It seems the Rational Decision-Maker in the procrastinator’s brain is coexisting with a pet—the Instant Gratification Monkey.
Source Tim Urban on wait but why
And if you like the way Tim describes procrastination in the quote, just wait until the Panic Monster turns up! Tim uses humour to capture the experience of procrastination. What he describes is very real and very true.
How do I know?
I am a master procrastinator, or at least I was. Not that I have beaten procrastination or anything like that, rather I have ways of working with it, which can help minimise its impact.
One of things about the definition of procrastination is it is usually defined as, "the action of delaying or postponing something." Usually we think of procrastination as delaying or putting off doing something, except this isn't the purpose of procrastination.
To understand what procrastination is really up to, we have to take a good hard look at one of Instant Gratification Monkey's friends.
Say hello to Meerkat
Meerkat's job is to make sure you avoid anything that is a threat to your survival. This mostly means making sure you don't get eaten. Now humans are generally pretty slow, have soft skins, and precious little in the way of natural weapons. A lone human is a tasty snack for hyenas and lions.
Which is why, just like other monkeys, humans hang around in groups. So what Meerkat gets bothered about most of the time, is doing anything that might upset other members of your group, which would get you kicked out...
...and result in you becoming that tasty snack. Hence, why humans experience a lot of 'social' anxiety.
Meerkat is a pretty simple fellow. He has absolutely no idea what an office, school, job, car, Facebook, or Twitter is. As far as he is concerned you are still running around naked in a small tribe surrounded by larger and more dangerous predators. Secondly, he has no idea what the future is. The future is something Rational Decision-Maker invented. And thirdly, 'might', 'maybe', and 'perhaps', mean nothing to him. Something either is or isn't happening.
Meerkat has a very important job to do. What he does is to stand bolt upright whenever he spots danger. We notice this alert as a feeling of rising anxiety.
Meerkat has some other friends which help him create and react to this feeling of anxiety which you can read about in Jungle Worries, but they aren't terribly important in this story.
Every animal with a brain has something like a Meerkat. He is extremely old and has been around for a long time. Rational Decision-Maker is a recent innovation, and they don't always work very well together.
Meerkat always reacts to whatever Rational Decision-Maker is thinking as though it is happening right here, right now
Rational Decision-Maker, on the other hand, is like the person who turns up half way through a party and yells,
"Ta Dah! I'm here! Let's get this party started!"
He also goes around butting into conversations, saying things like,
"Hey, I was thinking about doing this thing called an 'essay', and although we might get an 'F', hang our heads in shame and get thrown out of college, it will be worth it"
At which point Meerkat stands bolt upright, because what he heard was,
"We are, right now at this very moment, doing something that will get us thrown out of our tribe, and eaten by lions!"
Meerkat glares at Rational Decision-Maker, who is now getting this really uncomfortable feeling he calls anxiety, and is starting to seriously regret mentioning essays in the first place. Meanwhile, Meerkat's other friends all begin working frantically, trying to figure out how they are going to save you from this catastrophe, which is where Instant Gratification Monkey comes in,
He 'solves' this problem by saying,
"Hey, look at this blog by Fluffy21 with pictures of adorable kittens"
Meerkat calms down, and is rather pleased with himself. He has saved you yet again from being eaten by lions. And yep, pictures of kittens, nothing to worry about there.
Of course later on in the conversation, when the deadline starts to loom, Meerkat turns into the Panic Monster. Just as a cute fury Mogwai transforms into a vicious Gremlin if you feed it after midnight.
Now you might think that Meerkat would realise that your Rational Decision-Maker's essay problem was all connected, but to Meerkat these events are more like,
Being asked out on the hunt by the elders in your tribe, and being afraid that everyone will see how useless you are. Opposed to saying no, you won't go.
As far as Meerkat is concerned everyone seeing you as useless, and you saying no are two completely separate events, and because the two are unrelated,
Meerkat can never learn that delaying something is a threat
How procrastination becomes a habit
Because all that bobbing up and down by Meerkat, and planning by Rational Decision-Maker is tiring, your brain has one further trick up its sleeve. When you repeat a pattern, you become faster at it, and the more you repeat it the faster and more proficient you become. Eventually it will become automatic - it will become a habit.
The habit of procrastination works extremely well. As soon as you think about doing something with any risk attached to it, such as an essay, you almost immediately think about something else, such as Fluffy21's kitten pictures.
All that anxiety Rational Decision-Maker felt when he first brought up the subject of essays is barely felt at all. And now we get to what procrastination is really about,
Procrastination is the habit of avoiding feeling anxious
However, as every procrastinator knows, this strategy becomes useless once the Panic Monster shows up. There is no way of avoiding feeling anxious in the face of that particular beast.
Most solutions to procrastination, are really pseudo-procrastination.
The way they work is by trying to reduce the level of anxiety you feel when doing something that induces anxiety. They are a way of avoiding feeling anxious.
So they also have the potential to become just another way to procrastinate. Even the process of learning how to procrastinate less can became an act of procrastination.
My absolute favourite way to procrastinate is by reading productivity blogs and devising systems of lists...
source Tania Browne in The Guardian
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that planning is always bad for procrastination. Planning can be a good thing to do.
One way it can help is to reduce the level of worry by Rational Decision-Maker, by helping you feel more prepared to complete the task you want to do. footnote #1
The reason I mention pseudo-procrastination is because most techniques to deal with procrastination rely on using your Rational Decision-Maker more. And that may not be a good idea, because,
The problem of procrastination is caused by your Rational Decision-Maker
In between inventing stuff nobody understands, such as the future, along with 'might' and 'maybe', Rational Decision-Maker has also got his name wrong because,
Rational Decision-Maker can't actually make decisions
Decision making is handled elsewhere by Meerkat and his friends. They all sit in the grand central station of your brain, and are part of a complex system which regulates every aspect of your body. Nothing happens without going through them first. They decide what to tell Rational Decision-Maker about the world around him, and they ultimately decide how your body reacts.
Rational Decision-Maker should really be called,
Because that is what he does. He proposes things which are considered by Meerkat and his friends and put into action if, and only if they agree with it.
Just to add to the problem, Rational Decision-Proposer is a terrible listener. He regularly wanders around trying to take as little notice of Meerkat and his friends as possible. And seeing as he is going to be asking them to take action on his behalf, not knowing what they are up to is a pretty bad idea.
As if this wasn't bad enough, the habit of procrastination means Meerkat and his friends are given the shortest possible amount of time to consider Rational Decision-Proposer's suggestions. Procrastination is always a snap judgement.
No wonder Rational Decision-Proposer has such a problem!
One simple tip
While this tip is simple, it does involve discomfort. What I am going to suggest you do is to get Rational Decision-Proposer and Meerkat to work together.
Rational Decision-Proposer proposes, while Meerkat and his friends decide what action to take. To do that you have to give Meerkat and his friends time to process what you want them to do, which means feeling anxious while they do it.
All Rational Decision-Proposer needs to do is,
recall an image of the activity you want to do
You need do nothing else, and then,
wait for Meerkat and his friends to make a decision
They already have everything they need, because Rational Decision-Proposer has already thought of it.
The decision will first happen in your body, whether Rational Decision-Proposer notices it or not. Because this is where Meerkat and his friends make decisions.
if it's a yes
Then the first thing you will notice is a rising sense of wanting to move as muscle tension builds. You may notice a small initial movement beginning. For me this is in my arms or legs. Allow that movement to take shape. You will find that you will move or reach toward the activity.
if it's a no
Your own personal pattern of anxiety, will determine how you experience the pattern of rising muscle tension. For me this is an increased feeling of muscle rigidity, and I find that I am unable to move. I will also hold my breath.
Don't try to force it, accept that it is a no. You are not ready yet. Rational Decision-Proposer may need to do some more work. What he probably needs to look at is how real all those worries he has actually are. And you can always ask again later.
When you try using this, start off small. It is important to keep the level of anxiety low. You want Meerkat to learn that the activity you want to do is actually safe, and he will learn this if you keep your level of anxiety down. If you overwhelm Meerkat with anxiety, all you will do is increase his aversion to the activity.
A personal story
In my first year of private practice, one obstacle I had was the looming deadline of the dreaded Tax Return.
Did I procrastinate over it?
You bet I did. I had never done one before, and my Rational Decision-Proposer was also full of worries, such as, what if I filled it in wrong? What if I missed something out? What if I hadn't done my accounts properly? What if I get fined? What if I am prosecuted, and sent to prison? What if meteorites land on my office and destroy all my records?
Rational Decision-Proposer is very good at worrying about things that will never in a month of Sundays ever happen, but then Meerkat doesn't know that, and never will.
Anyway, I had planned how to do it, and broken it down into steps. I had started it, then stopped it halfway through, and was now stuck. My anxiety was around pressing the little grey button with "submit tax return" written on it.
By December I was aware that Panic Monster was starting to get ugly, although not ugly enough to actually make me press that little button.
I decided that doing it on the night of the 30th January was not a sensible option, and so I simply sat with an image of pressing the "submit tax return" button, and waited.
It took a little under a minute, which is still quite a long time to feel anxious. Then all of sudden a movement began, and almost before I knew what was happening I was sat at my computer logging on to my tax return.
I used the same technique to do my tax return this year. Rational Decision-Proposer proposed, while Meerkat and his friends decided what action to take. They were much much faster this time making up their minds, because they have done this before and knew it was safe for me to do it.
main picture by janeb13