The term paper looms. Your computer sits open before you, the cursor blinking on your pristine white screen like a tiny black devil come to taunt you. On the corner of your screen, a notification pops up. Now you have a choice. You can either start writing the paper that’s due next week, or you can watch the latest YouTube video on Poodle-haircuts gone wrong.
If you choose the Poodle, you’re not alone. Tim Urban’s hilariously entertaining TED Talk entitled “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator” has gotten over 10 million views and counting.
Urban tells us, “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: 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, ‘cause I just remembered that that happened!”
If you’re siding with the monkey on this little anecdote, you likely live in what Urban refers to as “The Dark Playground.” This is a place where you’re constantly distracted by what is fun and easy, but although you’re on a playground, the guilt, shame, and anxiety of not earning that playtime colors the whole experience.
Fortunately for those of you who can relate to this, there is the procrastinator’s guardian angel, which Tim Urban lovingly refers to as “The Panic Monster.” The Panic Monster shows up to scare the Monkey away when the Monkey has squandered the time away, and the deadline is immediate.
Urban recounts his thought process when he was invited to participate in a lifelong dream: to be the speaker at a TED Talk.
“But in the middle of all this excitement, the rational decision maker seemed to have something else on his mind. He said: ‘Are we clear on what we just accepted? Do we now get what’s going to be happening one day in the future? We need to sit down and work on this right now!’ And the monkey said: ‘Totally agree, but also, let’s just open Google Earth and zoom into the bottom of India, like, 200 feet above the ground, and we’re going to scroll up for two and half hours ‘til we get to the top of the country so we can get a better feel for India.’”
Ironically, the talk was to be on procrastination, a topic Urban had covered extensively in his popular long-form stick-figure blog “Wait But Why.” Urban recounts the emails he received after sharing his thoughts on procrastination. They all expressed “Intense frustration about what this monkey had done to their lives… about what this monkey had done to them… Long-term procrastination has made them feel like a spectator at times, IN THEIR OWN LIVES.”
“It turns out that there’s two kinds of procrastination..The examples I’ve given all have deadlines. When there’s deadlines, the effects of procrastination are contained to the short term, because the panic monster gets involved. But there’s a second kind of procrastination that happens in situations when there is no deadline. So, if you want to have 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 at first, not until you’ve gone out and done the hard work to get some momentum; to get things going… It’s this long-term kind of procrastination that’s much less visible, and much less talked about.”
Now here’s the kicker.
Urban doesn’t believe non-procrastinators exist. He believes we’re all procrastinating about something. We all have-- excuse the cliche-- a monkey on our backs. And we all need to be aware of it when he (or she) takes the wheel.
His ending argument? Life is short. He puts up a visual filled with tiny boxes, one for each week in a 90 year life. It’s not that long. For online high school students, your future begins with what you do today. So, in the words, of Master Procrastinator Tim Urban, be aware of your instant gratification monkey. Be aware of why you’re procrastinating. And embrace your life while you can.