The ability to get started on something is called “task initiation or activation” by the experts on Executive functions (Russell Barkley, Peg Dawson, Thomas Brown, etc). Executive functions are those skills that help us get things done. Task initiation is just one of these executive skills and it involves the ability to START. Difficulties getting started can be the result of not knowing where to begin, what to do, how to generate ideas or how to problem solve to move forward on something. It differs from procrastination in that it is often not deliberate avoidance but a lack of understanding in knowing what to do to start. It can also show up as a difficulty with transitioning from one activity to another.
In children and teens, task initiation may show up as:
- Difficulty getting started on homework
- Struggles with generating ideas for writing
- Problems with morning and evening routines (often needing excessive prompting to be ready for school)
- Procrastination or being seen as unmotivated
- Procrastination followed by hyperfocus to meet deadlines
- Projects that never get started
- Unpaid or late bills, missed deadlines, and feelings of guilt
Removing the roadblocks:
1. Is the environment getting in the way?
If your space is cluttered or you can’t find what you need to get going on something then it is time to take care of that. You end up expending more energy just looking for what you need to get started that by the time you do that, you don’t have the energy or inclination to continue.
Declutter your work space, set up materials you use often in easily accessible places. Rulers, scissors, pens and pencils fit nicely in a mug on the desk.
Set up colored plastic folders or boxes to hold all pieces of an ongoing project.
Take everything out of the backpack and pile the “to do” items on the left and as you complete them move them to the right.
2. Are you not sure what to do?
Get help understanding what is expected (call a friend or coworker).
Break it down into smaller pieces and pick one piece to start.
Work with a friend (use them as a body double to get you started).
Have someone tell you what to work on.
Use a graphic organizer.
Start with the end in mind. Sketch out what it will look like when completed and work backwards to determine the first few steps.
3. Nudges, pokes and jabs:
Visual timers, alarms, and phone reminders all serve to designate a start time if you use them.
Set the sleep timer or automatic shut off on your TV, or use ifocusonwork.com to help shut down other distractions so you can get started on the important things.
Set false deadlines for yourself or have someone else set them for you. Put your cellphone in another room and don’t check it until you have worked 30 minutes. Use a timer here so you are not constantly checking how much time has passed.
Make a deal with someone that you know has your best interests at heart and ask them to help you get started.
Create a basic week plan so that you know what day you will do what.
Students set up a routine for your homework with a break, snack and start time. Then work for 30-45 minutes before taking another break.
Start with the easiest to build momentum.
Meet your friends at the library to do homework together.
Create a mnemonic that helps you get ready to begin and use it daily.
Create a play list for the length of time before you need to start and use it daily. The more you listen to it, the more your body and brain will get the message that it is time to get to work as soon as this is over.
5. If you still can’t….
Just start, after about ten minutes you will get into it.
Create a mind map or draw out what you need to do. Use colors and shapes to help your brain remember them and pick one.
If you are really procrastinating on something, stop and consider, “What is the worst that could happen if I don’t do this?” If it’s not too serious, then let it go or delegate it.
Often times looming deadlines, promises to others and fear of failure will push adults to complete a task they have been putting off. Many students though are not motivated by deadlines, grades or loss of privileges. They need help in learning what is preventing them from getting started and help designing a strategy that will work for them.