Executive Functioning: Task Initiation

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Have you ever sat down to work and realized it took you a while to get started?  Or, have you ever asked your child to do something and came back 30 minutes later to find that nothing you had asked for has been done?  These are instances that have happened to all of us in one form or another and refer to the Executive Functioning skill, Task Initiation.

Task Initiation refers to the ability to immediately start a designated task.  These tasks could be anything from waking up and getting ready for the day, to starting homework, to cleaning the house.

The habit that most people identify with task initiation struggles is procrastination or the avoidance of working on a specific task.  Different tasks will elicit different causes for a person to procrastinate.  Maybe the task is boring and you decide to complete more preferential tasks.  Maybe the task seems like it is going to be difficult and that scares you out of working on it.  Maybe you simply don’t know where to start.  Whatever the cause, by developing good task initiation skills, you can work towards combating procrastination.  By helping your child learn this skill early, you can help them learn to optimize their time and be more productive. 

Here are a few strategies you can work on with your child to avoid procrastination:

Make a Plan:

By making a plan for the task, you reduce the anxiety of not knowing what is being asked or where to start.  To read more about planning, check out our blog, Executive Functioning: Planning, here

Break the Task Down:

Turn a large task into a few smaller ones.  We refer to this process as “chunking.”  This helps in three ways.  First, the smaller tasks will be more manageable for your child.  Second, by setting mini-deadlines, you can help your child ensure that pieces of the task are getting done and the entire assignment is not put off until the last minute. For example, if your child has to complete a research paper, this can be an overwhelming task.  Here is an outline of how to chunk it.

Day 1: Find 3 research articles and take notes.

Day 2: Create an outline and a bibliography.

Day 3: Draft your 3 body paragraphs.

Day 4: Write your introduction and conclusion paragraphs. 

Day 5: Edit, Revise, and Print. 

Day 6: Submit the paper.

The third benefit is the momentum your child will gain as they complete the smaller tasks.  This can drive their productivity and lead to the confidence needed to independently take on bigger tasks.

Develop Strategies for Getting Stuck:

Feeling stuck can cause major frustration.  This often prevents a child from moving forward and completing the task. By providing your child with strategies to work through this, you can empower him or her to overcome it.  Here are a few examples of different things your child should do when they get stuck.

  • Reread the rubric or directions. While this seems simple, children will often get stuck when they don’t know what to do next or what is being asked of them. The answer to these questions may be in the directions.

  • Take a break, but limit how long it is. When a task feels overwhelming, sometimes just ten minutes away from it can give your brain enough of a break. Help your child hold themselves accountable to come back to the task after those ten minutes, otherwise, the break might turn in to procrastination. During those ten minutes, your child can get up and stretch, get a drink, or work on something else.

  • Ask for help. Depending on the assignment, asking mom or dad, a classmate, or the teacher can offer insight into how to finish the assignment. This is especially helpful if directions were given verbally, as something might have been missed.

  • Help your child remember their goals. By revisiting the big picture, it can help offer motivation to complete the tasks at hand, and clarity as to why it is important.


Rewards, or extrinsic motivation, will give your child something to look forward to if they complete a big assignment.  These should be scaled to the size of the task.  There a number of ways you can go about giving rewards.  Geoff Woods from The One Thing podcast often talks about earning your right to work on more preferential tasks.  For example, if your child really enjoys science, but dislikes math, he/she must complete math first to “earn his/her right” to work on science.  Another example of a reward you could set would be only allowing your child to play video games after they have completed their tasks (homework, chores, etc.) for the day. Different people will have different motivations, so you should sit down with your child ahead of time, come up with a plan, and make the expectations clear. 

Task initiation is a skill we could all benefit from having.  By practicing this with your child early on, you can set them up for success for life.