Do you remember the procrastinator of your group from college days? The one who left everything to the last minute? Most likely an annoying type, that always had so much time to do things that were fun and adventurous while you were holed up at the library studying? Well blogger and consultant Tim Urban admits in his TED talk Inside The Mind of a Procrastinator, that he is that guy. Among other procrastinating habits, he is a graduate from Harvard University who left his 90-page senior thesis paper to the last two days to write.
In an effort to describe how his mind works to his friends he developed a hypothesis about the difference between the brain of a non-procrastinator vs that of a procrastinator:
“There is a difference,” says Urban. “Both brains have a Rational Decision-Maker in them, but the procrastinator’s brain also has an Instant Gratification Monkey. Now, what does this mean for the procrastinator? Well, it means everything’s fine until this happens.”
Apparently once the instant gratification monkey is in the picture it’s not so easy to stay on task. “So the Rational Decision-Maker will make the rational decision to do something productive, but the Monkey doesn’t like that plan,” continues Urban. “So he actually takes the wheel, and he says, ‘Actually, let’s read the entire Wikipedia page of the Nancy Kerrigan/ Tonya Harding scandal, because I just remembered that that happened.’”
“Then we’re going to go over to the fridge, to see if there’s anything new in there since 10 minutes ago. After that, we’re going to go on a YouTube spiral that starts with videos of Richard Feynman talking about magnets and ends much, much later with us watching interviews with Justin Bieber’s mom.”
“All of that’s going to take a while, so we’re not going to really have room on the schedule for any work today. Sorry!”
This repetitive cycle is no stranger to a procrastinator.
What is really happening here? Urban explains that, “he (The Instant Gratification Monkey) lives entirely in the present moment. He has no memory of the past, no knowledge of the future, and he only cares about two things: easy and fun.” Urban says that this could’ve been more acceptable during tribal times when roaming free was the lay of the land. But this thought process does not lead to success in modern times.
The conflict occurs when people can’t differentiate fun times from the times they need to put things together for the bigger picture. The procrastinator who is living too much of his life in the ‘fun times,’ actually ends up in what Urban calls a ‘Dark Playground.’ That’s when you’re at risk of the ‘Panic Monster,’ showing up. That usually happens when we are inching closer to a deadline and we cram in as much work as we can minutes before the deadline arrives.
When Urban posted these findings in an article online about procrastinators, he received a huge response from people everywhere. Nurses, bankers, painters, engineers and lots and lots of PhD students all found this concept most relatable.
“Well, it turns out that there’s two kinds of procrastination,” Urban states. “The first type is the ones who have the pressure of a deadline. The other type are the ones who aren’t faced with a deadline, so if you wanted a career where you’re a self-starter — something in the arts, something entrepreneurial — there’s no deadlines on those things at first, because nothing’s happening, not until you’ve gone out and done the hard work to get momentum, to get things going.”
That sounds fine except for the fact that those who aren’t faced with a deadline also get confronted by the Panic Monster, then this becomes an issue. “Because in all of these non-deadline situations, the Panic Monster doesn’t show up. He has nothing to wake up for, so the effects of procrastination, they’re not contained; they just extend outward forever.”
This is one of the biggest reasons why people are left feeling dissatisfied in their lives. “It’s usually suffered quietly and privately,” Urban says. “It can be the source of a huge amount of long-term unhappiness, and regrets.”
Urban found that the reason why so many people related to his article was because “long-term procrastination has made them feel like a spectator, at times, in their own lives,” he said. “The frustration is not that they couldn’t achieve their dreams; it’s that they weren’t even able to start chasing them.”
So then came the epiphany — “I don’t think non-procrastinators exist,” he says. “That’s right — I think all of you are procrastinators.” What he means by this is that some may have better control over their Instant Gratification Monkey, but when the deadlines aren’t there, we all have to be careful.
Urban ends with a calendar based on a 90-year life. He calls this the Life Calendar, with one box for every month.
“That’s not that many boxes,” he says. “Especially since we’ve already used a bunch of those. So I think we need to all take a long, hard look at that calendar. We need to think about what we’re really procrastinating on, because everyone is procrastinating on something in life. We need to stay aware of the Instant Gratification Monkey. That’s a job for all of us. And because there’s not that many boxes on there, it’s a job that we should probably start today.”