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.
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.
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 that 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.
Now, of course, I said yes. It’s always been a dream of mine to have done a TED Talk in the past. 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 we’re going to scroll up for two and a half hours till we get to the top of the country, so we can get a better feel for India.” So that’s what we did that day.
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?
So the Panic Monster starts losing his mind, and a few seconds later, the whole system’s in mayhem. 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. And this is what I decided to write about on the blog just 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.
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 want to be 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 momentum, 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, 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 these 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.