Executive Functioning, School, Strategies

The Get-to-Work Routine

The First Step is Always the Hardest

One of the most challenging things about getting stuff done is just getting started.

If I asked you to go for a run, it would be pretty surprising if you were lying on the couch and then suddenly leapt up and started running. Instead, you’d get up, change your clothes, drink some water, maybe stretch, do some walking, head into a jog, and then really hit your stride. 59-599692_transparent-cartoon-couch-png-cartoon-person-lying-on

Getting to work is the same notion, but we don’t typically treat it with the same level of preparation. We often expect to be sitting watching TV and then be suddenly struck with the desire to be productive. But objects at rest want to stay at rest, and objects in motion, stay in motion.

Objects at rest want to stay at rest and objects in motion stay in motion.

When getting ready to go on a run, we complete a series of steps to prepare our brains and bodies for the upcoming tasks. We do something similar in the form of a bedtime routine. If you went straight from that run and then flopped down onto your bed, you likely wouldn’t fall right to sleep. We put on pajamas, dim the lights, brush our teeth, etc. These actions are not only functional, but they prime our brains for bed. They act to wind us down, just like stretching winds us up for a run.

Just like a bedtime routine, we need to think about a get-to-work routine. This is even more critical now that so many of us are working and learning from home. The lines between work and home are extremely blurred, and moving into “work mode” is significantly harder than it is when you are sitting in your classroom or office or the library.

Anatomy of a Routine

It can be helpful to think about your get-to-work routine in a three part framework:

  • Environment
  • Body
  • Mindset


We all have environments that are more conducive to work than others. Ideally, you have set up a work space that is curated for productivity (as much as is possible at home). But your get to work routine can help ready that environment a bit more. A few items that might be a part of your routine regarding environment:

  • Clear off the table
  • Turn on some appropriate background music
  • Let in some sunlight
  • Bring your box of supplies to the table
  • Get your computer and charger and get it plugged in at your work station
  • Announce to others that you are getting to work so they leave you alone


The running and bedtime examples are particularly illustrative for how you need to prepare your body for the task you are beginning. Are you trying to wind down? Rev up? Is this a sprint or a marathon? Asking a body in sleep mode to write an essay is like asking a body that just downed a red bull to go to relax. In the case of work, you are going for a state of ready alert. Not a resting heart rate but not racing either. Not hungry but not stuffed. We are looking to please Goldilocks here. Some ways to prep your body:

  • Drink a glass of water and eat a good snack
  • Stretch
  • Take a few deep breaths (if you need to wind down)
  • Do 10 jumping jacks (if you need to rev up)
  • Stand outside in the sun for two minutes


The final battle is in the mind. Entering a mindset that is ready and willing to work is crucial. Taking a few steps to ease the brain into the pool rather than cannonballing into the deep end of a project will go a long way toward building some momentum.

  • Turn on “Do Not Disturb” on phone or other step toward removing/reducing distractions
  • Say a mantra
  • Make an itemized to-do list
  • Close applications/windows/tabs on the computer that do not relate to work
  • Make a goal for your work session
  • Set a timer

Build Your Routine

Consider the list above to be a buffet. Now you get to built your own routine. You do not and should not) include everything from the list. Instead, try to pick one or two items from each category that feel like they would go a long way for you and make sense for what you need.

Get to Work Routine

Consider the obstacles and traps you tend to run into.

Are you unable to ignore phone notifications? Distraction management should be a part of your routine.

Do you do work in 5 different places? Make sure that your environmental cues are things you can recreate anywhere or create a mobile workspace.

Are you typically trying to rev up to work or wind down?

Be thoughtful about the order of your routine.

The order in which you do things should be as close to the same each time. This allows it to more easily become habit, as well as create a cascading effect when it comes to priming your brain for work. Be thoughtful about how they move into one another so that it is easy to execute in order.

Ease into it

Because order matters, your first item should also be one that is easy to do. 3 deep breaths. Drinking a glass of water. Changing the playlist. Simple, quick, and positive should be your goal for step 1.

What should be in your get-to-work routine?


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