A couple of weeks ago, I watched this Ted Talk: “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator” by Tim Urban.
Tim Urban tells the story of working on his thesis in college, where in his head, he knew that the most optimal approach to completing his thesis was to work on it a gradually over time. Something that looked like this:
In reality, despite knowing rationally this approach would maximize his overall outcome, what he ended up doing was this:
I reminisced to my college days when I had assignments that turned out like this. I remember nights of sitting on the floor in the hallway outside my dorm room while my roommate slept. I remember watching sun rises (and then taking a picture and posting it on Instagram).
Urban painted a picture that inside all our minds, there is a “rational decision maker”, but in the mind of a procrastinator, there is also an “instant gratification monkey.” The rational decision maker wants to do what makes the most sense, but the monkey wants to do what is easy and fun, which doesn’t always overlap, especially when it comes tasks that are boring or challenging. And it is often the case that the monkey is at the wheel. That is, until the “panic monster” wakes up as the deadline looms near and scares the monkey away so that the “rational decision maker” can actually do what he’s supposed to.
So finally, finally, the work gets done, but with all the stress and anxiety that comes with the panic monster looking over his shoulder and getting something done at the last minute.
For some people, this is not a situation really happens. Some people are good with meeting deadlines, completing whatever assignment, project, paper at a reasonable pace and maybe even, with time to spare. My sister is like that. This year, my dad completed filing his taxes by January 31st, and I completed mine on April 12th (the deadline was April 17th).
Urban challenged the audience: “I don’t think non-procrastinators exist. That’s right, I think all of you are procrastinators.”
Because some of us may be good at meeting deadlines, but what about the things in our lives that actually don’t have deadlines? Where the panic monster never wakes up? In cases like these, procrastination can affect our lives on a much deeper level.
“If procrastinators’ 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 are not contained. They just extended outward forever. It’s this long-term procrastination that’s much less visible, much as less talked about … it’s usually suffered quietly and privately. And it could be the source of a huge amount of long-term unhappiness and regret.”
In referring to people who shared frustrations with procrastination, Urban says,
“Long-term procrastination had made them feel like a spectator in their own lives.”
And this resonated with me. Hard.
In my journals the last couple of months, I have consistent entries of writing things along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t have time to do what I really want to do.” Or, “Why haven’t I started X?” Or, “Wow, it took me that long to start doing Y.” It seems like I haven’t been doing things for myself nor challenging myself to grow.
And the things that I want to do are sometimes not that hard in retrospect, but I don’t feel the pressure to do them because there isn’t a deadline. I don’t start because I tend to avoid things I anticipate to be overwhelming, and no one is holding me accountable. I don’t have to produce some kind of deliverable. I procrastinate because for some things, actually doing the work also involves a level of vulnerability. Then, a few months down the line, I look back and think, “Ugh, I should have done that by now.”
It’s the blogs that I haven’t written. It’s the books I haven’t read. It’s the graduate programs I haven’t researched. It’s the new skill I haven’t learned. It’s the new hobby I haven’t adopted. It’s the friend that I haven’t seen. It’s the phone call to my mom that I haven’t made.
And these things build up.
Last night, I was having a conversation with a friend, where I essentially said to her that I was in an “existential crisis” because it’s been two years since I’ve graduated, and I still feel lost about what I want to do professionally. I had a goal to figure out what I wanted to in grad school by now and maybe, apply for programs. At this age, my sister was in her third year of law school, having just finished a summer internship at a large law firm, where she would eventually get hired full-time as an attorney and spend the next 8 years or so. By my age, my sister had built a career path.
And yes, I know everyone has their own path and their own pace. And yes, I know that there isn’t an expectation for me to be a certain person at a certain time. And it’s okay that I don’t know what I want to do with my life.
But, maybe that’s the problem.
When there aren’t deadlines or negative consequences to a task that I don’t do, what ends up happening is squarely in my hands. Two years to figure out what I wanted to do in grad school was arbitrary. No one was holding me to two years. And to be honest, given all the hurdles that I’ve had in the past two years, it makes sense that I still don’t know what I want to do. But, if I had spent more time researching grad programs, would I have a better (though maybe not clear) understanding of what I want to do? Or, if I had talked to more people working in my fields of interest, would I feel as lost as I do today? Or, if I had dedicated some time to develop a new skill, would I be doing something totally different and better than what I’m doing now?
I admit that one of the reasons why I’m in this “existential crisis” is because I haven’t been proactive enough. When it comes to work on myself, I’m a procrastinator. Yes, I’m working and I’m gaining experience, and I do think these two years have been a period of extreme personal and professional growth, which will affect my future decisions. I am not the same person that I was when I graduated, so it’s not that I stood still.
But, it’s time to get real. For a person that generally loves flexibility and not a whole lot of deadlines, I feel like I need some. I have to somehow build in a little structure in my life so I can combat my long-term procrastination because I don’t want to look back at these years and think that I didn’t do enough to achieve my own fulfillment. I don’t want to look back and think that I could be so much farther in life had I pursued different opportunities that may have been more challenging. I don’t want to look back and think that I settled and just did what was easy. Simply, I don’t want to look back and regret.
Are you a long-term procrastinator too? How do you overcome it?
This blog, as I’ve probably mentioned a couple of times in previous posts, is something that I have been procrastinating on. So, I hope that I can kick the instant gratification monkey out of the pilot’s seat more often and write more.
Over and out.