Want Something Done? Try Counting

My husband is a math teacher. He lives, breathes, and eats numbers. Thus it’s not too surprising that numbers are floating through the atmosphere in our house on a pretty regular basis, or that Kimmie and Essie have been a bit ahead of the curve in learning to count. But early in our parenting journey, we both figured out that counting is actually a very effective way of getting things done when you have little ones around the house.

  1. Beat The Clock: Counting Seconds and Minutes

Before I had kids, I could literally spend days cleaning and reorganizing my office, the kitchen, or my bedroom closet. As any parent knows, huge blocks of uninterrupted time are one of the first things to vanish in a poof of smoke when you become a parent. I’m lucky if I get 30 seconds to excavate the kitchen counters from breakfast rubble before leaving the house in the morning for preschool drop-off.
My former workplace self was addicted to productivity advice, and I’ve kept up with some of the newsfeeds along these lines that make their way into my inbox. The one that has most revolutionized my approach to getting stuff done around the house is a variation of the Pomodoro technique, which advocates working intensely for 25-minute blocks of time.

Especially when you’ve got a baby under one in the house, finding time to sleep and shower can be enough of a challenge, let alone keeping on top of the housecleaning. When your dear sweet one does finally drop off for a nap – something Kimmie never did for more than five minutes at a time for a major chunk of her first year, I kid you not – the mountains of piles waiting to be tackled are enough to overwhelm anyone into paralysis.

This is where your smartphone timer (or kitchen timer, if you don’t yet have a smartphone) can be just the motivation you need to make a dent in the piles already. Pick a small, confined area or problem. Set your timer for five minutes (or ten or fifteen, if you have that luxury). Tell yourself you will get as much done as you can, on that one small isolated task, before the timer goes off. You’d be amazed at the difference trying to beat the clock can make. This is especially true if the task is one you dread, or avoid at all costs; telling yourself that you only have to work on it until the timer rings is a huge help.

  1. Just Do It Already: Counting Up

Another luxury from pre-parenting days was the ability to get out of the house in a reasonable amount of time. With a little one (or two or more) in tow, everything takes longer. I’m not a big fan of doing everything for my kids; I much prefer delegating. Hence I used to get frustrated easily when I’d ask Kimmie to put on her socks and shoes, say, while I was doing one last diaper change on Essie – only to find, five minutes later, that Kimmie was still barefoot, despite having performed this task just fine without help many times before.

My dear husband is the one who figured out that counting can help in situations like these. Pick a number (three, five, ten) and a counting speed suited to the task at hand, tell your child the game plan, and start counting. “I want you up the stairs for bedtime by the time I count to ten.” “Can you get your underwear on by the time I count to five?” “One, two, three – that’s it, you’re done in the bathtub.”

We’ve found that counting can prod our kiddos into action when nothing else can. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re doing something other than asking them for the tenth time to do X that catches their attention; maybe focusing on the numbers snaps them out of their own little world and back into yours. Whatever it is, we’ve had great luck using this technique to motivate our kids to do those annoying little tasks of daily life, whether it’s getting dressed, getting off the potty, or stopping whatever they’re doing in favor of what they’re supposed to be doing.

  1. Fair Warning: Counting Down

Sometimes kiddos need more than a few seconds to make a transition out of whatever has captivated their imagination. Whether it’s finishing a meal, finishing playtime, or finishing their business in the bathroom, we’ve found that countdown variations on the above techniques can work wonders.

By the time Kimmie was two, she was eating all three meals a day at the same time as her parents. That is, she was starting them at the same time as us; but she wasn’t always ready to finish them when we were. It’s one thing if your kiddo is commencing the second hour of lunchtime and you have the whole afternoon ahead of you; but it’s quite another if you have a need to get out the door (preschool, a doctor’s appointment), or a need to get your little one bathed and storied and lullabied before your own bedtime arrives.

We soon found that the digital timer on our stove was our new best friend. Kimmie could even see it from her perch at the dining-room table; so long before she could read the numbers ticking by, she knew when we said “five minutes until you’re done” that the clock was, indeed, ticking. Moreover, the sound of our stove timer is so loud, we can hear it throughout the house. Hence it became a useful countdown tool for finishing playtime as well as mealtime.

Sometimes, though, our need to transition our child from one activity to the next has a more immediate time frame. This is currently the case with Essie, who’s in the throes of toilet-training. Essie doesn’t always agree with us that it’s time to get off the throne, a half-hour and half-dozen books since she first sat down. In this case, counting down goes something like this:

“Come on, Essie, it’s time to get off the potty.”
“No, I’m not done yet!”
“Essie, I’m going to count backwards from twenty to one, and when I get to one, you’re done on the potty.”
At two and a half, Essie may not be able to count backwards on her own yet, or recognize the numbers from eleven to twenty in backwards order. But she knows the numbers from one to ten – especially the first three – and the closer I get to “three, two, one,” the more she realizes her time is up. By the time I reach one, she’s almost always perfectly happy to get off the toilet by herself.

I’ve read in plenty of parenting-advice magazine articles that challenging your kids to race against each other on, say, cleaning up toys or getting dressed is a great motivational tool. This may work well for older kids, but ours just aren’t quite there yet. Until that day comes, though, the above techniques are what’s worked for us when it comes to counting as a tool for getting things done – both for the girls and for us.

Do you use some form of counting as a way to get your kids to do things, or to get your own stuff done around the house? If so, do tell us about it in the comments!

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