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During the Super Bowl, probably about halftime, I was on my way home after running some errands. I had the radio on and was listening to an interview with Tim Urban about procrastination.  Tim, a blogger whose blog, Wait but Why, explores procrastination.  He described his early theory that procrastinator’s brains were different than non-procrastinators.

He tested this theory by arranging MRIs of his brain and a friend’s, who he believed was not a procrastinator. He described the results in a hilarious TED Talk, illustrated with pictures that looked to have been drawn by a fourth grader.  Both brains have a Rational Decision Maker who is depicted with a steering wheel one would see on a ship; however, the procrastinator’s brain also has an Instant Gratification Monkey.  Every time a procrastinator starts to do something that’s necessary to keep his ship on course, the Instant Gratification Monkey takes over, grabs the steering wheel and replaces it with an activity that’s fun and completely non- productive.

When a deadline approaches, the third character living in the procrastinator’s brain, the Panic Monster, takes over and scares the Instant Gratification Monkey back up into his tree so the Rational Decision Maker can take over long enough for the activity to be completed, typically at an irrational pace.

He went to explain that after the TED talk he received thousands of EMAILs from people saying they had the same problem and how frustrated they were that they couldn’t control the Monkey.    EMAILS came from doctors, engineers, and lots of PhD students, people who’d had great accomplishments that made him realize there are two types of things we procrastinate about; those that have deadline and those that don’t’ but we’re all procrastinating about something. 

We all have a Rational Decision Maker, an Instant Gratification Monkey, and a Panic Monster in one form or another.  The problem is, unfortunately, activities that have no deadline don’t wake up our Panic Monster.  So, any career that involves some effort to get started doesn’t wake up the Panic Monster, because there is no deadline.   Activities such as taking care of your health, exercising, or tending to your relationships can go undone.

In other words, the activities that, when neglected, cause us no end of regrets, grief and unhappiness and can make us feels like spectators in our own lives.

He ended his TED talk with a graphic showing a life calendar comprised of a box for each week of a ninety-year old life.  He observed that we’ve all used up some of our boxes and maybe we each need to take a hard look at what we are procrastinating about.

I know I do.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released soon.