In Sight

Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator

Why we keep dragging our feet.

Satirical—Tim Urban, author of Wait But Why, takes the audience inside the mind of a serial procrastinator during his recent TED Talk. Photo: www.ted.com


by Tim Urban

So in college, I was a government major, which means I had to write a lot of papers. But then came my 90-page senior thesis, a paper you’re supposed to spend a year on. And I knew for a paper like that, my normal work flow was not an option. It was way too big a project. So I planned things out. I’d start off light, and I’d bump it up in the middle months, and then at the end, I would kick it up into high gear just like a little staircase. How hard could it be to walk up the stairs? No big deal, right?

But then, the funniest thing happened. Those first few months? They came and went, and I couldn’t quite do stuff. Then those middle months actually went by, and I didn’t really write words. And then two months turned into one month, which turned into two weeks. And one day I woke up with three days until the deadline, still not having written a word, and so I did the only thing I could: I wrote 90 pages over 72 hours, pulling not one but two all-nighters—humans are not supposed to pull two all-nighters—sprinted across campus, dove in slow motion and got it in just at the deadline.

I thought that was the end of everything. But a week later I get a call, and it’s the school. They say, “We need to talk about your thesis.” And I say, “OK.” And they say, “It’s the best one we’ve ever seen.”

That did not happen.

It was a very, very bad thesis.

Anyway, today I’m a writer-blogger guy. And a couple of years ago, I decided to write about procrastination. My behavior has always perplexed the non-procrastinators around me, and I wanted to explain what goes on in the heads of procrastinators, and why we are the way we are.

Now, I had a hypothesis that the brains of procrastinators were actually different than the brains of other people. 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?

So the Rational Decision-Maker will make the rational decision to do something productive, but the Monkey doesn’t like that plan, 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.”

We need to think about what we’re really procrastinating on, because everyone is procrastinating on something in life.

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.

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.

Which is why we have another guy in our brain, the Rational Decision-Maker, who gives us the ability to do things no other animal can do. We can visualize the future. We can see the big picture. We can make long-term plans.

Well, turns out the procrastinator has a guardian angel, someone who’s always watching over him in his darkest moments—someone called the Panic Monster.

Now, the Panic Monster is dormant most of the time, but he suddenly wakes up anytime a deadline gets too close or there’s danger of public embarrassment, a some other scary consequence. And importantly, he’s the only thing the Monkey is terrified of.

Now, the Panic Monster explains all kinds of pretty insane procrastinator behavior, like how someone like me could spend two weeks unable to start the opening sentence of a paper, and then miraculously find the unbelievable work ethic to stay up all night and write eight pages. It’s not pretty, but in the end, it works. This is what I decided to write about on the blog a couple of years ago.

When I did, I was amazed by the response. Literally thousands of emails came in, from all different kinds of people from all over the world doing all different kinds of things.

But what struck me was the contrast between the light tone of the post and the heaviness of these emails. These people were writing with intense frustration about what procrastination had done to their lives. I thought about this, and I said, Why are all of these people in such a dark place?

Well, it turns out that there are two kinds of procrastination. Everything I’ve talked about today, and the second kind, which happens in situations when there is no deadline. So if you wanted a career where you’re a self-starter—something in the arts, something entrepreneurial— nothing’s happening, not until you’ve gone out and done the hard work to get things going. There’s also all kinds of important things outside of your career that don’t involve any deadlines, like seeing your family or exercising, and taking care of your health or working on your relationship.

Now if the procrastinator’s only mechanism of doing these hard things is the Panic Monster, that’s a problem, because in all of these non-deadline situations, the Panic Monster doesn’t show up. It’s this long-term kind of procrastination that’s much less visible and much less talked about than the funnier, short-term deadline-based kind. It’s usually suffered quietly and privately. And it can be the source of a huge amount of long-term unhappiness and regret.

So I read these emails and I had a little bit of an epiphany—that I don’t think non-procrastinators exist. Now, you might not all be a mess like some of us, but remember: the Monkey’s sneakiest trick is when the deadlines aren’t there.

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. It’s a job that should probably start today.

Well, maybe not today, but . . .

You know. Sometime soon.

The full talk can be viewed at www.ted.com.