by Kathy Kuhl

Late again? I recently saw the Wall Street Journal article “We know why you’re always late.” I thought, “I’ve been found out!” Though I’ve learned how make myself punctual (usually), I know the looming guilt of being late again and disappointing people who think being punctual is just common courtesy. How can we help our children who struggle with chronic tardiness? There are four steps.

Today we going to focus on the most important, helping your child become aware of how long tasks take. The WSJ article explained that one reason people are chronically late is that they underestimate how long tasks will take.

I do this. When my kids were young, I knew I could drive my son to karate in twenty minutes. I knew that latercomers do extra push-ups, so I was motivated to be on time. What I kept forgetting was that I would always find three or four little jobs to do before heading out the door: put the letter out for the letter carrier, add milk to the grocery list, and so on.

Once I started telling myself it took thirty minutes to get to class, we arrived on time. Not only that, we didn’t feel stressed and guilty. In a word, I learned I needed margin, a little cushion of extra time that makes the difference between arriving flustered or relaxed.

At times, I still resist this notion. I think, “I ought be able to be more productive and squeeze this-and-this-and-that in.” Lies. I need margin.

To help your children get better at estimating how long tasks take, let them practice first with estimating time for tasks they do regularly. Have them guess how long it takes them to make a bed, brush their teeth, get dressed, or sweep the kitchen. Initially, don’t have them estimate tasks that can vary a lot in how much time they take, like schoolwork in their toughest subject, or writing an essay. As they make these estimates, remind the goal is not to beat the clock or rush sloppily, but to get a sense of how long things take.

A second way to build awareness of how long tasks take is to break them into small pieces. We learn this with science fair projects or a major research papers, but it’s better to start with something simpler.

Let’s take getting ready to go to homeschool co-op, scouts, or a music lesson. Our kids need to find their gear, pack it, find shoes, check weather, and perhaps find a sweater or coat. How long will each of those take?

It may help your child to pretend they are showing a little cousin or visiting grandparent or even an invisible friend how they get ready. Imagining the task through the eyes of someone else can help them see how long it really takes.

Cooking a meal is an important life skill and a great place to practice this break-it-down strategy. Start with a meal plan of foods they already know how to prepare: perhaps ten minutes to prepare a meatloaf, 5 minutes to preheat the oven, 80 minutes to bake it, 30 minutes to cook rice, and six minutes to cook the peas. Once you break the job into parts, you can see dinner won’t be ready at six if you start at five. (With dinner, of course, there’s also tricks to sequencing tasks and scheduling.)

A third way to build awareness of how long things take is to review those estimates. The goal is not for the estimates to be correct, just for them to get better. Some of us are unaware of the passage of time and need more help and practice.

One reason we may have trouble estimating how long tasks take is that we try to multi-task. While you can walk, chew gum, and plan a dinner menu simultaneously, when you do what we call multitasking—doing several tasks that require concentration at once—you are really mentally jumping from task to task. That gives the illusion of productivity, but really slows down each task and impairs our concentration.

Take watching a movie while ironing. What happens when the movie gets to an exciting scene? I stop ironing. And if I’ve got to iron something tricky, I ignore the movie for a moment.

So the fourth way we can help our kids be aware of how long tasks will take is by teaching them that multitasking is a myth. No, you can’t write an essay while texting your friends. You can’t divide fractions while watching television.

Next time, I’ll share more strategies for helping our kids manage time better.

What’s helped you or your children be more aware of how long tasks take? Answer in the comment section below, please.