Inside the mind of a master procrastinator | Tim Urban

Inside the mind of a master procrastinator | Tim Urban


So in college, I was a government major, which means I had to write
a lot of papers. Now, when a normal student writes a paper, they might spread the work out
a little like this. So, you know — (Laughter) you get started maybe a little slowly, but you get enough done in the first week that, with some heavier days later on, everything gets done, things stay civil. (Laughter) And I would want to do that like that. That would be the plan. I would have it all ready to go, but then, actually, the paper
would come along, and then I would kind of do this. (Laughter) And that would happen every single paper. 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, and I decided I kind of had
to go something like this. This is how the year would go. So 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. So we had an awesome new revised plan. (Laughter) And then — (Laughter) But then those middle months
actually went by, and I didn’t really write words, and so we were here. 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. And they say, “Is this Tim Urban?” And I say, “Yeah.” And 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.” (Laughter) (Applause) That did not happen. (Laughter) It was a very, very bad thesis. (Laughter) I just wanted to enjoy that one moment
when all of you thought, “This guy is amazing!” (Laughter) No, no, it was very, very bad. Anyway, today I’m a writer-blogger guy. I write the blog Wait But Why. 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
to the non-procrastinators of the world 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. And to test this, I found an MRI lab that actually let me scan both my brain and the brain of a proven
non-procrastinator, so I could compare them. I actually brought them here
to show you today. I want you to take a look carefully
to see if you can notice a difference. I know that if you’re not
a trained brain expert, it’s not that obvious,
but just take a look, OK? So here’s the brain
of a non-procrastinator. (Laughter) Now … here’s my brain. (Laughter) There is a difference. 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. [This is a perfect time
to get some work done.] [Nope!] 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. (Laughter) Then — (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) “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!” (Sigh) Now, what is going on here? 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. Now, in the animal world, that works fine. If you’re a dog and you spend your whole life doing
nothing other than easy and fun things, you’re a huge success! (Laughter) And to the Monkey, humans are just another animal species. You have to keep well-slept, well-fed
and propagating into the next generation, which in tribal times
might have worked OK. But, if you haven’t noticed,
now we’re not in tribal times. We’re in an advanced civilization,
and the Monkey does not know what that is. 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. 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. And for the procrastinator, that conflict tends to end
a certain way every time, leaving him spending a lot of time
in this orange zone, an easy and fun place that’s entirely
out of the Makes Sense circle. I call it the Dark Playground. (Laughter) 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. And the question is, in this situation,
with the Monkey behind the wheel, how does the procrastinator ever get
himself over here to this blue zone, a less pleasant place, but where
really important things happen? Well, turns out the procrastinator
has a guardian angel, someone who’s always looking
down on him and watching over him in his darkest moments — someone called the Panic Monster. (Laughter) 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 career disaster or some other
scary consequence. And importantly, he’s the only thing
the Monkey is terrified of. Now, he became very relevant
in my life pretty recently, because the people of TED
reached out to me about six months ago and invited me to do a TED Talk. (Laughter) Now, of course, I said yes. It’s always been a dream of mine
to have done a TED Talk in the past. (Laughter) (Applause) But in the middle of all this excitement, the Rational Decision-Maker seemed
to have something else on his mind. He was saying, “Are we clear
on what we just accepted? Do we get what’s going to be now
happening one day in the future? We need to sit down
and work on this right now.” And the Monkey said, “Totally agree,
but let’s just open Google Earth and zoom in to the bottom of India,
like 200 feet above the ground, and scroll up for two and a half hours
til we get to the top of the country, so we can get a better feel for India.” (Laughter) So that’s what we did that day. (Laughter) As six months turned into four
and then two and then one, the people of TED decided
to release the speakers. And I opened up the website,
and there was my face staring right back at me. And guess who woke up? (Laughter) So the Panic Monster
starts losing his mind, and a few seconds later,
the whole system’s in mayhem. (Laughter) And the Monkey — remember,
he’s terrified of the Panic Monster — boom, he’s up the tree! And finally, finally, the Rational Decision-Maker
can take the wheel and I can start working on the talk. 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. And this entire situation,
with the three characters — this is the procrastinator’s system. 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. These are people who were nurses,
bankers, painters, engineers and lots and lots of PhD students. (Laughter) And they were all writing,
saying the same thing: “I have this problem too.” 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, about what this Monkey had done to them. And I thought about this, and I said, well, if the procrastinator’s system
works, then what’s going on? Why are all of these people
in such a dark place? Well, it turns out that there’s
two kinds of procrastination. Everything I’ve talked about today,
the examples I’ve given, they all have deadlines. And 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 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, 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, working on your relationship or getting out of a relationship
that isn’t working. 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. He has nothing to wake up for, so the effects of procrastination,
they’re not contained; they just extend outward forever. And 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 regrets. And I thought, that’s why
those people are emailing, and that’s why they’re
in such a bad place. It’s not that they’re cramming
for some project. It’s that long-term procrastination
has made them feel like a spectator, at times, in their own lives. The frustration is not
that they couldn’t achieve their dreams; it’s that they weren’t even
able to start chasing them. So I read these emails
and I had a little bit of an epiphany — that I don’t think
non-procrastinators exist. That’s right — I think all of you
are procrastinators. Now, you might not all be a mess, like some of us, (Laughter) and some of you may have
a healthy relationship with deadlines, but remember: the Monkey’s sneakiest trick is when the deadlines aren’t there. Now, I want to show you one last thing. I call this a Life Calendar. That’s one box for every week
of a 90-year life. That’s not that many boxes, 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 should
probably start today. Well, maybe not today, but … (Laughter) You know. Sometime soon. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator | Tim Urban

  1. My head: monkey,Human,stress monster, my parents.

    My parents in my brain like to chase the monkey away after it having some fun for 1-2 hours.

  2. If he is a master procrastinator, how did he find the energy and motivation to appear in a TED talk ?

    You would think a master procrastinator wouldnt even get his booty off a sofa for days.

  3. i have an end-sem paper in 14 hours. im pulling an all nighter, i pulled one yesterday for eco…

    this wasn't supposed to happen.

  4. Unfortunately my panic monster is in a straight jacket and the rational decision maker has a headache and wants a nap. Actually there are 2 decision makers but they dont get along so then the monkey runs the show while no one is watching. and the monkey really likes hitting the off button

  5. As a procastinator who kinda wants to publish at least one novel, instead of writing, I read…
    And that went on for years until one day, I found myself graduating as an engineer…
    I've made short stories but never finished.
    The stories are just too long to suddenly end it that I haven't finished one even after a decade.

  6. I m pretty sure he wrote this speech 30 mins before the TED talk because its trash ….. there is no content its just comedy … and a bed time story …. horrible

  7. it took me 7 minutes and ten seconds into the video to stop it and start doing something productive… oh the phone rings

  8. So, college student here (what a coincidence). I'm supposed to be doing a hard assignment due very soon… I started out proud of myself because I was on a very serious video looking for a short film/video to add to my paper, other paper, and presentation based off that second paper. ……I was literally right in the middle of it when this video caught my eye and now here I am. My pride is gone. But…I see another video about original thinkers' habits, and I'm a creative writer. Just that one last video I swear.

  9. I felt understood watching this. In college I once had the greatest gift to a procrastinator. It was the night before midterms and I had a two tests and a 10 page paper due the next day, and I had done absolutely nothing to prepare. Then I had a freak fall and dislocated my knee. It bought me a week, I still sucked at getting things done but it was better than doing it all in one night. It has taken me many years to try to break this terrible habit. I feel like I relapse sometimes (like right now), but I have gotten much better at it. On a happy note, I realize that my procrastination is the reason I'm good at Jeopardy, since I read so much random stuff at times I should be getting things done!!

  10. I have to study for my micro exam but I literally remembered this video existed so I went on YouTube looked it up and now I’m here procrastinating 💀

  11. I am currently on a bus, not knowing where it is going (just got on it for a ride) I did not want to activate my panic monster but it is here! Need to turn around and get work done 😬😣🤦‍♀️

  12. The google earth part really hits me because that's literally what I do in the library. The only thing different is I would zoom in to other countries😔

  13. AND I PROCRASTINATE UNTIL GETS THE BOREDOM OR THE MONEKEY GETS TIRED SAYING , UGHT , THAT IS NOT MORE FUN DO SOMETHING ELSE , I DON'T CARE .

    THE TIME SERIOUSLY BLEEDEDS OUT IN THE MONKEY TIME IN HOURS.

  14. FRUSTRATION WITH THE INTENSITY GOES TO SELF HATERED LEADING TO SELF HARM LEADING TO DISPAIR IN CERTAIN MOMENTS

  15. No joke these are literally laminated sheets that are put around my school and I am so happy that I found the original source.

  16. But the monkey theory doesn’t explain why you plan to do the most work at the end, instead of as soon as possible as non procrastinators do. 😦 the planning is already not like a planner would do . 😪
    I have been trying to figure this sort of thing out about me for a long time .
    Super funny talk

  17. Except most of the time I’m procrastinating I’m not having fun… I think it’s less about what’s easy/fun and more like “suddenly have to focus on/do/research whatever thought pops into my head.” I bet there is a correlation between procrastination and the accumulation of useless knowledge, ie. procrastinators that follow the same model as me are good at trivia lol

  18. Sometimes the panic monster doesn't wake up at all, that's the sad part of procrastination, when you think it's a good way to solute things.

  19. i have to take a shower, get dressed, have breakfast, do my hair, put some makeup on, and go to work

    i have 2 hours

    2 hours later: ill do it now… *PANIC* *ANXIETY* *STRESS* starts crying*

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