INSIDE THE MIND OF A MASTER PROCRASTINATOR
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Overview from TED
Tim Urban knows that procrastination doesn't make sense, but he's never been able to shake his habit of waiting until the last minute to get things done.
In this hilarious and insightful talk, Urban takes us on a journey through YouTube binges, Wikipedia rabbit holes and bouts of staring out the window - and encourages us to think harder about what we're really procrastinating on, before we run out of time.
"The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn't actually fun, because it's completely unearned, and the air is filled with guilt, dread, anxiety, self-hatred."
With Wait But Why, Tim Urban demonstrates that complex and long-form writing can stand out in an online wilderness choked with listicles and clickbait.
Now here is the type of TED Talk - or “content” in general - that I relish. It’s a topic that I’m interested in, it made me laugh and I learned something.
I’ve been a fan of Tim Urban’s blog, Wait But Why, for years so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve watched his TED Talk – Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator – at least a dozen times since it was first published in 2016. And judging by the 38.5 million views on TED’s website (and 28 million YouTube views), I’m clearly not alone.
Urban describes his blog as “a popular long-form, stick-figure-illustrated blog about almost everything.” And, lucky for us, his stick-figure pals were along for the ride for what has been – to date – his only TED Talk.
If you have watched any of my own iluli by Mike Lamb videos (on my website or YouTube channel) you’ll know that I too favour fun – bordering on wacky – animations to break down complex topics. For some, it may appear infantile - after all, stick men and cartoon characters are usually reserved for primary schools posters - but I disagree.
As adults, we spend enough time with our noses buried in wordy documents and data. If we choose to spend what little free time we have on expanding our knowledge, we should at least enjoy the process!
The same applies to producing content.
Here is where I believe Urban and I are cut from the same cloth. If I wanted to stand at the front of a stuffy lecture theatre talking at sleepy students about open source software, credential stuffing and artificial intelligence, then I would have become a professor. Instead, I have the opportunity to reach new audiences in engaging and entertaining ways – and I love it. I find genuine enjoyment in creating content – brainstorming new ideas, storyboarding animations, writing and narrating scripts... I’m passionate about the topics I talk about, and I hope my iluli channel goes a small way in sharing that passion with others.
Urban is clearly passionate too. And incredibly funny.
You only need to watch a few minutes of Urban’s talk to feel he wouldn’t be out of place on the stand-up circuit. He delivers his lines effortlessly; pausing the perfect amount of time for the conference hall to erupt with laughter as he introduces us to his fine-liner characters: the Rational Decision-Maker, the Instant Gratification Monkey and, wait for it… the aptly named Panic Monster! Someone we’ve all had a visit from at least once this month already, I’m sure…
As the talk unfolds, each character has an important role to play in explaining how and why we procrastinate. And I bet it’s only a matter of time before you too acknowledge the existence of that pesky Monkey in your own mind! It’s time to find out…
THE INSTANT GRATIFICATION MONKEY
Picture this. You’ve woken up, got dressed, enjoyed a bit of breakfast whilst reading the newspaper then sat down at your desk with a piping hot coffee. You boot up your computer, ready to face the day ahead and then… nothing. Your eagerness to “get on with it” dissipates faster than you down your espresso.
Instead of feeling focused and energised, you find your mind wandering. I’m still a bit peckish, maybe I should have had that third Weetabix… I’m feeling warm today, perhaps I’ll get that desk fan on order ready for the summer… Ah, commentator Andrew Cotter’s posted another video of his adorable Labradors on Twitter – I must watch it, post-haste!
Whatever the non-task-in-hand-related thoughts that occupy your mind, Urban asserts that the Instant Gratification Monkey is to blame.
But he looks so fun?! How can the Monkey be to blame? It’s precisely BECAUSE he represents “fun” that we run into issues. For the Monkey, Urban states, leads us to an “easy and fun place… the Dark Playground”:
"Now, the Dark Playground is a place that all of you procrastinators out there know very well. It's where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn't actually fun, because it's completely unearned, and the air is filled with guilt, dread, anxiety, self-hatred -- all of those good procrastinator feelings."
This makes sense. After all, surely there would be no such concept as procrastination if we didn’t deem it to be a “bad thing”. If we freely undertook other tasks (such as leisure activities) with zero consequence, then what’s the harm? But there are consequences – to our mind, body, health and happiness – and serious ones at that.
In March 2019, the NY Times published an article by Charlotte Lieberman, asserting that procrastination isn’t about laziness. She explained:
"Etymologically, “procrastination” is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare — to put off until tomorrow. But it’s more than just voluntarily delaying. Procrastination is also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia — doing something against our better judgment…
"… That self-awareness is a key part of why procrastinating makes us feel so rotten. When we procrastinate, we’re not only aware that we’re avoiding the task in question, but also that doing so is probably a bad idea. And yet, we do it anyway."
"If it seems ironic that we procrastinate to avoid negative feelings, but end up feeling even worse, that’s because it is. And once again, we have evolution to thank. Procrastination is a perfect example of present bias, our hard-wired tendency to prioritize short-term needs ahead of long-term ones."
Just like Urban’s Monkey character, then.
Urban’s initial doodle shows a Rational Decision-Maker at the helm in a non-procrastinator’s brain. It makes rational decisions to do something productive – starting that big project, writing that dissertation, replying to that email from your boss. But then the Instant Gratification Monkey grabs the wheel.
"The Instant Gratification Monkey does not seem like a guy you want behind the wheel. He 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."
"[The Rational Decision-Maker] 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. And he wants to take all of that into account. And he wants to just have us do whatever makes sense to be doing right now.
"Now, sometimes it makes sense to be doing things that are easy and fun, like when you're having dinner or going to bed or enjoying well-earned leisure time. That's why there's an overlap. Sometimes they agree. But other times, it makes much more sense to be doing things that are harder and less pleasant, for the sake of the big picture. And that's when we have a conflict."
THE BIGGER PICTURE
To my mind, it’s the real-life equivalent of your toddler trying to drag you away from writing an important report to participate in a teddy bear tea party. The tea party might be fun, for a while, but before you know it you’re racked with guilt: you’re going to miss your deadline, you’re letting your employer / colleagues down, you know you can do better, you feel like a failure.
Your toddler has no concept of consequences or “the future” in this respect. They want to be entertained in the here and now.
It’s easy to think that procrastination relates to time spent diving down Wikipedia rabbit holes or entering what Urban terms a “YouTube spiral”, but that’s not always the case. As Lieberman rightly points out, the activity that you do in place of the “rational” choice doesn’t necessarily represent laziness or bad time management.
Spending quality time with my children is a prime example. It’s not a “lazy” option, nor a wasteful one. What it represents, however, is the wilful decision to prioritise short-term enjoyment over longer-term rewards.
If I were to focus and complete my report by working those extra hours on a Friday afternoon, I could then have the entire weekend to play with my children – without guilt – and have helped my employer and colleagues in the process. But by diverting my attention to enjoy the “present” (allowing the Monkey to take the helm), my pre-occupation with the unfinished report – whether conscious or subconscious - would no doubt leave all parties feeling ultimately unsatisfied.
Having watched Urban’s talk you might feel like the Monkey is more of a hindrance than a help; that you’d be a much more productive, efficient and organised person without that crazy critter at the controls. That may be true, but you’d also be really boring. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, after all!
The reality of life is that we do have to make hard choices. Sometimes the Rational Decision-Maker does need to take control – with a little help from the Panic Monster to ensure we meet deadlines. Our lives are dictated by the need to earn money to pay bills, to feed our family and keep a roof over our heads, but there has to be fun along the way or what’s the point?
What us procrastinators require most is balance; for the Rational Decision-Maker and Instant Gratification Monkey to work hand-in-hand to steer a steady course. Without it, it is surely only a matter of time before the primates are running the asylum!