Tim Urban knows that you’re reading this article instead of dealing with that project for which the clock is ticking relentlessly towards the deadline. But Tim Urban understands you. The blogger who founded the long-form platform Wait But Why gave a TED presentation on procrastination a few years ago, and most of us will recognise ourselves in it.
Postponing chores until the last moment seems completely illogical. Why would you want to go through stress and existential dilemmas every time you have to complete a task? This stress could easily be avoided if you didn’t constantly end up completing 99% of the task in the final 1% of the time you had originally assigned to it. Tim Urban believes that the existence of the Instant Gratification Monkey explains all of this.
In our minds, Urban says, there is a Rational Decision Maker, who is often at the helm of our being. The problem is that this Rational Decision Maker is often diverted from his mission by a “hedonistic Monkey” who has very creative but unreasonable ideas about how we should spend our time so that we feel good. In general, Urban explains, this Monkey is kind of messing around in our head. And this messing around could go on indefinitely if the Panic Monster, who is usually asleep, didn’t suddenly wake up when a deadline is approaching and scare the Monkey. Urban explains it much more entertainingly, so I’ll let him explain below, and skip the least intuitive of his ideas.
We are all used to talking about chronic procrastination and making fun of our own irrationality. But something thought provoking, that surprised even Tim Urban, is that, after he first wrote his blogpost about procrastination, his inbox was flooded with emails mostly showing desperation, not amusement, as he would’ve expected. “These people were writing with intense frustration about what procrastination had done to their lives, about what this Monkey had done to them,” Urban says.
The blogger thought seriously about what might be behind this pressure. “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 regret. And I thought that’s why those people are emailing and that’s why they’re in such a bad place. It’s not because 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.”
Who is writing your script?
Being a spectator in your own life means looking at your own experience as if it were a movie, convinced that you have no say in the writing of the script. You have a life plan, but its implementation is postponed every day for a future point that never comes: Tomorrow I’ll start…eating healthily, drinking enough water, exercising, reading that book that is gathering dust on the nightstand, I’ll open a business, get married, have a baby. In the case of life projects, not only is the Panic Monster missing from the story, but it often seems that the Monkey is also missing, because the reasons that can prevent us from starting to work towards our goals right now are not always visible and not always straightforward, as in the story of the Monkey.
When we postpone taking life-changing steps, it may seem that we are getting ready for the moment of decision, boosting our morale before a difficult step, gathering skills for a difficult goal to achieve, or building a good store of self-respect to face the challenge. It may seem that we are procrastinating to gather the information we need to cope regardless of the scenario, or to regain our energy to prepare for the new situation we will find ourselves in, or that we are respecting our right to live our lives as we like, not as we “should.” Some of these reasons may even have a noble appearance, but psychologists recommend that we analyse them honestly, because, under the cover of a well-founded reason, excuses can often hide.
The Academic Success Center at Oregon State University discusses six reasons for procrastination. One of the biggest reasons is having a lack of skills to perform the task you have to do. Therefore, instead of accepting that they lack certain skills and making an effort to acquire them, people prefer to postpone their task, because it’s too difficult. Another reason is a lack of interest in the subject, or the fact that it’s a boring activity. On top of these, we can add a lack of motivation to perform that task, a fear of failure, a fear of success, or the fear of not rising to others’ expectations, and, last but not least, a rebellious attitude toward things that are imposed on us.
What’s your favourite excuse?
The US Center for Clinical Interventions (a nationally implemented government program) identifies six types of excuses used by people who tend to delay taking important decisions or actions.
The pursuit of pleasure, which can start from a rule or an unconstructive assumption, such as:
- life is too short to do boring or difficult things;
- fun should always come first;
- the most important principle should be pleasure, here and now;
- if I don’t respect my right to have fun, I’ll become boring.
Why is this rule or presupposition unreasonable, unrealistic, unjust, and/or unconstructive? To get somewhere in life, you will have to work hard, get results, and sometimes make sacrifices. If life is just endless fun, we get stuck at a point where we don’t grow and we don’t get where we want to be. We all have to endure some boredom in life—that’s life.
Fear of failure or disapproval, which may start from a rule or an unconstructive assumption such as:
- I have to do everything perfectly;
- I am not allowed to make mistakes;
- I can’t allow others to think something badly about me;
- If I try, it will certainly not work out for me;
- If I make my work public, others will have a bad opinion of me.
Why is this rule or presupposition unreasonable, unrealistic, unjust, and/or unconstructive? Perfection is a utopia, and imperfection is inevitable. It’s more realistic to expect to do well in some things, to be mediocre in some, and not very good in others. That keeps a balance. Not everything is black and white, a success or a failure. People do not deliberately seek to judge you; they are often focused on their own needs. Criticism can be a constructive way to learn.
Fear of uncertainty or fear of a catastrophe, which can start from a rule or an unconstructive assumption such as:
- I need to know for sure what is going to happen;
- I have to be prepared for the worst;
- I don’t like not knowing what the result will be;
- If I do something, something bad will surely happen.
Why is this rule or presupposition unreasonable, unrealistic, unjust, and/or unconstructive? It’s impossible to be sure of everything. In life, we will have to tolerate a certain degree of uncertainty. Lack of action or concern does not make things safer, nor does it prevent the negative outcomes we might anticipate.
Low self-confidence, which can start from a rule or an unconstructive assumption such as:
- I can’t solve these things because I’m incapable;
- I am not suitable for this, therefore I cannot do it;
- if I try new things, people will realize that I’m inappropriate;
- I shouldn’t try things that I know won’t work out.
Why is this rule or presupposition unreasonable, unrealistic, unjust, and / or unconstructive? When you consider yourself incapable from the start, you do not take into account both your qualities and your weaknesses, but instead, you are unfair to yourself, focusing only on your weaknesses. You can’t just assume you’re not good at something. You have to check first.
Lack of energy, which can start from a rule or an unconstructive presumption such as:
- I am not able to do anything when I am stressed/tired/unmotivated/depressed;
- I have to rest when my energy is down;
- I need to be energized to be able to do something;
- If I do something while I am tired/stressed/unmotivated/depressed, it’ll be worse.
Why is this rule or presupposition unreasonable, unrealistic, unjust, and/or unconstructive? With this pattern of thinking, you will not test yourself in different situations to really see what you can and cannot do. In life, we are often unprepared for what we are going to do, but if we always wait for the moment when we feel ready, we’ll never get to do anything.
Keeping an eye on studies
Numerous research projects that have focused on the psychological issue of procrastination have concluded that it is a failure of self-control, impulsivity and intrusive thought regulation. However, opinions differ, depending on the psychological school of thought. For example, behaviourists believe procrastination is generated by avoidant behaviour that manifests itself on contact with a stimulus that causes aversion. However, this perspective is criticized for not taking into account the individual differences between people who postpone.
Cognitive perspectivists postulate that procrastination is an illogical behaviour that isn’t goal-oriented, in which irrational cognitions play a key role. Several cognitive constructs are thought to be involved in procrastination: perception of the difficulty of the task, confidence in the ability to solve the task, self-esteem, and perfectionism.
Other psychologists have attributed the delay to a calculation of perceived utility, in which the procrastinator weighs in on his aversion to that task, the wait for that task to be useful, the time the individual will have to wait for a realization of the utility, and the ability to tolerate the postponement of the reward.
Psychologists still continue to propose theoretical models to clarify the mechanisms underlying the tension between the motivation to act and the motivation to avoid, some even invoking structural abnormalities and spontaneous metabolic alterations in the para-hippocampus and frontal cortex.
Still others appeal to the role of meta-cognitions; that is, those thoughts that we have about our ability to orchestrate our own thinking, attention, bodily sensations, and behaviours. They say that procrastination is a result of the mistaken belief that we have no control over our thoughts and that we are the victims of our own wrong way of thinking.
However, change is possible, and arguments for it come not only from psychology, but also from the spiritual realm.
A bonus excuse
A special class of people who postpone are those who have outsourced their decision-making process and delegated it to God. “Many Christians take a ‘passive trust’ approach to seeking guidance and direction from the Lord. They think that knowing God’s will comes as God reveals his secret plan to them; then they will know what to do,” writes Paul David Tripp in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change.
Fear of not falling into what is often perceived as the very precise and detailed sphere of God’s will paralyzes the decisions of many well-meaning believers. In Tripp’s view, unblocking occurs when the believer realizes that, in fact, divine guidance is “a matter of obedient, active trust. I examine the options before me using the principles, themes, and perspectives of Scripture. Then, to the best of my knowledge and ability, I apply biblical wisdom and make a decision.”
Tripp goes further: “My decision is not based on reading God’s mind, but on things he has clearly revealed in his Word. As I step forward, I entrust myself to the Lord, knowing that he rules over everything and will place me where he wants me. This is the biblical model of guidance. Too many people have their ‘Christian divining rods’ out in hopes of discovering the secret will of God. Meanwhile, the Bible in their hands is unopened—the thing God has said will be a ‘lamp to their feet and a light to their path’!”
Harvey Cox presents a similar vision in his book, On Not Leaving it to the Snake. He says that “apathy is the key form of sin in today’s world. For Adam and Eve, apathy meant letting a snake tell them what to do. It meant abdicating from…the exercise of dominion and control over the world.”
The American theologian John Stott, who quoted Cox in the book, The Cross of Christ, added his own perspective to Cox’s: “Decision-making belongs to the essence of our humanness. Sin is not only the attempt to be God; it is also the refusal to be man, by shuffling off responsibility for our actions.”
The place where no one looks
Religious ideas may be ignored by clinicians who treat religious people, either because an intervention on this level seems to go beyond the realm of psychological training, or because the professional treats religious ideas as a manifestation of magical thinking. However, it is actually in this field that the discussion with a religious person who chronically postpones becomes fertile, because it tackles his beliefs about life, about the nature and abilities he possesses, and about the character of God. All these have a role to play in the cognitive and emotional universe of the religious person, and this opens many possibilities for change.
If I procrastinate because I feel that God does not love me unless I exhibit perfect behaviour, my fear of failure will heal along with the healing of my image of God. If I force myself to begin to tolerate failure in dissonance with the way I see God, this will put me in conflict not with God, but with my projection of Him.
Or maybe I am feeding my habit of procrastination along with the habit of disregarding myself, cultivating the idea that my fallen nature doesn’t deserve to be credited with confidence. If I don’t consider myself able to complete a task, I will postpone it as much as possible so that I don’t have to face another reminder of my inadequacy. However, this seemingly religious conception (based on ideas about fallen human nature) ignores other religious concepts such as vocation, the talents received from God, the support God provides for those who ask for it, and the development of skills throughout one’s religious life.
Vision imbalances can lead to behavioural imbalances, so the responsible assumption of our own religiosity (discipline in study, introspection, contemplation, and prayer) is the healthiest step we can take for our souls. Its effects will be seen in the most unexpected areas of life—even in the case of procrastination.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times and ST Network.