On its own, procrastination isn’t a mental health issue, but it often comes along for the ride when you’re coping with issues like depression. The cycle of procrastination leading to guilt and frustration leading to procrastination is one many of us have been through again and again.
Blogger Tim Urban is also intimately familiar with procrastination. A couple years ago, he put forth the idea that procrastination is a struggle between your mind’s rational decision maker and your mind’s instant gratification monkey, occasionally punctuated by the arrival of the deadline-based panic monster. It’s an idea that stuck with a lot of people. But while his original blog post was popular, Urban found it failed to address some of the more insidious types of procrastination. That inspired him to return to the subject with his TED talk.
He goes over his original metaphor, but this time, he takes it further:
It turns out that there’s two kinds of procrastination. Everything I’ve talked about today, the examples I’ve given, they all have deadlines. And when there’s deadlines, the effects of procrastination are contained to the short term because the Panic Monster gets involved. But there’s a second kind of procrastination that happens in situations when there is no deadline. So if you wanted a career where you’re a self-starter — something in the arts, something entrepreneurial — there’s no deadlines on those things at first, because nothing’s happening, not until you’ve gone out and done the hard work to get momentum, get things going. There’s also all kinds of important things outside of your career that don’t involve any deadlines, like seeing your family or exercising and taking care of your health, working on your relationship or getting out of a relationship that isn’t working.
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 regrets.
Urban doesn’t propose a lot of answers, but there are hundreds of methods of defeating procrastination out there (many of which I’ve learned all about while procrastinating). What he does offer is perspective, and a reminder that procrastination isn’t really as funny as his cheerful anthropomorphized version might suggest.
Everyone might procrastinate once in a while, but if it’s a problem, it’s worth addressing. We only have so much time, and there’s no sense wasting more of it than necessary on guilt and self-recrimination.