Indecision is a stepchild: Helping kids overcome procrastination and indecisiveness

After his recent trip to Tanzania my son shared with us an African proverb that went like this, “Indecision is like a stepchild: If it does not wash hands it is called dirty and if he does, he’s wasting water”. Either ways, it’s considered no good…

Take a simple example of getting a haircut. If you walk in and say, “Here’s what I want. Trim the sides, keep the length on top and give a clean sweep on the back”. Done. That’s all there is to it. Effective decision-making is reaching a final conclusion regarding wants, needs, and desires, and then executing it by acting on those conclusions. However, the lack of clarity in the process of envisioning the goal, in combination with doubtfulness about personal preferences, can act as a hotbed for indecision.

So why is it so hard to make up one’s mind and take a sound decisions? Let’s discuss the cognitive effort involved in the process of decision-making.

  • The brain needs to engage in a sequential-logical thought process of:
    • Goal formulation
    • Generating multiple alternatives
    • Anticipating the future based on potential execution of one or many such alternatives
    • Making an effective choice (from multiple alternatives) based on personal principles and relevance
    • Imposing a time limit while making that choice
    • Avoiding interruptions in order to execute and see that mental decision through by avoiding any interruptions

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.”  – William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890).

This makes me think about people with a diagnosis of ADHD and their dilemmas of poor decision-making. Procrastination may be on the top of the list of complaints from an observer who watches an ADHD child/student/adult go through their day. One may not attribute cognitive deficits of ADHD to attentional dysregulation.

  • However, a common prefrontal malfunction can lead to an individual’s inability
    • to set goals
    • to conceptualize multiple alternatives
    • to compare those alternatives in working memory
    • to fight off distractions WHILE conducting this evaluation
    • to foresee all possible consequences and finally
    • to choose the most suitable one

Many years ago I worked with a pair of 4th grade teachers who used to assign a project of making a homemade robot. The instructions were very simple -use anything that you find around the house.Duringmy discussions with the teachers they reported that, often these 4th graders struggled with the concept of “whatever found in the household”. The instructions were so generic that several students reported to wander through the house looking for things yet unable to decide what to use.  I suspected that the primary problem was the students’ inability to conceptualize the “final product” of the robot right off the bat.These students then walked through the house picking out DVD cover, old batteries and a washcloth to see if these things would work for their robot (which was not pictured yet). During my training, I discussed with the teachers the process of providing guidelines to the students as to HOW to work on creating a “hypothetical” (a mental prototype) robot before creating a final one.

Here’s what you can do to facilitate the process of better decision making in children and adolescents:

  1. Get the student verbalize the goal or even write it down on paper
    1. I need to prepare a poster for the science project vs.
  2. I need to prepare a colorful poster with three colored pictures and 5 idea bubbles with one paragraph each
  3. Make sure the goal has a “time sensitive element”
    1. I need to prepare a colorful poster in two weeks (by Friday)
    2. I need to choose three colored pictures out of a total of 6 pictures by next Tuesday
    3. I need to write 5 idea bubbles with one paragraph each
  4. The next important thing is to connect it to an “overarching goal”
    1. The importance of completing the science project is that it will allow me to …
    2. The importance of completing the science project by next SUNDAY is that it will allow me to …
  5. Discuss hurdles in generating alternatives
    1. I can buy a colorful poster or use a white one that we have at home
    2. I can look up six pictures from Google or look through a magazine
  6. Engage in a discussion-based hypothesizing process
    1. Colorful poster is better because… but using the one at home is better because…

My parting words – Do not be afraid of the “complexity of thought” training involved in changing the way we must conceptualize the process of decision making. It is a way of thinking and yes, thinking through with strategies needs patience.

As always, if you would you like to know more about my practice, visit my website at www.cerebralmatters.com. For any further communication, leave me a note here or contact me at Sucheta@cerebralmatters.com.

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