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Auntie SparkNotes: I Can’t Stop Netflix-ing

Dear Auntie,
You’ve probably seen letters similar to this one before, but this is a huge issue for me, and I’m sure there are many Sparklers out here who have dealt with this as well, so I hope you can help! I take very rigorous courses at school and I know that I’m more than capable of doing well in them. However, I feel like I’m stuck in a vicious cycle that involves me coming home from school feeling tired, then giving my brain a “break” by watching one episode of Netflix, which quickly turns into four. Before I know it my whole day is over and I’ve hardly gotten any work done.

I understand that some amount of procrastination is normal, but I feel like it’s taking over my life. My grades aren’t as high as they should be, I don’t sleep or exercise enough, and my stress levels are crazy-high. I feel like I’ve tried everything- breaking down my tasks into smaller ones, writing out schedules in advance, and even asking my parents to change my Netflix password, but I’ve always managed to find a way to avoid my work. The “solutions” I find online seem to be made for people who only occasionally put off their tasks, but this feels like a chronic problem for me. Do you have any advice?

Oh, sure, Sparkler! And I’ll get right to it… just as soon as I finish mainlining all three seasons of The Great British Bakeoff.

Which is to say, I feel your pain, kid. An unfortunate side effect of all these highly advanced on-demand entertainment delivery systems is that not only has there been a virtual explosion of appealing ways to procrastinate, but all the tools for putting off your work are built right into the same machines on which you’re supposed to be doing that work. THE MACHINES WANT US TO FAIL, YOU GUYS.

The thing is, it is very hard to make the choice to stop farting around online and start being productive if you don’t have a compelling reason to change your habits—which is why the best thing you can do is give yourself one, and ideally one that’s positive. Rewards are the best motivators; consequences, as you’ve found, don’t work nearly as well. (Take a look back at your letter and notice how you’re stressed, sleepless, sluggish, and underperforming in your classes—and then notice how none of that has stopped you from frittering away your time watching Netflix instead of doing homework.) But since the big-time rewards of being more focused can take awhile to show up in the form of a higher GPA, the question becomes whether there are some smaller, more immediate benchmarks for success that you can rely on to keep yourself invested. So tell me: what short-term result would make you feel like your efforts were fully worth it? An A+ grade on an exam or project? Being able to go to bed at 11pm without the sleep-wrecking anxiety of having left a bunch of things undone? Being done in time to go to a real movie, or the gym, or out for a coffee with friends? Being able to watch all the Netflix you want, knowing that you have no other demands on your time? Whatever the answer is, make that your short-term goal. Fixate on it. Look forward to it. Savor the anticipation of the payoff—and with a little luck, you’ll have the motivation you need to do what you’ve gotta do.

To be clear, none of this is an exact science, and you’ll still have to take that tough first step of turning off Netflix after one episode (or better yet, saving your Netflixing for after your work is done, and giving your brain an after-school break some other way—like taking a nap or going for a walk). But if you can give yourself an immediate prize to chase, the satisfaction of getting it plus the prospect of repeating the experience in the future can equal a powerful enough motivator to keep you working instead of… well, not-working.

With that said, there’s one more possibility that Auntie is duty-bound to mention: that your procrastination is a function of a bigger, thornier issue of having bitten off more than you can chew (which may or may not in turn be part of the larger cultural conversation surrounding the expectation that teenagers should come home from an 8-hour school day, immediately crack open their books, and spend the next four hours doing homework—while also playing travel soccer, taking music lessons, and spending a minimum of 10 hours per week doing resume-building community service). It’s hard to tell from your letter whether you’re putting off your work because you need a better reason not to, or if you’re rebelling against the weight of too many commitments that have you dangerously close to burning out. Even the most gifted student only has so much bandwidth available—and even someone capable of excelling in the most rigorous academic courses cannot necessarily excel in all of them at the same time. So while you’re looking for ways to rise to the challenge, do take a moment to make sure the challenge itself isn’t impossible.

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