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Understanding Procrastination: That Instant Gratification Monkey

I used to think that procrastination was something you could 'snap out of'. Can't keep your hands off of your phone? Simple - put it down. Turn it off. Can’t stop checking that website? Exit the tab. But it was never that simple. My mind would repeatedly crave that mindless scrolling through Facebook, Tumblr or Instagram. I can’t even recollect what I found so fascinating. Perhaps the sound of a new notification or a distraction from whatever homework problem set was most pressing.

Half the battle it seemed was to find the will power to concentrate – or as Tim Urban describes in his TED talk – not let that the instant gratification monkey take over.

Understanding and internalising Urban’s analogy has helped me come a long way. I wouldn’t go as far as to saying that I’ve truly said goodbye to ‘procrastination nation’ but I can perhaps say that I am no longer the queen of it.

So what is this monkey that he speaks of? Essentially Urban describes a creature that lives entirely in the present moment. It has no memory of the past; no knowledge of the future and only cares about two things – easy and fun.

I loved that. Tim Urban was saying it like it is. It was so relatable.

Except the longer Urban spent describing this monkey, the longer it felt like he was describing – well – me. I was this monkey. His light-hearted analogy took a darker turn. I realised that I had been associating the feelings of anxiety and guilt with my own actions rather than with this monkey. While Urban depicted the procrastinator and the monkey as two separate entities, I perceived the two as being one and the same. I didn’t blame the ‘monkey’ for what ‘it had done’. I only blamed myself.

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Convincing myself that I was the problem had done me no good. It undermined my belief in my rational mind. But to acknowledge the monkey, the rational decision maker and the panic monster, as Urban described, offered greater clarity. Picturing a monkey expertly dodging unpleasant tasks was much easier when I knew that I still had a rational decision maker at the helm. And fear not I told myself, if he failed the panic monster would come shake that monkey down.

Unfortunately, I know that I will only ever be at peace with myself if the panic monster doesn't show up at all and hence a little note to self: do what you want with your time and do one thing at a time. If you need to set it aside to scroll through social media do just that. If you want to spend an hour revising your notes – go ahead. But don’t open your books or your work convincing yourself that you’re getting something done when in fact you are not. You are only doing a disservice to yourself.

Let that monkey be so content that it can take a back seat and let the rational decision maker sail for just enough time to get something productive done. Get rid of that guilt. Say goodbye to the panic monster.

Thank you Tim Urban.

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