Homework: A Getting Things Done® Approach for Teens with ADHD

For 15 years, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen, has influenced the way millions of business executives manage their time, keep track of everything they need to accomplish in a day, and maintain their productivity despite constant interruptions. Teens with ADHD aren’t busy executives, but they do have hectic lives that often leave them feeling overwhelmed, struggling to manage information overload, and juggling an ever-changing number of assignments, tasks, and commitments. These are the very challenges that an organizing system, like Getting Things Done®, is designed to target, whether you’re an executive at a Fortune 500 company, or a busy teen managing school, extracurricular activities, and a social life.

All teens struggle to keep up sometimes, but most teens intuitively adopt strategies that help them manage their day-to-day lives relatively effectively. Teens with ADHD, on the other hand, typically feel like they simply can’t keep up, and lack the required executive functioning skills that are needed to intuitively manage their daily influx of assignments and responsibilities. As a result, teens with ADHD become anxious and avoidant when they think about tackling their growing to-do list, and they continue to fall behind. To overcome their executive functioning challenges, and break out of an anxiety and avoidance cycle, teens with ADHD need to learn specific strategies and systems for recording assignments, ideas, and tasks, and seeing them through to completion.

Getting Things Done® is a system designed to turn the ideas and tasks floating around in our heads (and causing anxiety) into actionable items that can be completed efficiently. In fact, the Getting Things Done® slogan is, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Getting Things Done® is based on 5 key steps that can easily be adapted to meet the needs of almost any teen with ADHD, especially when it comes to getting homework done!

The Five Key Steps to Getting Homework Done:

  1. Capture: Record everything that you need to get done.

Every teen with ADHD has hundreds of thoughts, ideas, and “to do” items bouncing around in their head. It is simply not possible to rely on memory alone without forgetting items or missing due dates. It’s essential that every single assignment, upcoming test, or task (like getting a permission slip signed, or bringing supplies to school) be written down. In addition, each of these items needs to be recorded in the same place. Too often some assignments are captured as reminders in text messages or emails (sent to yourself), while others are noted in a Word document, or in the school’s online homework system (like Blackboard), or on random sheets of paper in notebooks or stuffed in the bottom of a bag. Pick one location and stick with it – whether it’s a Word or Evernote document, a paper notebook, or a notes section of the school’s homework assignment system. If it’s not captured in writing, it’s probably not going to be done well and on time.

  1. Clarify: Turn assignments into action items and next steps.

Simply recording your assignments in one place is an accomplishment when you have ADHD! Mastering this first step is essential, and will help you stay in control of your assignment list. But, to finish your assignments quickly and on time, there are a few more steps you’ll consistently need to take. Clarifying exactly what you need to do in order to complete each assignment is the next essential step. Creating a checklist of assignment action items provides you with a roadmap for your work and breaks bigger projects down into smaller manageable chunks. For some assignments, the checklist list will be short. For example, “Complete Math Worksheet” may have only two items on the checklist, (1) complete worksheet, (2) doublecheck for errors. More complex assignments, like “Write Spanish Essay” will require longer action item checklists: (1) develop topic, (2) create outline, (3) write thesis statement, (4) write the body, (5) write the introduction, (6) write the conclusion, (7) revise, (8) proof read.

  1. Organize and Prioritize: Group your action items together into meaningful categories.

Using a homework whiteboard, a Word or Evernote document, or an online project management tool, like Trello, organize and prioritize or action items. Getting Things Done® recommends using only three categories: “Now” “Tomorrow” and “Later.” For assignments with a “Later” due date, make sure you enter a reminder into your calendar. Then, look at the action items for the project, and see if there are any steps you should be starting today or tomorrow, and add them to the appropriate list.

  1. Review and Reflect: Do a weekly review of your lists to clean-up, update, and clear your mind.

With your assignments displayed visually, you are now able to easily scan your categories and see if there is anything that needs to be moved from “Later” into “Now” or “Tomorrow.” I recommend scanning this list once a day to make sure you’re not missing anything, and so that you have a very clear sense of how much you’ll have on your plate in the coming days and weeks.

  1. Engage: Simply Do.  Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence.

Now that you have very clear action items on your list, and a knowledge of what needs to be done when, you can dive in and get started. For many of the kids and teens that I have worked with, simply completing the first step of a project (no matter how small that step is) makes it much easier to overcome procrastination as the project due date approaches. The project feels less overwhelming because it’s already been started! For smaller assignments, like completing a math worksheet, the act of quickly completing the task and crossing it off your list will give you a great sense of accomplishment and will help you feel motivated to tackle the next action item.

Incorporating a structured system like Getting Things Done® into a homework plan will help all teens with ADHD get assignments completed efficiently and on time. This is a huge benefit, but just as importantly, it can help teens with ADHD develop a sense of competence and control over their academic life. Anxiety will decrease, and time with friends and family becomes more relaxed and fun!

To learn more about Getting Things Done®, visit David Allen’s website at https://gettingthingsdone.com.

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