Blogger Tim Urban on Inside the mind of a master procrastinator at TED Talk conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator by 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, 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.
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. 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. 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. And then – 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.”
That did not happen.
It was a very, very bad thesis. I just wanted to enjoy that one moment when all of you thought, “This guy is amazing!” 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.
Now, here’s my brain.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
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!
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.