Ask the Experts

Q: Where Do I Start?!? How to Organize and Initiate a Big Project

For students with ADHD, long-term projects can be daunting and frustrating. Here, learn how to help your child organize and initiate work on a big assignment.

Where Do I Start? Concept image of a student overwhelmed with homework

Q: “My daughter has a real problem when it comes to working on projects. She doesn’t know how to get started and ends up getting frustrated, wasting time, and having meltdowns. It became really obvious this past spring when we were doing distance learning and her teachers assigned more long-term projects than day-to-day homework. Now that we are going to be doing online learning again, I’m really nervous this will become more of an issue.” – ADHDMom


Hi ADHDMom:

Nothing brings on a meltdown faster than trying to tackle a long-term project or paper. They are difficult from an academic standpoint, plus keeping track of all the steps involved can be a time-management and executive-function nightmare!

I’ve got you covered. Feel free to download our free Project Planning Guide from my Order Out Of Chaos website or have your daughter follow the steps outlined below.

1. Break the assignment into small, actionable tasks.
I can’t stress this point enough. Breaking down things into manageable parts makes working through them less overwhelming. Have your daughter write out an outline of the steps necessary to complete each assignment. Make sure each task is manageable and specific. For many students, it’s easier to write one paragraph every afternoon than it is to complete the entire research paper in one night.

2. Estimate how much time it’s going to take to do each step.
Work backward from the due dates to figure out how much time is needed to accomplish each task. Always build in extra padding. I normally tack on an extra 25 percent worth of time to act as a buffer against false starts, interruptions, and unanticipated problems.

[Read: The ADHD Homework System We Swear By]

3. Assign deadlines and schedule appointments for each task.
Assign “due dates” for completing each step and have your daughter record them in her planner. Schedule them as regular assignments so she knows exactly when she has time to work on them. This step is critical. Most students know how to get homework that is due the next day done. However, making time for long-term assignments and projects can be more challenging. She should plan on finishing two days in advance of the due date.

4. Allot time for hidden tasks.
The devil is in the details! Purchasing materials, watching a movie, getting together with her group or proofreading drafts are all steps that are easily overlooked when factoring in time.

5. Schedule “Are You on Track?” days.
Even the best laid plans go off the rails. That’s why I always suggest planning days to get them back on track! When entering tasks into the planner, add a few “are you on track” days (3 to 4 days apart). You’re not scheduling any actual work, but leaving a designated check-in to make sure she’s on target. If she’s not, then this is the time to get caught up. And if she is? She gets a free pass!

6. Focus on the first step.
Trying to visualize a whole project all at once can leave your daughter not knowing where to start. So begin with asking this one question: What is the first step you need to do to begin? See if asking this question brings her focus to a manageable starting point and eliminates all barriers to entry.

Good luck!

Where Do I Start? Next Steps


ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.


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Updated on September 29, 2020

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