The Solution to Getting Your Work Done Sooner, Better, and With Less Stress

Procrastination is not just the thief of time — it’s the burglar of your peace of mind. This is how to get things done.


Malky McEwan

a year ago | 8 min read

In March, my niece asked me if I’d read over her final dissertation for her PhD before its submission.

“Of course. No problem. When is it due?”

“Not for six months.”

“Great. Send it to me in plenty time.”

“Will do, Uncle Malky.”

On Monday, I sat down at my computer and opened my emails. My niece had finally sent me her finished dissertation.

The time stamp showed she had sent it at 4 am that morning. The dissertation was due to be submitted by noon that day. I checked my watch; it was three minutes before the deadline.

Answer these honestly:

  • Do you procrastinate?
  • Do you think procrastination is good for you?
  • Do you think you need to procrastinate?
  • Do you think you work best closer to a deadline?

Whether you agree or not, experts will tell you procrastination is stealing your peace of mind. Chronic procrastination makes people more vulnerable to serious health conditions, like cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

How to Hack Your Thoughts to Eliminate Procrastination

Even if you don’t have a to-do list, you will still have a list of things to do. You think about them, leave them, forget them for a little while — but they always come back to haunt you. And then you feel guilty, anxious, or stressed.

Leaving your things-to-do list until the last moment can spoil your day, your workweek, and your weekend. You have a big rush to get it done at the last minute and then feel depleted and exhausted.

Procrastination is not just the thief of time — it’s the burglar of your peace of mind.

If you are one of those people who sit around thinking about what you’re supposed to be doing and not actually doing anything, you are a procrastinator.

You dawdle, slack, and prolong what’s necessary. There is nothing you can tell yourself — no excuses — that justifies the angst you experience by not getting it done.

But there is a solution.

We’re all busy

We’ve got things to do. And we all have distractions: kids, friends, relatives, TV, social media, laziness, sunsets, a fly buzzing to get out the window.

Maybe your parents did it or you saw your older brother or sister doing it. You might conclude that it’s in your genes — “I’m born to be a procrastinator.”

Or you conclude it is something you learned, a bad habit you picked up — like smoking or picking your nose.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the consequences of putting off writing your article, dissertation or work stream?
  • What difference does it make if you do it three months ago or finish it at 4 o’clock in the morning of the day it’s due?

Most of us feel terrible about it. You become anxious; you worry and this occupies your mind — so you miss out on other things. You earn less money, get lower grades or fail.

You aren’t the best you can be.

What’s going on in your head?

The reason you procrastinate is not what you think. But you can do something about it.

Procrastination means not doing something when you could be doing it.

Putting off doing anything is procrastination: the housework, your essay, making that phone call to your friend. These can create a feeling of apprehension. The longer you leave it, the worse it can get.

The problem is most people don’t understand why they procrastinate or why it is a problem — and it is as simple as understanding the way you evolved.

You have two operating systems in your brains. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman described them as system one and system two. I prefer to think of it as your primitive brain and your thinking brain.

The primitive brain does all its work in the background. This is the one we evolved from our hunter-gatherer background and produces our flight, fight, or freeze responses. Our most basic reactions to danger.

Our thinking brain gives us our executive function. The most recent — evolutionary speaking. The part of your brain that deals with long-term, creative, and strategic thinking. This is where your sense of discipline comes from.

The primitive part of your brain automatically responds when you perceive a threat. It is keeping an eye out for the face of a tiger in the woods. It’s a necessary survival mechanism.

— you wouldn’t be here if your ancestors hadn’t honed it to perfection.

Their automatic response to freak out at the slightest hint of danger kept them alive. When they got stressed, their primitive brain flooded their body with the hormones of cortisol and adrenaline.

These chemical reactions pushed up their heartbeat, helped them focus on the danger and become less sensitive to physical pain.

This made them run faster — they might not outrun a tiger, but they only needed to be faster than the slowest guy.

This helped them fight harder and longer — they only needed to be stronger than the weakest guy.

Your primitive brain is still there. It doesn’t know the difference between the stress you’re experiencing today and the dangers hiding in the woods. It’s always there, looking out for the thing that might kill you.

What goes through your head when your boss hands you a piece of work, when you first grasp the immense task you have in putting a 10,000-word dissertation together, or you assess any of the jobs you have in hand?

One of these, perhaps:

  • How long is this going to take?
  • Do I have the knowledge to do this?
  • Am I competent enough to do this properly?
  • Can I get it done in time?
  • What if I get criticised for my work?
  • What if I write this and no one reads it?

You worry.

Your primitive brain picks up on this. It doesn’t know the difference between the fear you feel for the bear that might physically rip you apart or the boss who might verbally rip you apart.

Your flight, fight or freeze response kicks in and all you want to do is get as far away from the piece of work as you can. Your primitive brain thinks the task is going to eat you.

It’s the little horrors in your head that spur your feelings of angst.

So if you are not under attack from anything other than the thoughts in your own head, what can you do about it?

Switch your thinking

You can believe that you work better under a deadline. You can leave things to the last minute and then sprint your way through the task. But you would kid yourself.

All that is happening is your thinking brain switches from worrying about your capability to do the task and transfers it to the deadline.

It’s no longer the work that you need to escape from to prevent it from eating you. The deadline becomes the crocodile in the swamp. It’s the deadline that scares you, not the work.

Avoidance is a poor strategy. And if the deadline is now the threat — your primitive brain floods you with cortisol and adrenaline, which allows you to sprint through the task.

The problem is the work you submit won’t be the best you can do.

You won’t have had time to read over your work properly. You won’t have been able to edit it thoroughly. You won’t have slept on it and come up with new ideas, or better wording.

And you won’t have had the chance to get feedback from your favourite uncle.

The solution

Let’s be honest, none of us enjoys procrastinating. It’s bad for us to have elevated stress levels and a constant feeling of apprehension. So get this — you don’t have to do everything at the last minute.

When you dread a task, remember that procrastination affects your creativity and strategic thinking. Your work will not be as good as it should be and you sacrifice your peace of mind.

Be realistic. If you are a writer, your writing needs editing. Your first draft will not be as good as if you spend the time reading it over, amending and improving.

If you want to avoid the stress of procrastination, you need to understand that your anxiety comes from your own thoughts. There is no external threat. That is a by-product of your evolutionary history.

If the threat is from your own thoughts, then you only need to learn to change those thoughts that cause your procrastination. If the cause of your stress is your thoughts, then the solution is also going to be your thoughts.


Figure out what you are thinking that is causing the procrastination. What is going through your head? Ask yourself: What am I afraid of? What am I trying to avoid?

Some of these might pop into your head:

  • I don’t know how to do this.
  • I can’t get this done in time.
  • I’ll get criticism from my boss
  • I’m not a great writer.
  • I’ve never done this before
  • I’ve got the wrong information

This process is an inquiry with yourself to find out what thoughts are going through your head. You need an internal audit to discover what is stopping you from doing the task.

When you think of the right answer, you will feel your heartbeat speed up and your breathing become deeper.

You don’t have to go beyond the obvious solution. It’s the one your brain tells you is hard and makes you get up off your seat because you think — ‘I’ve got better things to do.’

You can’t accept these thoughts at face value. These are superficial thoughts brought to you by your genetic propensity to run away from danger.


Replace these thoughts by going easy on yourself.

If we spoke to our partners the way we speak to ourselves, we’d all be single.

Reverse your thinking.

  • I can’t wait to learn how to do this.
  • I can get it done in time if I start now.
  • I’ll get praise from my boss if I do a great job.
  • I am improving as a writer, this will make me even better.
  • I’m looking forward to researching the information I need to get this done.
  • It’s not so hard.

Think up a new phrase, a new thought, something positive. Your self-talk should incorporate successes you have had in the past. Examples of your ability to get things done.

When your brain goes into procrastination mode and you’re flapping about with distractions, follow the same advice they give to a drowning man.

  1. Stop flapping.
  2. Put your head back and float.
  3. Get your bearings.
  4. Look in the direction you need to go.
  5. Calmly kick-off in that direction.

All that translates to your thinking:-

‘I’ll figure it out. I’ve done these things before. I’ve written excellent work before. I’ve worked on difficult products before. I can do this. This is something I can improve on. All I have to do is start and I’ll figure it out.’

You can go to a positive thought right away:

‘I’m a brilliant writer. I totally know how to do this. I’m gonna write the best thing ever.’

If that is too much, and you don’t really believe it, don’t get stressed. Find a more neutral tone:

‘Yeah, I’ll probably figure it out and I’ll get there in the end.’

You’re just trying to feel a little better and ease some of that anxiety so that you can actually do the work.

It’s getting yourself to the stage of thinking:

‘If I start the work now, I’m going to have a much better product and I’m gonna get much better feedback.’

Think about your abilities and your past accomplishments. Go back and read your best writing. Look at the positive feedback you previously received.

If it’s because you think you hate doing the work — ask yourself who told you that. Remember those horrible jobs you did before and the satisfaction you got from completing them.

The task might not be your favourite thing to do — but you know it’s really not that bad.

It’s all in your head

Your thoughts cause procrastination and they are also the solution.


Created by

Malky McEwan

Leadership author sharing outstanding performance through stories and humor.







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