Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

5 Ways to Get Started When You Just Don’t Feel Like It

5. Don't let guilt preoccupy your mind.

Key points

  • People often have a tough time switching gears from one task to another, especially when going from home to work or vice versa.
  • Increasing psychological space between life domains can help people get started and complete their goals.
  • By engaging more fully in activities, whatever or wherever they are, people can get more out of them and feel happier.

Are there days when you just can’t get started even though you know you have a lot to do? When you wake up, do you resolve to begin tackling your most challenging tasks without any delay? Perhaps it’s the beginning of the week and you have a long list of goals for what you need to have done by the end of the week. As you grab a quick breakfast, you head over to your closet to pick out what to wear but nothing seems quite right either for the weather or for what you’ve got planned for the day. Reaching into a drawer you find the perfect shirt, but it’s too wrinkled for prime time. You’ve got a choice of deciding whether to spend a precious five minutes to iron it, or just find something else. By the time you’re dressed and ready to go, you’re already way behind.

These sorts of situations can happen commonly, making it likely that you will thwart your ability to accomplish your goals. It could be the situation with your clothes, or it could be something that needs attention with your home, your computer, your kids, or your mode of transportation. Life can get in the way of life.

According to Temple University’s Ryan Vogel and colleagues (2021), although there is ample evidence to support the adage about the early bird catching the worm, “people do not always get right down to work each day” but instead linger in getting morning coffee, checking sports scores or online news updates, and—if in the workplace—chat with fellow employees. You’re not alone, then, if you find yourself dawdling when you should be focusing.

The Concept of Speed of Engagement

To understand this common but puzzling behavior, the research team introduced the concept of “speed of engagement,” which they define very simply as “how quickly an employee becomes energized and cognitively focused after beginning work.” As background for their work, Vogel et al. use what’s called “boundary theory” which concerns the way in which people negotiate transitions between their various domains of life but particularly between home and work. Because you perform best in one role when you’ve completely transitioned into it, by jumping into your work role—or whatever the transition is to—you up your chances for success.

There are obvious cognitive benefits to being immersed in what you’re doing but, as Vogel and his colleagues point out, there are also emotional ones. In their words, “At a high speed of engagement, employees are quickly able to become enthusiastic about the workday.” Being excited about your work can clearly benefit not only your productivity but your mood.

It’s important to note that speed of engagement isn’t limited to work settings. Any switch from one activity to another can involve similar processes. You can arrive home from work and either put off or quickly start preparing the evening meal. There are certainly many distractions at home that can mean major delays even in these presumably pleasurable tasks. You can also put off doing something around the house that needs fixing, or even beginning to work on one of your favorite crafts or hobbies.

In the overall model that Vogel and his colleagues tested, speed of engagement (in this case at work) is facilitated when people psychologically detach from home and reattach at work, which in turn, facilitates the level of engagement and ultimately their ability to meet their goals. Across two field studies conducted on large online samples of employees, the authors tested their model. In the first, they observed the relationships among these sets of factors over four different times of day.

Put yourself in the place of the participants by rating yourself on the following items:

  • Psychological detachment from home: “I have been able to forget about family/off-the-job concerns.”
  • Morning work reattachment: “I have been thinking about what I want to achieve at work today.”
  • Speed of engagement: “This morning, I quickly became immersed in my work.”
  • Level of engagement: “I have felt energetic at my job.”
  • Daily goal progress: “I fulfilled my roles and responsibilities more effectively than I typically do.”

After obtaining data that supported their initial theoretical model, in the second study, they tested an intervention designed to enhance speed of engagement to determine the impact on goal progress. The interventions were administered using smartphone voice memo functions, which employees were taught to use on the first day. In the “home detachment” intervention, participants created a recording in which they listed their three most pressing home or family life tasks and then were told simply to detach from these until the end of the day. The work intervention involved similar instructions, but with regard to important work tasks.

Turning now to the findings of the intervention study, the results further supported the model in showing that efforts to reduce boundary transitions between home or family life concerns and the workplace enhanced speed of engagement, which in turn led to increased productivity.

You might be wondering how changes in the workplace due to COVID-19 would affect the findings given that working from home has become more commonplace. Indeed, the authors checked for this possibility because although the study was carried out in 2018, 53 percent of the sample actually did work from home. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no difference in the findings based on employee location at the time of the study.

5 Steps to Speed Up Your Engagement

By now, you are probably convinced that the idea of the “early bird” seems to be a good one based on this empirical study. On this basis, here are the five steps that can get you to a quicker on-ramp in starting your own day:

  1. Create psychological space in between your role boundaries. Although the Vogel et al. study focused on work, the findings could easily apply to chores you might have to do in your non-work life. As enticing as it might be to remain in one of those spheres rather than switch to the other, tell yourself to set the previous one aside until after completing the other set of tasks. This is the most clear-cut conclusion from the study, but the other four follow from its logic as well.
  2. Catch the most obvious distractions that keep you from becoming fully engaged in your current task. Is it that online sports score you need to check, or perhaps there’s a vacation site calling your name? Come up with a list of the information you need to get for the task you’re trying to leave behind and make an “appointment” with yourself to get to it later.
  3. Reward yourself in a series of steps for staying on task. An old cognitive behavioral trick is to help build in a new behavior by providing reinforcement in small doses. Start with one hour of no distractions and then you can take a minute to engage in something that counts as a reward for you. Then you can build up to longer intervals, such as mornings before lunch break. If the Vogel et al. model is correct, you’ll actually end up being so engaged in whatever you’re doing that you forget about the distractions altogether.
  4. Ask people in each setting to help you maintain your role separation. You may have a colleague at work who loves chatting about new recipes or the latest movie. Without being too curt, request that the colleague let you return to the task at hand, promising to chat later when there’s a break.
  5. Don’t let guilt preoccupy your mind. One of the toughest aspects of leaving home behind for work or vice versa is the tendency that people have to feel that they’re being disloyal or uncaring by switching gears. Instead of letting those multiple obligations distract you further, resolve to focus your energy entirely on meeting one set of goals so that you can then go back to focusing 100 percent on the ones that you’ve temporarily set aside.

To sum up, by creating psychological space between your various life domains, these five approaches can help you maximize your fulfillment in each and every one.

LinkedIn image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock. Facebook image: ic36006/Shutterstock


Vogel, R. M., Rodell, J. B., & Agolli, A. (2021, October 14). Daily Engagement and Productivity: The Importance of the Speed of Engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.