This academic year, I met a student who I will call James. He is one of several high school and college student clients that were referred to me with new diagnoses of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and related organizational difficulties. Imagine struggling through school for 10 or 12 or more years, and then finding out that there is a reason besides laziness for your procrastination, inefficiency, and forgetfulness. Just yesterday, James was able to articulate for perhaps the first time his new awareness of how difficult initiating and focusing on work can be for him. He announced when he came into my office that his procrastination problem has become huge and he needs to find strategies that he can actually use and that will work for him. “All they do at home and school is pester me,” he sighed. What tools from positive psychology can help James?
Perspective: Managing Your Outlook
Like most of us, James has a lot of “life” in his life right now. Some of this busyness is atypical, but other things, while expected at this time in his life, are also difficult for James. For example his family was displaced from their home after a fire there in January. They have been living in temporary housing for more than two months, and will not be back in a home of their own before summer. While that is out of the ordinary, as a senior, James is in the graduation home stretch known as senioritis and like his classmates he is expected to take on a long-term project of his own choosing that he will manage and complete alone. Feeling both hopeful and anxious, as he waits for the fat envelopes that will contain his college acceptances, James is ambivalent about leaving his family when he attends college this fall. Where James lives, the days are now appreciably longer and brighter, and warm days draw him to pleasant times outside after school rather than doing homework.When so many life events happen simultaneously, it can be difficult to see them in perspective. Here is a diagram that James and I developed together showing some of his major life events and the way he was able to see them overlapping. Even without adding spring fever and senioritis, which are in the second diagram below, it seems pretty clear that paying attention to schoolwork would be difficult for James even if he did not have attention difficulties.
Faced with the task of self-regulating through difficult life experiences, James now realizes that he needs help to focus on the schoolwork which pales compared to bigger things looming in the background of his life. It may seem quite clear to the adults in James’s life that he “just needs to get his work done”, because school assignments look small and doable to his teachers and parents. But to James, who has difficulty self-regulating, his everyday work is just not stimulating enough to capture his attention. It suffers from duration neglect, and as a result, nearly anything else, from having his dog present a tennis ball with the hope of playing fetch, to the smell of dinner cooking, will get James off-track.
James needs to put his responsibilities into perspective and calm the chatter that is preventing him from completing his daily work. In his diagram, James has his life circumstances including the fire and anticipating leaving home as a background against which school work is imposed. Being outside spending time with his dog and driving around with his friends are the things he values most and he puts them above all else. By reframing schoolwork not as an imposition but as a window that he can see through, James can use self-determination theory, making his education about himself, instead of about his teachers and parents’ pestering.
Priming: Creating a Good Work Surface
James also needs to make it possible to accomplish his work, not just to think about it differently. While his family has been moving to different temporary housing, James has found it almost impossible to settle down and complete homework or projects. By staying after school every day and going to the library, however, he is priming himself for work. Priming, according to James, is what he does to be sure he has a “good surface” so his attention, learning and work stick. James is using his VIA strengths, especially “humor,” “perspective,” and “hope and optimism” to bolster his need for more self-regulation in the longer view of things.
James is setting artificial deadlines (no short-term gain!) to increase the stimulation threshold required for him to consider daily schoolwork important. He’s rewarding himself as soon as (but not before) the work is done, with the things he values most: spending time with his friends, and playing with his dog outside. He’s also using positive psychology’s other people matter and the peak-end rule, getting his friends to support him by meeting up at 4 PM each day when the school library closes. This way the experience wraps up with a pleasurable peak.
Visual Metaphors: Keeping the Goal in View
If you look at the second diagram again, you will notice that the schoolwork bar is still transparent, allowing James to be aware that there are many other big things happening in his life but that schoolwork has to be in front of all that. Otherwise, his big goal of leaving home for college in the fall might not happen.
Deliberate and mindful practice will be necessary to keep James on track as he builds better habits. Knowing what he’s doing, why it’s working and becoming independent in applying positive psychology strategies now will be a great foundation for James, for college and beyond.
Want to dig deeper? Read and follow the links to other articles on this site that give even more information about the empirical basis for the Positive Psychology applications discussed above!