Calling all learners: Start the year with better time and task management | Sharon Saline, Psy.D. | 6 Min Read

August 24, 2022

As the prospect of starting school looms in the distance, now is the perfect time to teach and practice some tools related to time management and task initiation and completion. Whether it’s mowing the lawn, unloading the dishwasher, or starting summer homework, projects can be challenging to start, stick with, and complete, especially for neurodiverse students. Whether you’re putting off a project, or just slogging through each part of it over the course of what seems like hours or days, a new undertaking, particularly one that seems unpleasant, can really drain children and teens (and adults too!). No matter how small a project, or how large a task, we have all experienced anxiety around completing something, especially if we or a loved one have ADHD. Fortunately, personal project planners can really help to diminish the overwhelm.

The goal of using any planner is to provide structure for planning, prioritizing, and sequencing aspects of executive functioning skills. These are the processes that get you from the beginning to the end of a task. Different types of forms or personal project planners can make a task feel manageable. When I’m overwhelmed with too much to do, I rely on these tools to help create a map and a trail through the forest of my work. Although starting tasks can sometimes feel impossible, using creative planners can reduce the stress and even make the process fun!

Starting a new task is challenging for everyone on some level. Whether it feels unpleasant or potentially problematic plays a huge role in the amount of energy a task requires. Simple tasks often feel impossible to neurodivergent kids with ADHD, ASD, LD, or 2E. While spontaneity is important (and enjoyable), planting the seeds of a routine now for the start of school reduces stress, creates collaborative expectations, and builds good habits. Routines offer organization and predictability and often comfort kids and teens because they know what to expect and in what order. Having a formula for success can be important, and a personal project planner can do that.

These planners can also assist kids when they are switching from one task to another. It can be tough for many kids to stop one activity (such as gaming, shooting hoops, or reading a good book) and do something less enticing. Being able to make these transitions relies on executive functioning skills—such as impulse control, cognitive flexibility, and organization—that might not come naturally to your youngster yet. Knowing how to wrap up when they are doing one thing, remembering where they’re leaving off so they know how to begin again when it’s time to return, and moving on to something new can be incredibly challenging. Having a planner handy to write down tasks, notes, and times can help keep track of where you are and what’s next.

Many people with ADHD experience hyperfocus, and it can be a very helpful trait for learning, creativity, and productivity. It can, however, be detrimental in certain circumstances. While hyper-focusing on a project or activity can lead to great results, it can also make achieving tasks even tougher because of a lack of awareness of how time passes. Think about how time goes fast when you’re having fun, but at a higher level. No matter how many warnings your partner might give, having to stop something enjoyable can still come as a shock. Even stopping a task to start another one you think is fun can take time to process. Having a planner to work with can give the mind an easy outline of the tasks ahead. In addition, it offers space to journal out anything that might help you transition into a new thought pattern.

Many students, especially those who are neurodivergent, are visual learners and rely more on images or written words than auditory cues. Even if the task has been explained thoroughly, and in a way that they understand, they may worry about it, overthink what is needed, or become distracted. Sometimes in school, scenarios and projects are not explained clearly. When you practice using routines and personal project planners, your child or teen will feel prepared for classroom assignments and homework. They have a system to recall what’s needed and follow the steps. We want to make using this system second nature. That’s why creating and using their own personal project planner is essential to set up now, before school starts and the pressure is on.

Whether you choose to follow the suggested route or prefer a different type of online or paper planner is much less important than actually engaging repeatedly in using the tool. We want to show our kids how to make to-do lists, how to estimate the time necessary for a task or assignment, and when to ask for help because things seem too complicated. Here is my suggestion for how you can create your own forms, geared specifically to your child’s specific management skills—things that make sense to their brains. This will require some—perhaps difficult—effort in the beginning, but it will definitely yield results. Of course, adapt the language to your child’s vocabulary and educational level. I strongly encourage you to work with your students because a collaborative effort yields greater participation. 

Follow these steps: 

1. Gather a pen and a journal or a piece of paper.

2. Choose the topic or task and write that on the top of the paper.

3. Make a grid with 3 vertical columns and several horizontal rows. Label the three columns “Possibilities, Pros, Cons.”

It should look like this:

4. Put any ideas about the project or task in the possibilities column. Follow this with what you consider effective and ineffective about that idea.

For example, if the task is organizing old toys in the basement, the possibilities list might range from “taking everything to the dump” to “getting rid of anything that you haven’t used in three years.”

5. Create the sequential steps needed to accomplish the task using another grid. This grid will have five vertical columns and several horizontal rows. Use the labels suggested below, OR create your own!

Make as many numbered rows as required to finish the project, and make the actions as specific as possible. Estimate the time it takes to do a step and then compare that guess with the time that passes. This will help to improve those all-important time management skills. If there are more than three steps, break things down into separate tables. Too many to-do items will be overwhelming and discouraging as well. Keep the actions limited so they seem achievable.

Keep in mind that some people might prefer to have a “Notes” section at the bottom of the page so that they can jot down random thoughts or things they want to remember later. 

Many kids, with and without ADHD, ASD, LD, or 2E struggle with following routines, maintaining structures, and practicing time management. That’s why it’s helpful to start with these personal project planners before the demands of school and extracurriculars begin. While you may encounter some pushback, stick with it, adapting to their suggestions and tweaking things as you go. I have found that, eventually, my clients embrace organizational tools such as these or other ones because they reduce parental ‘nagging’, family arguments, or embarrassment at school for forgetting to turn in homework. These roadmaps also decrease anxiety, clarify goals, and build confidence as activities are completed.

Together, with your child or teen, pick one thing to work on with your personal project planner now. That way, as you make adjustments and integrate them into your daily routines, using them will become more natural and more valuable.

You may also enjoy reading more articles written by Sharon Saline, Psy.D. for Intrepid Ed News.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D. is a top expert in ADHD and neurodiversity. Dr. Saline specializes in an integrative approach to managing ADHD, anxiety, executive functioning skills, learning differences and mental health issues in neurodiverse and 2e children, teens, college-age adults and families. With over 25 years of clinical experience, she brings a positive, strength-based approach to improving the challenges related to attention, learning and behavior. As a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Northampton, MA, Dr. Saline helps people reduce frustration, develop daily living skills, communicate better and feel closer. An internationally sought-after lecturer, workshop facilitator, and educator/clinician trainer, she adeptly addresses topics ranging from making sense of ADHD and executive functioning skills to managing anxiety to understanding the teen brain. You may contact Dr. Sharon Saline at https://drsharonsaline.com.

2 thoughts on “Calling all learners: Start the year with better time and task management | Sharon Saline, Psy.D. | 6 Min Read

  1. The possibilities/pros/cons idea is a great way to give the student agency while getting a good window into their thinking about how they might start a task. Thinking about a possibility is likely to be less anxiety-inducing.

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