How To Start A Project When You Don't Know Where To Begin
Last year, my son was struggling to do his homework. He would get a packet at the beginning of each week, due at the end. The content of the packet would vary. But it always involved many subjects and pieces of paper, loosely shoved into a folder.
Every evening, N would sit at our designated homework table and stare at the pile of papers. Sometimes he would complain. Sometimes he would find something nearby and play with it. He just wouldn’t do the actual homework.
He would waste so much time fiddling around that it would get late. Too late for him to go outside and shoot hoops, too late to watch sports with his dad and his brother. Then he would get upset.
He would ask me to do his homework “with him.” This went on, daily, for weeks.
My initial reaction was frustration. He’s got some Learning Differences, but he’s a smart kid. Why hasn’t he learned that he’s making it worse by putting off his homework?
One of the many nights I conceded to sit with him, I looked down at the math facts worksheet on top of the pile. It was a pretty straightforward assignment. So I asked him — “N, what is 5 x 3?” He paused for a moment, then answered “15.”
“So why is it so hard for you to do your homework? You know how to do this stuff.”
The answer changed my understanding of what was going on. He said:
“I am just too overwhelmed by all these papers! I don’t know where to start.”
Ah, where to begin.
I had assumed that, because his homework was “boring”, he was trying to avoid it. That might have been part of it, but it definitely wasn’t the whole story.
Putting something off is different than not knowing where to begin.
Executive Function in a Nutshell
Executive function is the planning center of your brain — the part that helps you get things done. Time management, planning, initiating, and organizing all fall under Executive Function.
Executive Function underpins many things. Most people who have ADHD have some struggles with Executive Function. As I’ve said before, there is an ADHD stereotype of “misbehaving, hyperactive boys.” The real experience of ADHD can be very different. The pieces that make up Executive Function can be the truly challenging parts.
People with ADHD tend to be global, big picture thinkers. They are great at coming up with big goals and often take on big, exciting projects.
But the details (which involve time, planning, and organizing) are another matter.
So, when N struggles to start his homework, it means that he sees a pile of papers and truly can’t pick one small, concrete place to start.
So here is what we did:
Break It Down Into Pieces
Once I realized that the content was not necessarily the issue for N, we came up with a way to break it down.
We sorted through all the pages and activities that make up his homework.
First — name all the little pieces
I asked him to find every page that had something “math” related. And I made a list. Then, “spelling” related. And so on.
In the end of this first step, we had a list of each activity under each subject. Still lots of lists, but more concrete.
Second — put a time value to all the little pieces
We went through the lists and talked about “how long” each thing needed. Some were straightforward, like reading (20 mins per night). Others were more like, three math worksheets per week. I made a note next to every activity on the list.
Third — plan out when to do all the little pieces
We discussed what he wanted his homework time to look like over the course of a week. I might have influenced this one the most. I knew that smaller, consistent chunks of homework would be easier for him than having to do it all in one or two days. Consistency is key.
Then we created a grid, showing all the bite sized pieces.
When we put them into the grid, it actually was pretty consistent each day. It was just hard to see when it was all a pile of papers.
Above is an example. N still has a grid for homework every week. But for Medium purposes, I created a “renactment” to protect his privacy (and his teachers’).
Anyway, once we created the grid, we stapled it as a coversheet on top of all the other pages. Because, you know, pages. Without that staple, I’m not sure all the pages would make it to school at the end of the week.
Finally — positive reinforcement when a piece is complete
You see that little box in the lower right hand corner? That’s for check marks. For when he has completed a task. He actually prefers a big flourish-y check over the whole box when complete. But, the check mark is his reward, his feeling of accomplishment, a visual reminder of his progress.
When he has check marks all the way across a day, homework is complete!
It took us a little while to get this system in place. But once he got the hang of it, the results have been incredible. We discuss the grid at the beginning of the week. And then he does his homework. On his own. All week.
With the grid, he doesn’t need to worry about how big the homework pile is. He just needs to pick one thing and do it. Check it off, and then do the next.
Breaking big projects into tiny pieces is not a natural skill for so many people. Especially people with ADHD or Executive Function issues. Its going to take time and practice. Be gentle with yourself and keep practicing. The results can be life changing.