You don’t like to be told what to do. Parents tell you to do chores. Teachers assign homework.
These out-of-touch grown-ups tell you what to do, and your brain responds by generating massive, seemingly unreasonable amounts of resistance.
Don’t worry. You’re not alone. This is completely normal.
It’s something that nearly all teenagers experience. And it’s actually part of what makes humans human. If our ancestors had always done what their parents told them to do, we might have never invented tools or fire or art.
Progress comes from doing something different.
But notice the key word there: doing. To make something of your life, to leave a mark on the world, you have to take action. And, unfortunately, the resistance you feel to what adults tell you to do most often leads to inaction.
It would be one thing if you said, “No, I’m not going to do my homework. I’m going to invent a more efficient solar panel.” Or if you didn’t have time to mow the lawn because you were busy running an NGO that’s solving homelessness. Or if you were creating a new genre of music instead of studying for your Spanish test. But that’s not what resistance usually produces. Usually, resistance leads to, well, the path of least resistance: scrolling through social media feeds, watching YouTube, playing video games with friends, and so on.
In fact, if you wanted to take on those types of grand, world-changing projects, you would encounter a whole new kind of resistance – the kind you feel when you think about doing the very best and most important thing you could possibly do. Oftentimes, resistance is a compass, pointing right at the tasks that matter most.
So you need to learn how to overcome resistance. Both the everyday boring kind of “I don’t want to do my homework” and the big, scary kind you feel when the chance comes to pursue your dreams. And all those times you feel resistance to doing what adults tell you to do are opportunities to practice overcoming resistance in general.
The classroom, the desk in your bedroom, the kitchen – these are your training grounds. Math homework, literature essays, doing the dishes – these are your training exercises. These are tasks you can use to strengthen your willpower muscle and improve your willpower identity. So when you have a really important opportunity, and you feel resistance, you’ll be strong enough to fight through it.
So what’s the trick to overcoming your resistance to doing things grown-ups tell you to do?
Tell yourself to do them by writing them down on your personal to-do list. By writing them down, you’ll be taking ownership of the tasks, transforming them from things you’ve been told to do into things you’ve chosen to do.
A to-do list (or a planner or a calendar or a smartphone reminder) isn’t really about remembering to do things. You can always check the online portal for school to see what homework you have. Your parents will nag you about chores if you forget to do them. Or the world will serve up natural consequences if you truly forget. No. The point of writing something down is that you’re effectively saying to yourself, “I want to do this. I’m going to do this. I choose to do this.”
The point of writing to-do lists and mastering other executive function skills isn’t to earn better grades – though that will probably happen. The point is to become a more powerful agent in the world, capable of designing a life of personal freedom, more prepared to help solve all the problems grown-ups have left you with.
So when you feel resistance to homework, see it not as a reason to avoid it, but as an opportunity to practice exercising the power of choice and a chance to incrementally improve your ability to do what needs to be done regardless of how you feel.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.