Stick with it or Abandon Ship: The Lesson Plan Conundrum

Teachers, how often has something come up during a lesson and you freeze: Do I forge ahead or just scrap the lesson and address what’s going on?

Illustration of a stick figure sitting on a chair holding a piece of paper. Their face looks concerned, and above their head is a brain, a blue anchor and a red ship wheel.

You have more options than you may think! Striking a balance between sticking with the plan and changing course is about seeing the range of possibilities and making a choice that will help most in that situation.

Check out the video for more:

Take it easy, or take it seriously?

Modern life is often stressful, and it is rightly advised that we slow down, take some time for ourselves, and relax. But have you ever found yourself heeding that advice—relaxed, completely at ease—only to realize that you’re getting further and further behind in your work and your home is an utter mess? We can take that good advice to relax too far, and it might be time to put some more effort into our responsibilities.

relax-work hard zoom in out come on....gif

Or do you find yourself hyper-focused on work, trying to live up to your or other’s expectations of your absolute best effort? But after time, you burn out and struggle to keep up the pace…

So what are we supposed to do, relax or work hard? Well, both are important—it’s a matter of knowing when to focus more on which.

Understanding the Relax ~ Work Hard Dichotomy

We don’t always recognize it, but there’s a continuum that stretches between these two endeavors—from relaxation to hard work—with a lot of space in between. Sometimes we need to slow down, zoom out, and take a look at where we are, so we can then make some adjustments.

relax•work hard 50-50

It’s important to recognize a couple of things about this dichotomy:

  • Both endeavors are good: Relaxing and working hard are both positive things in their own right. It’s not that we need to avoid one or the other entirely.
  • Too much of either is bad: Cranking the dial all the way to Relax may mean that we shirk our responsibilities. Similarly, going whole-hog on Work Hard can lead to that feeling of burnout.


So what is the sweet spot between these two endeavors? The Relax ~ Work Hard Dial can help you figure out just how much to push yourself to focus on work, and how much to kick back and relax. But before you make a change, figure out where you’re starting from.

Evaluating Your Starting Point

It’s unhelpful to offer blanket advice, devoid of context: “Stop and smell the roses” may be good words of wisdom for a hard worker, but what about for the super-relaxer?

Before you decide to make a change in your actions, honestly assess your default mode. Do you tend to stress yourself out with hard work, or do you lean lazy if allowed? Try to gauge for yourself, and even ask others you know well and trust for their take—they may have a challenging, but helpful perspective.

relax-work hard more work

Time to recognize you’re slacking and get to work?

If you typically relax and take it easy when there’s work to be done, consider when you need to crank up the hard work. You want to avoid people seeing you as unreliable, or receiving repercussions from school or work.

Or, are you the kind of person who constantly stresses yourself out about expectations? Do you need to get every responsibility done, on time, at your maximal effort? Maybe you could benefit from nudging the dial towards relaxation from time to time. It may help you feel less stressed and enjoy your free time.

Of course, different situations will call for different adjustments. It all depends on the context.

Consider the Context and Adjust

For specific situations, we can consider the context to figure out what to change.

You’re a high school freshman, and a decent student. You get most of your homework done on time. Today it’s Sunday, and you have a geometry test in two days. You know the content pretty well, and you’ve just done your latest math homework, and are considering calling it a night. You could stop and catch up on the latest show you’re binge-watching. After all, you’ve been seeing so much about self-care on social media lately… But you actually have a bit more attention and energy left, and spending another 30 minutes studying will likely help you get your grade up before midterm progress report. It probably makes sense to nudge the dial a bit towards work.

relax-work hard situation.gif

To make this (hopefully) helpful decision, you’ve considered the important context of you circumstances, like:

  • how important is the task?
  • how time bound is it?
  • what have you been doing lately?
  • what do you have energy for right now?

But of course considering these same factors—given different context—you may arrive at the decision to adjust the dial towards relaxation:

You’re in 8th grade, and you have a history test tomorrow. Every time you have a quiz or test, you spend hours reviewing the textbook, your class notes, and doing extra research online, days in advance. In this current unit, you know the information inside and out, but occasionally get tripped up on a specific date you should know. Do you keep plugging away, or just go to sleep? Maybe you can study for another short while, but give your brain a rest and take some short rounds of Drop 7 (or your phone game of choice). So you make the adjustment to relax more, but to a degree that will still make you comfortable.

relax-work hard situation less work 1.gif

Let the Dial Be Your Guide

All work and no play makes Jack… you get the point. It’s not good. But all play is not the answer either. To find the sweet spot between relaxing and working hard, first understand that this dichotomy exists, and then evaluate your starting point to see if you can catch yourself in an old habit. And then, finally, adjust how much you relax or work hard according to the context. Hopefully, with this level of thoughtfulness, you’ll be happy with your decision you make.

Let it go, or no no no!


stick-dont sweat

Stick to your guns – or – Don’t sweat the small stuff

Well which is it?!

Should I stick to my guns and be persistent… even if it causes me anguish?
Should I not sweat the small stuff and just let things go… even if they are really important to me?

The answer is, of course, that it’s best to find a balance!


“Sticking to your guns” is advice people give when they are suggesting that you persevere. Persevering is when you keep trying to do something, accomplish something, get your way—no matter how hard it seems, no matter what obstacles you face. Thinking about perseverance, you can imagine a fist clenching onto something tightly.

And there are times when it’s beneficial to persevere. For example:

perseverePersevering a little helps when you’re stuck on a math problem and you need to just try another solution to get the right answer.

Persevering a lot can be necessary in certain situations, like pushing back against a company that’s overcharging you for something you’ve bought and hoping you’ll just give up and pay the unfair amount.

But persevering too much, or at the wrong time, can often make situations worse. If you persevere and insist that a classmate change a word in a paper you’re writing together because you don’t like it, even though her word is still right… and she’s explained it to you… and it really just comes down to a difference of opinion—that could end in a damaged relationship with your classmate.

Sometimes it’s just not the “right fight.” Maybe that was a time to let it go.

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This is the BEST POST EVER! …well, I mean, it’s fine.


strong opinions signOpinions are like bellybuttons: everyone’s got one. 

I recently mentioned the AppleWatch to a friend, and before I could finish my sentence, he said, “Oh my GOD! The AppleWatch is SO dumb! Why would anyone want something so useless and so expensive?!” I was caught off guard—I was about to mention something I like about the watch, but all of a sudden I felt like I couldn’t say anything positive about it.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. And everyone has the right to express their opinion. But there are lots of ways to express your opinion, from a brief mention to a forceful tirade. So which should you do, and when?

The first thing to do is consider whether it makes sense to share you thought or hold your thought. Some opinions are better left unsaid if all they’ll do is hurt someone.

So if you decide to share your opinion, should you be enthusiastic and passionate? Or calm and measured?

Only Enthusiastic

If you feel very strongly about your opinion, you may decide to share it enthusiastically. You state it with passion, because it is a very strong belief. It’s like a tidal wave, crashing to shore with incredible force!

enthusiasticThere are times when it makes sense to share your opinion with this much fervor. With friends who agree with you about how awesome the Minions movie was, be enthusiastic!

But if you are too enthusiastic, or too enthusiastic at the wrong time, you may have become “overzealous”—spending an extreme level of energy expressing a belief. You could anger or bother the people around you.

Only Measured

So if being too enthusiastic is a problem, what’s the alternative? Being measured. This is like calm waves on the ocean, moving slowly and evenly.

measuredBeing measured is when you share your opinion in a calm and reserved way. When talking about a controversial topic, or with someone you don’t know well, it is often helpful not to share too enthusiastically.

But as with all things, being too measured can be a problem, too. People may think that you don’t care about your opinion. Being too measured could be mistaken for indifference. In those cases, other people in a group may make decisions without you, because they assume you don’t care. For example, don’t let your team at work decide everyone needs to come in an hour early if you have a very long commute and can’t make it!

Balancing Being Enthusiastic and Measured

Better than one extreme or the other, it’s best to find a balance between those two extremes:

scale enthusiastic measured

There are a lot of choices in between too enthusiastic and too measured. When having discussions in a group, consider just how enthusiastic or how measured to be when sharing your opinion.

Remember that sharing opinions has an impact on other people: it can make them uncomfortable, angry, or disappointed. OR it can make them interested, curious, inspired, or constructively challenged. And other people’s reactions all come back to you!

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Tell me more about this “highway”


my way road sign

“It’s my way or the highway.”

I write articles for my job. I tend to write long articles, including lots of details. I like it that way! That’s how I write, and I think it’s good, and how it should be. The problem is, the articles get sent to hundreds of teachers to read and use. So my colleagues sometimes give me feedback to shorten an article, to take out some details.

I sometimes feel like telling them to “take a hike!” It’s my way or the highway, as they say. What I mean is that I don’t want the feedback. In those times, I feel I am the only person who could possibly know what’s best for me and my work. In other words, I want to stick to doing things my way.

The problem is, there are times when advice from others is actually very helpful to me. (In fact, I should probably make this blog post a little shorter, according to the feedback of some readers…)

For lots of people—including, but not only folks on the autism spectrum—it can be hard to know when to stick to your way of doing things, and when to be open to advice and try new ways. Let’s explore—

Only Sticking with Your Way

archorSticking with your way of doing things is like an anchor, firmly planted in the ocean floor. It doesn’t move, doesn’t budge for anything or anyone. This can be important to do at times, like when you are 100% certain that you need to take a break from a long work meeting (your way), even if others are insisting you stay.

But too much sticking with your way, too much of the time, means you vehemently insist on only doing things the way you do them. You then ignore the advice other people give, even if that advice will actually be helpful for you. There are times when a friend, relative, teacher, or coworker gives you advice that will be helpful—even when you feel like your way is better.

Only Trying New Ways

sailboatSo what’s the alternative to sticking with your way? It’s trying new ways of doing things. For this, we use an image of a sailboat, whose route is guided by the wind. This is when we are open to advice and feedback, we listen to and consider the guidance of our relatives and peers and make changes in our behavior according to their suggestions.

This is not to say that you should always be open to new ways of doing things! If you only try new ways, you can lose sight of the important things you’ve learned about yourself. And if the advice comes from someone who doesn’t know us well, or who does not have our best interest in mind, trying their way could be harmful to us.

So what to do? Strike a balance!

Balancing Sticking with Your Way and Trying New Ways

Are there times when you should try new ways of doing things? Absolutely, yes. Are there other times when you should absolutely just stick to your ways? Yes, also. Let’s think about the balance of the two.

balance stick with-try new

Remember in the end, Balance Challenges are meant to help you find solutions to make things the best they can be for you and others with you.
With that in mind, think about a couple questions that might help guide finding this balance:
  1. WHO is giving the advice/feedback?
    • If it is a “trusted source,” someone who you have a close relationship with—like a parent or established close friend—you may want to consider trying their new way. Trusted people, if they really can be trusted, try to have our best interest in mind.
    • For example, if your mother suggests that you text a friend from school to see if they know the homework you forgot, she’s probably trying to help find a solution, even if it’s not something you’re used to doing. Maybe that’s a 60/40 toward the try new ways side.
    • try new 60-40
  2. WHAT are they asking you to change?
    • Is it “no big deal”? If it’s not a difficult thing to change, it might be worth trying their way. If it doesn’t work after a couple tries, at least there was the chance it could have been helpful.
    • If someone is suggesting to you that you completely change the way you dress and cut your hair to impress other kids, that’s a big deal and probably a time when you lean toward sticking with your way. Perhaps that’s a 70/30 on the stick with my way side.
    • stick with 70-30

But be sure not to fall into the only trying new ways trap. Obeying the directions every classmate and teacher without question can lead to uncomfortable or dangerous choices.

But it doesn’t hurt to be open to new ideas. When a trusted person gives advice or feedback, rejecting it immediately means you fall into the stick with my way trap, and when that happens you don’t make tough things better.

More on balancing needs

If this is helpful, read more about some other balances that are connected to this idea:

I make a promise to make my next blog post shorter, with fewer details. I’m open to trying that new way to make my posts easier for everyone to read!

For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.

All the World’s an Audience

audience main image animatedWhat do you say to whom, and how much, and when…?

People usually don’t address their six year old sister with “Your Honor…” and they rarely say “Sup?” to their principal.

We don’t speak the same way to everyone. We make changes to what we say based on our audience – who we’re with, and what’s going on.

Let’s look at a couple decisions we make about changing our language for different audiences – WHAT, and HOW MUCH – by thinking about balance.

WHAT to Say

Do you discuss details of upcoming dentist appointments with your friends? Not usually – that’s something that’s typically discussed with your parents.

Do you say, “Good afternoon” to classmates? Probably not that much – that’s something reserved for someone like a teacher.

So what topics do we raise, and what words make sense to use, based on whom we’re with?

A helpful way to think about this difference is through balancing casual and formal language.

casual-formal balance

Casual and formal language can be hard to define explicitly. In general, casual language is words and topics that we say naturally, the first things that come to mind. Formal language describes words topics that we think about and consider, and possibly censor, for a particular type of person. For example, if you were late to school one day, you might tell your friend: Damn. My stupid alarm didn’t go off. But for your science teacher, that doesn’t match how she’s expecting to be spoken to – for her, it would be more like: I’m sorry, won’t happen again.

The main question to think about is:

  • What is my connection to the person I’m speaking to?
    • If I’m with someone of “higher status” than myself, I should probably lean more toward formal language. This might be a teacher, professor, principal, boss, or a relative I don’t know very well.
    • If I’m with a friend or someone younger than I am, I can usually lean more toward casual language.


There’s a whole other aspect of considering our audience: after we’ve figured out what to say, we have to consider how much to share.

When talking about my favorite TV show to my friends who also watch that TV show, I can get into an incredible level of detail about all the evidence I have for my theory that a certain character didn’t really die… If I try to explain that much to my mom – who hates the show – she’ll be totally disinterested and confused. She won’t know the characters or the plot points, and she’ll probably not care!

This speaks to the need to balance how much we explain and how much we skim.


This balance of our language is again based on who we’re with, but this time, it has more to do with the topic than our status connection to the person. It helps to think about:

  • How much does my audience know about this topic?
    • if they already know a lot, I can probably lean toward explain – we share knowledge about it
    • if they don’t know much, I may want to skim more – unless I’m teaching them something or making a presentation
  • How interested is my audience in the topic?
    • if they are interested, I can lean more toward explain
    • if they are not too interested, you may want to lean toward skim

Of course, it’s sometimes challenging to figure out how much someone knows, and how interested someone is. But it helps to have it be “on our radar,” something we think about and consider.

Be “Slider Savvy”

For folks who want something more concrete, a helpful visual is this slider. It represents the same elements of the balance, but as a continuum from one extreme to the other. Our decisions about how much to “lean” toward one side or another can all fall somewhere along the slider:

balance explain-skim

For example, on our explain ~ skim balance, when thinking about talking to dad’s friend about pi day (March 14, or 3/14, so named for the number pi which begins 3.14), it probably makes sense to be somewhere around 80/20 skim. He may or may not know or be interested, but it couldn’t hurt to mention.

80-20 skim

…but in after school science club, it might be good to be more like 60/40 explain about pi day – to talk about it, and in some detail, but not so much detail that it takes the whole club time.

60-40 explain

Why bother think about audience?

In the U.S., people sometimes refer to our right to free speech to mean we can say whatever we want to whomever we want. In reality, there are often negative outcomes to making mistakes about what we say to whom. Talking about a topic to your boss that he finds inappropriate (too casual) could lead to getting fired. Talking in too much detail about something that a classmate isn’t interested in (too much explain) may mean they avoid working with me in the future.

The Balance Challenge is all about the thinking we can do in social situations to help us create the best outcomes for us and the people we’re with. Balancing casual and formal language, and explaining and skimming, can help to do just that.

And as always, remember this advice is not just for folks with ASD, but for neurotypicals as well. Anyone who knows me (or reads this blog…) knows that I myself can always benefit from trying to lean more toward skim!

For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.

I’m perfect! I stink! The First Balance Challenge.



Do you know anyone who thinks that he’s right all the time, like he’s incapable of making a mistake?
And do you know anyone who is so hard on herself that she thinks she can’t do anything right?

If you want to make good decisions that are going to satisfy yourself and people around you, you have to be push yourself to acknowledge when you make mistakes… but not push so hard that all you see is your flaws.

It’s tough. In order to problem-solve social situations well, you need the right dose of harsh honesty and self-confidence. That’s right: it’s a balance—between I’m OK and I make mistakes.

Only “I’m OK”

On Saturday Night Live, Stuart Smalley reminded us all that:

(We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggonit, people like us.)

extreme-okIt’s good to be confident, to have a positive image of yourself. It helps you take on challenges and be outgoing. But if that feeling of “I’m OK” gets pushed too far, then you end up thinking you’re perfect, that there’s no room for change or growth.

People who take I’m OK to the extreme think something like, “I’m fine, everyone else is crazy, I don’t need guidance or advice from anyone.” Whenever a problem arises, they blame the other person in all circumstances—even when they may have been part of the problem.

If a guy named Manny is working with his classmates on a science project, and he  insists that everyone use his idea and that he does the writing on the poster and he do the calculations—his classmates will likely be annoyed. And if Manny leaves the situation thinking he’s done everything right and the others were mistaken, he won’t think to make any changes to his behavior. So he’s not likely to have much success in future interactions.

Getting stuck only thinking I’m OK prevents you from honestly evaluating interactions so you can make decisions that you and the others around you will be happy with.

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When Off Topic is On Target


tangent comic

People often tell individuals with ASD to stay “on topic” in a conversation. And there’s some good reason: most people don’t like the feeling that a conversation that goes “off the rails” and turns into being about different than intended.

But do we always need to stay on topic? Have you ever thought about how a typical conversation goes? Many times, they don’t stay on one topic the whole time. It’s more like the conversation veers from the latest episode of Big Bang Theory… to theoretical physics… to physical education class.

So when do we need to stay on topic, and when is ok to stray from the topic a little? It may be helpful to think about finding a balance!

Balance Between Being On Topic and Off on a Tangent


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When to Hold Your Thought



Have you ever had an experience like this:

You’re working with a group of people, and there’s a long discussion about the best way to solve a problem. One person wants A, another person wants B, a third person wants C… but you know the best option: it’s Z! It’s so obvious! You think to yourself, It would be SO much easier and faster if everyone just listened to my idea!

Everyone has ideas and thoughts and reactions. And we usually think our ideas are the right ones, the best ones, the ones that make the most sense. Trouble is, other people are probably thinking the same thing!

This is just one of several things to consider when deciding whether or not to share your idea with the group. As with many things, a good way to inform that decision is to find a balance!

Finding a Balance Between Sharing a Thought and Holding a Thought

share thought-hold thought

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How Much Work Could a Work Chuck Work?


1319116855468_8606634What do you mean I can’t expect to play video games for four hours every night?!

Wait, what’s the homework? And when is it due? How long should it be? Is it OK if it’s longer than that?

I’ve recently heard quotes like these from different high school students with autism. One student seems to think any assigned work is a personal affront on his free time, and the other is incredibly diligent—sometimes too much so. Two very different students with two very different problems. I think the advice we give students is partially to blame.

Common Advice About Hard Work

Teachers and parents often give young people advice about the value of hard work. They say things like, always do you best, and the only things worth having come from hard work. There’s also put your nose to the grindstone, you only get out what you put in, and many more.

p32254These mantras are probably intended to inspire people to keep working on something that’s hard for them. In many cases, this is a nice thought. But there can be problems with this advice, generally speaking and particularly for autistic individuals.

What if someone takes that advice completely to heart and becomes anxious and stressed out, thinking they must work their hardest at all times?

The other problem is that people frequently advise others to do the exact opposite! They say don’t sweat the small stuff. And, take it easy.

Well, which one is it? Should we always work hard? Should we feel relaxed all the time and never worry? Seems to me we need to find a balance.

relax-work hard

Finding a Balance Between
Relaxing and Working Hard

It’s not possible to always do your absolute best. That would mean not sleeping so that you can revise that report one more time. And it’s not possible to always relax. You’d never complete anything that’s required of you (and the reality is that life is full of things that are required of you).

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