Make your Bed and Change the World

According to William McRaven, US Navy Admiral, the secret to a successful day is to make your own bed in the morning. It will give you a sense of pride and it will encourage you to complete another task, and another. He suggests that by the end of the day, this simple act will have led to a number of completed tasks. He adds that making your own bed reinforces the fact that the little things in life matter. “If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right.”

Have you ever spent more hours than you should putting off something you dislike doing? We all have. The truth is, lack of motivation is an issue that affects everyone, but it can be particularly difficult to deal with in children. The problem is, a child’s absence of motivation gets worse with time and can follow them into adulthood. Sometimes children struggle to engage in an activity. This could be because they lack confidence or they have not had their learning scaffolded in a way that ensures they have the correct skills to hand.

Often, when teachers are working with a child who is struggling to engage in a task or get started, they will break it up into smaller sections and focus the child on completing the first one only. By scaffolding in this way, as McRaven suggests, each small step will lead to another.

It is said that motivation must originate from the heart and that most of the attempts to motivate children actually demotivate them. While the latter is true, the former has been proven wrong on many occasions. Researchers and psychologists such as Carol Dweck have shown that the use of certain words and the adoption of certain practices can help a child who is unmotivated.

Most people want to succeed in the activities they undertake. Repeated failure can therefore give rise to frustration and discouragement and can subsequently lead to behaviour such as tantrums or even constant anger and anxiety.

A child who encounters too much failure can develop learned helplessness, which means that they can learn to perceive themselves as a failure. In other words, a child may lose motivation because of a lack of confidence in their ability to achieve specific goals. It is this lack of confidence that can drive behaviour such as avoidance, stress, “laziness” and a “don’t care” attitude.

One thing science, and no doubt us as parents, has found over the years is that the “motivation talk” rarely works. Despite our best intentions, talking to children about the importance of effort is not likely to make them change their ways. Instead of focusing on past performance, we should focus on future performance – “what do you think you can do differently?” We should let them know that we know they have what it takes. Using Carol Dwek’s approach, a useful phrase is, “You just have not figured it out yet but I know you will.”

When our lives are packed with so much and we appear to run from one task to another, it is important to focus on the little things. Sir Dave Brailsford, formerly of Team Sky, is famous for suggesting that “marginal gains” make the difference. We should be encouraging children to focus on the small tasks which will not only lead to the completion of further tasks but also build self-esteem.

Returning to a warm bed with cosy bedding at the end of a long day, a bed that you have made personally, makes all the difference.


Robert Upton