Opinion: The Life Span of Resolutions

By Skip Hellewell

By Skip Hellewell

The attention span of children is short; experts say the average four-year-old can focus about ten minutes. The good thing is this improves with age, about two minutes a year. By the time they’re finishing high school, most are good for the fifty-minute class. You may have noticed an exception to this rule—kids at the beach. Their classroom attention span may be short, but most children want to stay longer when the parents are ready to leave the beach. School should be more like the beach.

A grammar school Christmas concert got me thinking about attention span. Music was taught twice a week, and you either chose an instrument or, by default, sang in the choir. There were two instrument groups: instruments you blow into (woodwind or brass) or the harder string instruments (violin or cello). The kids barely had a semester of instruction, so the practice time needed to reach grade school competence was on display. The choir did great; the wind instruments did okay, and the string instruments needed more practice. This makes sense as the violin is more challenging to learn than, for example, the trombone, and singing comes naturally once you learn the words.

This brought to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers, The Story of Success,” which popularized the “10,000-hour rule.” Gladwell’s point was that while factors like innate ability vary, mastering a complex skill requires a great deal of deliberate practice, around 10,000 hours. You can see the problem here—how does a child with a limited, though growing, attention span accumulates the needed hours without losing interest?

We have a family tradition of a Christmas piano recital where the grandchildren perform. The youngest play simple tunes, the older kids more complex songs. They stand to introduce their music and then, when done, take a bow as the family applauds. One year a young grandson who hadn’t taken lessons had that “left out” look, so he was invited to play. He went to the piano and began to play, his small hands moving up and down the keyboard, making all the motions his cousins had done. When he was done, he took a bow to our energetic applause. He looked as good as the others, copying the motions he had seen, but his “playing” was just random notes. Our applause might have been a mistake, for his mother later asked if he would like to take lessons. “No,” he said, “I already know; I got the biggest applause at the family recital.”

This brings us to an important factor in learning an instrument that stood out in our family recital: mom. Grandkids whose mothers had a deep love for music played the best. Family values make a difference, and mom typically ensures the hours of practice are done. I’ve been thinking about practice and the mastery of complex arts because we’re in the time of another life skill—New Year’s resolutions.

For those who do them, resolutions reflect a most admirable human trait—the innate desire for self-improvement. Resolutions are like those children learning instruments in grammar school. Though all improve their musical knowledge, only a few master their instrument. Likewise, with New Year’s resolutions, most of which are forgotten by February, with only a few completed by December.

Here are three suggestions to improve your completion percentage: First, let your values rather than your guilt be your inspiration, as guilt is a poor motivator. Second, express resolutions in measurable terms. If you can’t measure your goal, it’s just a good intention. Third, share your resolutions with people whose respect you value. The more people, the better, but as with learning an instrument, it helps if a mom is supporting you. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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