appear to be measuring knowledge and intelligence, but they’re actually designed to test for several other – more important – things.

1. Mental Endurance

The exams are long.

Can you keep performing your best for several hours?

Why do they design them this way? Because earning a college degree involves long hours of mental labor, and the careers that come after university require mental endurance too.

An exhausted student napping at their desk

2. Persisting Through Boredom

In addition to being long, the exams are boring. (Some of the reading passages seem deliberately designed to induce yawns.)

Can you stay focused even though it’s not interesting?

Why do they make standardized tests boring? Because every major and every career involves at least some boring, tedious work, even if you’re pursuing a passionate calling.

3. Mental Flexibility

The questions aren’t always asked in the way you expect.

Can you still understand them?

The answers aren’t always presented in the way you expect.

Can you still determine the correct one?

Sometimes, your first approach fails, and a new one is needed.

Can you switch gears quickly?

Why do these exams demand mental flexibility? Because the world is a dynamic place where cognitive flexibility is an essential skill.

A thoughtful student considering how to solve a problem

4. Risk-Taking

Because the exams are difficult, you’ll be unsure about some (probably many) of the questions.

Can you engage anyway? Are you willing to try when you’re unsure if you’re doing it right?

Why do standardized exams test for risk-taking? Because life is full of uncertainty and learning requires risk.

5. True Mastery

Reading comprehension passages demand true understanding of the author’s intended meaning.

Have you been reading widely over the years? Have you been challenging yourself with difficult books and articles, both fiction and nonfiction?

a library

Math sections require that you’ve done both massed practice and interleaving, so you can quickly solve a wide variety of problems.

Have you been practicing mastery learning over the years? Or have you been faking your way through?

Why Standardized Tests Are Still Around

The fact that standardized exams measure these skills is one reason schools still use them. While they might seem outdated or irrelevant, the big-picture skills they test for are still very important for success in the modern world.

Why Good Studying is Like Learning to Ride a Bike

A small child riding a bike

What happens when you learn to ride a bike?

You don’t know how to balance yet, so you crash.


And then what happens?

Your brain gets upset about its inability to balance, and works on figuring it out.

The same thing happens when you do retrieval practice while studying and you make mistakes or can’t remember things. It’s unpleasant, maybe even painful to fail like this, but it convinces your brain that it needs to learn the material. Sometimes learning hurts.

Why do they say that some things are “like riding a bike?”

Because they’re not easily forgotten. If you mastered bike riding as a child, you’ll be able to do it for the rest of your life even if you take a long hiatus from bike riding.

Why is bike riding so memorable?

Because you learned the hard way, through the pain of trial and error. And because you put in many repetitions after you figured it out.

Learning science or Spanish is surprisingly similar. If you study the hard way – that is, actively, with writing and recall – you’ll figure it out. And if you then engage in spaced repetition, you’ll form lasting memories.

When should you put in the work?

Not everything you learn in school demands that level of mastery or retention. If you’re just taking Biology to get a science credit – with no intention of ever using that knowledge in the future – then it’s okay to just get by on short-term memories. You can cram for each test and do well, and you can cram for the final and do fine.

Faking your way through it isn’t always bad. You’ll pass the class and move on with your life.

But for any subject you intend to use in the future, say, in college, or for any subject that’s cumulative, like math or Spanish, you need to think long-term. Study in such a way that the content becomes like riding a bike – virtually unforgettable.