Executive Functioning Skills: Planning, Prioritizing, and Task Initiation

Planning, Prioritizing, and Task Initiation

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In our last article in the series, we explained what executive functioning (EF) skills are. This article focuses on the EF skills of planning, prioritizing, and task initiation.

What do “planning, prioritizing, and task initiation” mean?

  • Planning refers to the ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or achieve a task. Whether you’re planning your day or planning your week, having a mental (or written) plan to complete your tasks is the only way to ensure you get everything done.
  • Prioritizing involves the ability to make decisions about what is important for you to focus on and what’s not as important. Being able to decide what you “must do” versus what you “may do” or “want to do” can be difficult, but it’s necessary.
  • Task initiation is the ability to begin a task in a timely manner, without unnecessary procrastination. Some people simply have a hard time getting started—whether it’s tackling the huge reading assignment you have or just doing a load of laundry. People with strong task initiation skills are able to make that first move and get started on a task, even if they don’t actually want to.

All three of these skills work closely together. Planning and prioritizing go hand in hand—once you’ve made up a mental plan for achieving your goals or tasks, you then must prioritize what has to happen first and what can wait until later. Once you know which task to complete first, it’s time to actually begin, or initiate. If just one of these skills is lacking, it can throw everything out of balance and limit your success in achieving your goal or completing your task.

Why are they important?

Planning and prioritizing are important skills because they help you identify and focus on the order in which things need to be accomplished. Very rarely do you only have one thing on your to-do list! Being able to prioritize what needs to be completed and make a plan to do so are essential for balancing and maintaining sanity in your busy life.

We’ve all been there: There’s something that must get done, but we just don’t make the effort to get started. Procrastination is normal to an extent. However, if you find yourself pulling all nighters, leaving tasks until the last minute, completing things past a deadline (like homework or paying bills), or even failing to follow through on certain tasks, then your procrastination is getting out of hand. This is when it becomes a real problem. Task initiation is an important aspect of executive functioning because it enables you to actually get started.

If you are lacking in these skills, it can result in work being done late (or not at all), frustration, and feeling overwhelmed. This can, in turn, negatively impact your grades, your relationships with teachers, and your relationships with your classmates (who may be depending on you for group projects, etc.). Outside of school, failure to plan, prioritize, or initiate a task can result in late fees (for bills, credit card payments, etc.), negative work relationships, or possibly even losing your job.

How can I improve these skills?

Whether you are weak in these areas or just think you could improve a bit, there are several strategies you can start using today!

  • Make to-do lists. These lists help you both plan and prioritize. Once you have everything written down, rank tasks in order of importance. Make sure you give priority to the things that have a deadline. This means a paper that is due tomorrow should be higher on your list than getting to the gym.
  • Create a calendar and schedule. To help you plan more efficiently, try using a calendar and setting a daily schedule. If you fall into a routine where the first hour of your morning is devoted to homework, you’re more likely to get it done. Remember, it is okay to make yourself a priority, so try to schedule in some “me time” as well (just ensure other priorities are scheduled, too)!
  • Use a timer. A timer is a great tool for anyone who needs help with task initiation. One way you can do this is to set a timer (on your phone, computer, microwave, etc.) to make sure you start your task. Give yourself five or 10 minutes to finish surfing the internet and then, as soon as the timer sounds, actually begin. You can also set a timer for how long you will work on your task (30 minutes is a good starting number). For many people, knowing there is an end time can be motivation for getting started.
  • Break down the task into smaller, manageable pieces. Often, the tasks we tend to procrastinate are large in nature—think studying for that final or writing the term paper you should have been working on all semester. For these types of tasks, it is helpful to break them down into smaller pieces; this is called “chunking.” By chunking your work, you set small, achievable goals that you can accomplish in a short amount of time. For example, choose one chapter to study each day rather than trying to tackle the entire book. Or work to research and write one section of your term paper at a time. This strategy does require planning, so make sure you give yourself enough time to accomplish everything!
  • Eliminate distractions. Put away the phone, turn off your TV, and find a spot where you will be able to focus. If you are easily distracted, try to identify what it is that distracts you, and work to remove it. If you can’t get started at home, then it is good to find a place that is quiet, well-lit, comfortable, and has limited interruptions (e.g., if you are working at the library, try not to sit by the front door where you will notice every person walking in and out).
    Challenge accepted!

    Orange Vectors / Shutterstock.com

  • Tell someone your plan. Accountability is huge! A lot of people are more likely to actually do tasks when they have actually said that they would get them done. Even better, if you have a friend who can help hold you accountable, ask them to check in periodically and encourage you!

These strategies are meant to provide simple and specific ways you can improve your task initiation, planning, and prioritizing skills. Pick and choose the ones that you think will work for you and make a conscious effort to use them. Your grades, your teachers, and your to-do list will thank you!

Join us again on Monday, October 23, when we will be talking about the executive functioning skill of cognitive flexibility.

About Shannon Whitney

Shannon loves traveling, watching Friends, and all things Florida Gators. While she grew up in Northern Virginia, she left the state to attend the University of Florida in 2001. After earning a master’s degree in education, she returned home and has worked as an elementary school teacher for the past 11 years. Shannon recently decided it was time to put teaching on hold and venture down a new professional path. During her free time, Shannon is either traveling, cheering for Florida, binge-watching a Netflix series, or preparing to be an aunt!

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