If you are a chronic procrastinator, this TED talk by Tim Urban might hit close to home. While most articles and videos out there about “how to beat procrastination” offer advice on how to be more productive, or offer ineffective motivational quotes, Urban looks at procrastination from a different perspective. Instead of trying to force motivation upon us, he simply leaves us with a different, if not sobering, way to think about the procrastination in our lives. It’s still up to each of us to motivate ourselves to start whatever we’re procrastinating on, but his perspective makes this step (the part where you finally get started) seem less of a burden and more a form of empowerment.
The basis of Urban’s talk is that all people have a little person in their brain called the “Rational Decision Maker.” It helps us make decisions based on things like our future and what’s best for us. Procrastinators, however, are also host to another brain creature: the Instant Gratification Monkey.
The Instant Gratification Monkey is pretty self-explanatory: it seeks instant gratification from what is fun and easy, rather than motivating us to do what will give us long-term success and happiness. The Rational Decision Maker has no power over the Instant Gratification Monkey, no matter how rational its arguments against it are. The Monkey, free to take the wheel in our brain, takes us to what Urban calls the “Dark Playground.”
This is where, instead of completing a task, we avoid it by doing things that are physically or emotionally easier. Instead of starting a project, we check our email for the fortieth time today, we go grocery shopping, or maybe we just take a nap instead. Yet, instead of being fun or relaxing (which the Instant Gratification Monkey is seeking), the Dark Playground is only full of guilt, self-loathing, and even helplessness. There is only one thing in the world that can override the Instant Gratification Monkey: the Panic Monster.
The Panic Monster only arrives when a deadline is approaching, or there is impending risk of public embarrassment or disapproval. The Panic Monster is the only thing that makes the Instant Gratification Monkey run away and leaves the Rational Decision Maker to take back the control and frantically do whatever task needs to be done. Most of the time, this works out. Crunch time will inevitably be stressful and will potentially involve one or more all-nighters for the procrastinator. But in the end, the procrastinator gets the job done.
There’s only one problem.
Sometimes, the things we want to do don’t involve deadlines. There’s no big, scary Procrastination Monster to scare us into action. We dream about writing a book, or starting a business, or learning a new language. But the Instant Gratification Monkey keeps hold of the wheel because he can. He has nothing to worry about, and he knows it.
But the thing is, now we know he’s there. You know he’s there. In his blog, Urban defines procrastination as “The act of ruining your life for no apparent reason.”
Don’t let procrastination define you. Now that you understand what’s going on inside your head, you have the power to change it. It’s as good a time as ever to take the first step.
(Listen to Urban’s talk here. It’s worth it).