When you start therapy or coaching, you probably expect to be doing most of the work in-session, working directly with your amazing coach or therapist. But what happens when the session ends?
If you’re just starting your therapy or coaching journey, it might surprise you to find that many therapists and coaches assign homework in between sessions, and it’s even an integral part of certain types of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
“It’s important to learn and fully understand the skills we explore during sessions and it is equally important to know how to apply those skills in your real life situations,” says Irene Chin, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “When I assign ‘homework’ it is to foster positive change in your life slowly but surely. However, the amount of homework can be tweaked to best fit your needs.”
If your school graduation days are behind you, you might think your homework days are long gone as well. But in this new stage of your learning and development, that might not be the case! Here are a few of our therapists and coaches on why they might assign homework in between sessions and what it might look like for you.
Many times, therapists and coaches will assign homework so that you can practice the skills you explored during your session in the “real world.”
“While we work together on developing insight during our sessions, it’s between sessions when you have the opportunity to put these insights into practice in your life,” says Christine Carville. “Being able to take home specific tools to use in tough situations or emotionally charged moments allows for you to experience the learning and gain confidence. It’s like learning a language—you can go to class once or twice a week but it takes using the language on a daily basis to become fluent and confident. In a lot of ways, therapy is learning the language of emotional intelligence and in-vivo experience is vital.”
Some therapists and coaches find that assignments or other exercises to practice in between sessions can help clients gain a sense of continuity and growth as their therapy or coaching journey progresses.
“I have found that often people leave sessions feeling elated, unburdened, and with an increased sense of comfort and clarity,” says Sky Koltun. “Sometimes this experience can feel difficult to hold onto between sessions. I am always prepared to work with people to create a sense of continuity between sessions or come up with ways to hold or continue to cultivate what they feel they have gained from the work we do in the session. I have often recommended books, writing/journaling exercises, breathing, and meditation techniques, and help clients to create their own practices.”
Therapists and coaches who do assign homework sometimes believe that most of the work actually happens outside the session where you can apply what you learn when you worked together.
“I do assign work in any form that works best for you,” says Hannah Evans. “I can provide handouts and worksheets, book recommendations, journal prompts, behavior change activities to engage in, etc. Both you and I will discuss how the homework or activity went, exploring your thoughts, feelings, and interpretations to progress towards your therapy goals. There are 168 hours in a week and change will not occur in the one hour we meet each week. Therefore, most of the work for therapy happens outside of session where you apply the skills learned in session.”
In many situations, what you put into it is what you get out of it, and therapy and coaching are often no different. The more work you do outside of your sessions, the better your results can be.
“I always tell clients that coming to therapy and/or coaching is a bit like buying a gym membership: it's great that you have committed to bettering yourself, but you have to be patient and you have to be ready to put in consistent work to see results,” says William Hasek. “If you are only engaging in self-reflection for one hour a week with me, I don't think that will be of great benefit to you—just like you won't see many benefits if you only go to the gym one hour a week. You have to put in the time and energy outside of our sessions to experience the benefits.”
But all of our coaches and therapists agree on one thing, and that is that you and your therapist or coach will work together to find what works best for you.
“I don't like to simply ‘assign’ activities for you to do outside of session because I want you to be active in creating solutions and committing to action, says William. “We will develop these activities collaboratively so you have a voice in the changes you are undertaking.”
While homework can be worksheets or journaling, you might be surprised how varied and creative your “assignments” can be!
“Sometimes the homework can look like ‘Try to take note of what is happening before and after your anxiety sets in,’” says Evelina Rodriguez. “Other times I may offer an article, book, or activity to continue processing over the course of time between sessions.”
The homework doesn’t always look like “work” either.
“If you are struggling with burnout, I would encourage you to think about one simple yet pleasurable activity such as listening to soothing music and schedule this specific event at a certain time of day,” says Catherine Kim.
In fact, homework often looks a lot like “real life,” which is kind of the point.
“Homework helps to reinforce skills discussed and practiced in session,” says Fanteema Barnes. “Assignments can range from completing worksheets, practicing mindfulness techniques, socializing, going on a date, reflecting on what we discussed in session, giving yourself compliments daily, engaging in a hobby, reading an article, purchasing a self-help book, watching a video or TED talk, or even having a conversation with a loved one.”
Leora Mandel gives a few more creative homework examples:
And your homework doesn’t have to stay the same—as you progress through your therapy or coaches journey, your assignments might change as you do.
“At the start of treatment, homework mostly consists of reflecting on behaviors, examining thoughts, and understanding relational and coping patterns,” says Shari Norton. “Toward the middle of treatment, homework may consist of practicing skills between sessions and through activities such as journaling. As treatment comes to an end, homework becomes less frequent, and consists of reflecting on changes that occurred from the start of sessions.
Again, your therapist or coach will work with you to determine the best course of action for you at that particular time in your life.
“Some people find the process of additional homework to be stress-inducing, adding yet another thing to their already piled-high list, and if this is the case then I might just ask the client to take a mental picture of something that happened to bring into the next session, maybe something around a triggering event, a dream, or just a thought that they keep ruminating about,” says Andrea Yuen-Sing Chan. “For others, homework helps to ease the transitions between sessions and to make the person feel as if they are doing something. In this case, because it can reduce anxiety and is also therapeutically useful, I will ask for journal entries, or to practice behavioral interventions and then to notate them in a journal. Occasionally I suggest a book or article that might be helpful to the client.”
If the idea of homework isn’t appealing to you, that’s totally fine too—not all coaches and therapists are into it either.
“I do not assign homework,” says Shaina Ferguson. “I believe that each of us have different ways of processing what may come up in therapy. You may find yourself reflecting upon the content of sessions outside of sessions and may want to journal or process through art or movement. You may choose to bring writing or other forms of expression into therapy and that is welcomed, but no formal homework will be assigned.”
Some therapists and coaches won’t assign you homework, but you’re more than welcome to develop exercises yourself and share them with your coach or therapist in-session.
“I believe that therapy has to be client-centered and based on your personal experience, not out of a book or on a worksheet,” says Autumn Potter. “I may ask you to take notice of certain experiences outside of a session or ask you to collect specific art materials. That being said, I also have clients who have come up with their own homework, such as ‘this week I am going to refrain from using Instagram.’ I believe that the directive coming from the client holds significantly more power than something I would assign.”
Homework doesn’t always fit with the kind of care you’re receiving, and that’s okay. But self-reflection is usually encouraged!
“I find that assigning homework does not fit well with my style of work which is more focused on expression of, and reflection on, feelings and thoughts within a supportive therapy relationship in order to build a level of insight that I feel can ultimately produce meaningful changes,” says Michael Nettis-Benstock. “At the same time, I feel that our work doesn’t stop at the end of the session and I always encourage you to reflect on what we discuss in our sessions throughout the week, but not in a way that feels like an assignment.”
“Part of the co-created coaching process depends on ‘fieldwork’ or homework in between sessions where clients are accountable for making real-world progress on short- and long-term goals,” says Ilysse Rimalovski.
“Oftentimes I assign small tasks in between sessions,” says Jordyn Norman. “I feel this is a good way to be able to measure progress.”
“I will at times assign what I like to call ‘projects’ in between sessions,” says Pam Skop. “The reason that I do this is that the real work happens outside of therapy. I generally meet with clients once a week for forty-five minutes and a lot can be discussed at that time, but it is what they do with that once they leave my office that leads to lasting changes. We will discuss the ‘project’ at the next session and use it as a learning tool to move forward.”
“Any ideas for tasks between sessions arise from our conversations during the session,” says Alena Gerst. “As you reveal to me what you feel you are lacking, we find ways to begin to slowly and intentionally integrate what you are searching for into your life. I call these tasks ‘Marching Orders’ (referring to the book The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron). Occasionally, these ‘assignments’ may feel challenging as you come to terms with what is true for you. But usually they are designed to unlock creativity, joy, and delight.”
“As a former teacher, I know that the word ‘homework’ might make some cringe, so I prefer to call it ‘practice,’” says Alison Abrams. “Time between sessions is priceless. It provides you with more time to extend the learning you do in our sessions into the real world.”
“There definitely will be times when I may make recommendations for ‘homework’ (or as I like to refer to it, ‘a challenge’) depending on what we're working through or if I think it could be relevant or helpful,” says Faith Bowen. “I typically don't do this every session—unless that is something you'd like.”
“I believe that I'm not here to help you grow just during the sessions but I want the growth and change to be sustainable in the long run,” says Kimberly Weimer. “I typically will cater your 'homeplay' (homework) around self-care tasks that you are interested in. This might include meditation, journaling, a gratitude practice, breathwork, yoga or some form of exercise. I will encourage readings, podcasts, and activities that fit with your struggles and goals.”
“For example if you have OCD you will have exposure exercise,” says Kimberly. “If you struggle with anxiety or depression you might have a thought journal and mindfulness exercises. If you are struggling with self-esteem or imposter syndromes you will likely be assigned affirmations and self love exercises. Homeplay is not mandatory but encouraged. I want you to have the skills to maintain the ‘new you’ long term and continue in your growth process even after we are no longer working together."
“Our activities depend on your goals, what motivates you, and what has worked in the past,” says Krissi Franzen. “Most of our assignments involve being curious and experimenting, whether it's with coping strategies, grounding techniques, or practicing communication skills. If you're freaked out by homework, don't fret! If it's not a strategy that is successful for you, let's find things that do work!”
Mainly, you and your therapist or coach will work together to figure out what’s best. Be sure to share what’s working and not working for you so can find the best way forward for you.
“This is a conversation that we will have together!” says Em Kane. “If you're someone who enjoys being given homework and tasks for outside of sessions I can make that a component of our work. For others though this just adds stress, so it isn't necessary!”
Your therapist or coach is there to support you so you can get the care you deserve. Through your collaborative relationship, you can discuss how they can best facilitate your therapy or coaching journey. If you’re ready to get started, find your perfect match now. Still not sure if you might benefit from therapy or coaching? Our quiz might help.
“For some clients, homework is enjoyed, embraced and needed, however, not all clients like this,” says Christina Viera. “As a result, it is our job (client and therapist) to discover what works best for you, so that you can get the most out of therapy.”
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.