We’ve all been there! You assigned your client some homework to do over the week, and they didn’t do it. You might be like me in that upon learning they didn’t do it, your mind starts racing with thoughts like “There must have been a problem with the homework I gave them” or “The assignment wasn’t a good fit for them; maybe they just need another idea.” At this point, I feel a tremendous pressure to not shame the client by dwelling on what they didn’t do, and to come up with another brilliant homework assignment. I’ll then start generating a new idea that I think will work perfectly for their presenting problem. I’ll put a lot of effort and enthusiasm into describing the idea, how it could help them, and how they can practically apply the concept over the next week. The client agrees to practice the idea, record some reflections, and report the following week how it went. I breathe a sigh of relief that I quickly put that fire out and have full confidence that the client is motivated and will come back next week with a glowing report about how great the homework was… I do this only to be disappointed again.

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So what is the right move at this point? Do I abandon all hope that the client will ever complete a homework assignment and therefore never give out assignments again? Do I make a paradigmatic shift and drop homework altogether from my clinical work? Or do I put my nose to the grindstone and continue generating ideas and homework assignments for the client?

Sadly, I’ve found myself stuck in the performance trap, which is the pressure to wow the client every week with a new idea. However, this option comes with many pitfalls. First, the pressure to wow the client is completely misguided. Rather than wowing the client, I should be holding them accountable. They made an agreement to do the homework, and I need to hold them to that. If the situation were reversed, I would have to be accountable to them. And, in fact, this does often happen in the clinical contexts. The client may want me to fill out some paperwork, forward their notes to another provider, provide them billing information, or email them a resource discussed in session. I agree or not, and then I am accountable to fulfilling my end of the bargain. This makes sense. That seems reasonable.

So why, then, do I drop this standard when it comes to the client? Secondly, moving on to another idea doesn’t provide any information as to why they didn’t do the homework. Maybe there is a clinically relevant reason why they didn’t do it. And, quite possibly, understanding why they didn’t do it could be the secret to unlocking the reason why they are seeing me in the first place. Thirdly, the pressure I felt to come up with great idea after great idea was removing the work from the client and placing it on myself. In essence, I was creating a context where my client was dependent on me, resulting in a situation where they didn’t value the work I was doing. Why should they have to act on an idea I suggested this week, when next week I may have something even better?

I can remember a couple with whom I had been working for a few weeks and found myself stuck in the performance trap. We had spent enough time building trust, gaining an understanding of the problem, exploring their story and relationship history that I thought they were ready to test out a few of the ideas we discussed. So I gave them a homework assignment, taking care to explain how it related to their presenting problems, how it would help them reach their treatment goals, and what the homework would look like using practical examples. The couple wholeheartedly agreed to do the homework, and the session ended with a buzz of excitement. When I asked how the homework went during our next session, they put their palms to their foreheads and said, “Whoops! We forgot.” I said, “That’s okay. No problem. Maybe the homework assignment wasn’t a good idea.” And then I proceeded to explore another idea from my therapist bag that could address the problem and get them closer to their treatment goals. Little did I know that this was the start of a trend that would last session after session. After months of getting nowhere, the couple terminated therapy. They said they liked me and appreciated my efforts, but they just weren’t getting anywhere. I now realize why.

As you can see from this scenario, I was fully engrossed in the performance trap. Sure, I felt like I was working hard for the clients, and they even appreciated my efforts, but that had no effect on their making real, tangible movement towards their goals. And that is the whole point. If my efforts are not getting the client closer to their goals, then that is cause for reflection and re-evaluation. So don’t make the same mistakes I did. Rather, follow these recommendations when giving your client homework: don’t abandon giving your client homework, keep your client accountable, understand the “why” when they don’t do homework, resist the urge to generate idea after idea, and (yes, it’s cliché but true) don’t work harder than your client. 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy