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  • So in college,

  • I was a government major,

  • which means I had to write a lot of papers.

  • Now, when a normal student writes a paper,

  • they might spread the work out a little like this.

  • So, you know --

  • (Laughter)

  • you get started maybe a little slowly,

  • but you get enough done in the first week

  • that, with some heavier days later on,

  • everything gets done, things stay civil.

  • (Laughter)

  • And I would want to do that like that.

  • That would be the plan.

  • I would have it all ready to go,

  • but then, actually, the paper would come along,

  • and then I would kind of do this.

  • (Laughter)

  • And that would happen every single paper.

  • But then came my 90-page senior thesis,

  • a paper you're supposed to spend a year on.

  • And I knew for a paper like that, my normal work flow was not an option.

  • It was way too big a project.

  • So I planned things out,

  • and I decided I kind of had to go something like this.

  • This is how the year would go.

  • So I'd start off light,

  • and I'd bump it up in the middle months,

  • and then at the end, I would kick it up into high gear.

  • Just like a little staircase.

  • How hard could it be to walk up the stairs?

  • No big deal, right?

  • But then, the funniest thing happened.

  • Those first few months?

  • They came and went,

  • and I couldn't quite do stuff.

  • So we had an awesome new revised plan.

  • (Laughter)

  • And then --

  • (Laughter)

  • But then those middle months actually went by,

  • and I didn't really write words,

  • and so we were here.

  • And then two months turned into one month,

  • which turned into two weeks.

  • And one day I woke up

  • with three days until the deadline,

  • still not having written a word,

  • and so I did the only thing I could:

  • I wrote 90 pages over 72 hours,

  • pulling not one but two all-nighters --

  • humans are not supposed to pull two all-nighters --

  • sprinted across campus,

  • dove in slow motion,

  • and got it in just at the deadline.

  • I thought that was the end of everything.

  • But a week later I get a call,

  • and it's the school.

  • And they say, "Is this Tim Urban?"

  • And I say, "Yeah."

  • And they say, "We need to talk about your thesis."

  • And I say, "OK."

  • And they say,

  • "It's the best one we've ever seen."

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • That did not happen.

  • (Laughter)

  • It was a very, very bad thesis.

  • (Laughter)

  • I just wanted to enjoy that one moment when all of you thought,

  • "This guy is amazing!"

  • (Laughter)

  • No, no, it was very, very bad.

  • Anyway, today I'm a writer-blogger guy.

  • I write the blog Wait But Why.

  • And a couple of years ago, I decided to write about procrastination.

  • My behavior has always perplexed the non-procrastinators around me,

  • and I wanted to explain to the non-procrastinators of the world

  • what goes on in the heads of procrastinators,

  • and why we are the way we are.

  • Now, I had a hypothesis

  • that the brains of procrastinators were actually different

  • than the brains of other people.

  • And to test this, I found an MRI lab

  • that actually let me scan both my brain

  • and the brain of a proven non-procrastinator,

  • so I could compare them.

  • I actually brought them here to show you today.

  • I want you to take a look carefully to see if you can notice a difference.

  • I know that if you're not a trained brain expert,

  • it's not that obvious, but just take a look, OK?

  • So here's the brain of a non-procrastinator.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now ...

  • here's my brain.

  • (Laughter)

  • There is a difference.

  • Both brains have a Rational Decision-Maker in them,

  • but the procrastinator's brain

  • also has an Instant Gratification Monkey.

  • Now, what does this mean for the procrastinator?

  • Well, it means everything's fine until this happens.

  • [This is a perfect time to get some work done.] [Nope!]

  • So the Rational Decision-Maker will make the rational decision

  • to do something productive,

  • but the Monkey doesn't like that plan,

  • so he actually takes the wheel,

  • and he says, "Actually, let's read the entire Wikipedia page

  • of the Nancy Kerrigan/ Tonya Harding scandal,

  • because I just remembered that that happened.

  • (Laughter)

  • Then --

  • (Laughter)

  • Then we're going to go over to the fridge,

  • to see if there's anything new in there since 10 minutes ago.

  • After that, we're going to go on a YouTube spiral

  • that starts with videos of Richard Feynman talking about magnets

  • and ends much, much later with us watching interviews

  • with Justin Bieber's mom.

  • (Laughter)

  • "All of that's going to take a while,

  • so we're not going to really have room on the schedule for any work today.

  • Sorry!"

  • (Sigh)

  • Now, what is going on here?

  • The Instant Gratification Monkey does not seem like a guy

  • you want behind the wheel.

  • He lives entirely in the present moment.

  • He has no memory of the past, no knowledge of the future,

  • and he only cares about two things:

  • easy and fun.

  • Now, in the animal world, that works fine.

  • If you're a dog

  • and you spend your whole life doing nothing other than easy and fun things,

  • you're a huge success!

  • (Laughter)

  • And to the Monkey,

  • humans are just another animal species.

  • You have to keep well-slept, well-fed and propagating into the next generation,

  • which in tribal times might have worked OK.

  • But, if you haven't noticed, now we're not in tribal times.

  • We're in an advanced civilization, and the Monkey does not know what that is.

  • Which is why we have another guy in our brain,

  • the Rational Decision-Maker,

  • who gives us the ability to do things no other animal can do.

  • We can visualize the future.

  • We can see the big picture.

  • We can make long-term plans.

  • And he wants to take all of that into account.

  • And he wants to just have us do

  • whatever makes sense to be doing right now.

  • Now, sometimes it makes sense

  • to be doing things that are easy and fun,

  • like when you're having dinner or going to bed

  • or enjoying well-earned leisure time.

  • That's why there's an overlap.

  • Sometimes they agree.

  • But other times, it makes much more sense

  • to be doing things that are harder and less pleasant,

  • for the sake of the big picture.

  • And that's when we have a conflict.

  • And for the procrastinator,

  • that conflict tends to end a certain way every time,

  • leaving him spending a lot of time in this orange zone,

  • an easy and fun place that's entirely out of the Makes Sense circle.

  • I call it the Dark Playground.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, the Dark Playground is a place

  • that all of you procrastinators out there know very well.

  • It's where leisure activities happen

  • at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening.

  • The fun you have in the Dark Playground

  • isn't actually fun, because it's completely unearned,

  • and the air is filled with guilt, dread, anxiety, self-hatred --

  • all of those good procrastinator feelings.

  • And the question is, in this situation, with the Monkey behind the wheel,

  • how does the procrastinator ever get himself over here to this blue zone,

  • a less pleasant place, but where really important things happen?

  • Well, turns out the procrastinator has a guardian angel,

  • someone who's always looking down on him and watching over him

  • in his darkest moments --

  • someone called the Panic Monster.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, the Panic Monster is dormant most of the time,

  • but he suddenly wakes up anytime a deadline gets too close

  • or there's danger of public embarrassment,

  • a career disaster or some other scary consequence.

  • And importantly, he's the only thing the Monkey is terrified of.

  • Now, he became very relevant in my life pretty recently,

  • because the people of TED reached out to me about six months ago

  • and invited me to do a TED Talk.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, of course, I said yes.

  • It's always been a dream of mine to have done a TED Talk in the past.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • But in the middle of all this excitement,

  • the Rational Decision-Maker seemed to have something else on his mind.

  • He was saying, "Are we clear on what we just accepted?

  • Do we get what's going to be now happening one day in the future?

  • We need to sit down and work on this right now."

  • And the Monkey said, "Totally agree, but let's just open Google Earth

  • and zoom in to the bottom of India, like 200 feet above the ground,

  • and we're gonna scroll up for two and a half hours til we get to the top of the country,

  • so we can get a better feel for India."

  • (Laughter)

  • So that's what we did that day.

  • (Laughter)

  • As six months turned into four and then two and then one,

  • the people of TED decided to release the speakers.

  • And I opened up the website, and there was my face

  • staring right back at me.

  • And guess who woke up?

  • (Laughter)

  • So the Panic Monster starts losing his mind,

  • and a few seconds later, the whole system's in mayhem.

  • (Laughter)

  • And the Monkey -- remember, he's terrified of the Panic Monster --

  • boom, he's up the tree!

  • And finally,

  • finally, the Rational Decision-Maker can take the wheel

  • and I can start working on the talk.

  • Now, the Panic Monster explains

  • all kinds of pretty insane procrastinator behavior,

  • like how someone like me could spend two weeks

  • unable to start the opening sentence of a paper,

  • and then miraculously find the unbelievable work ethic

  • to stay up all night and write eight pages.

  • And this entire situation, with the three characters --

  • this is the procrastinator's system.

  • It's not pretty, but in the end, it works.

  • This is what I decided to write about on the blog just a couple of years ago.

  • When I did, I was amazed by the response.

  • Literally thousands of emails came in,

  • from all different kinds of people from all over the world,

  • doing all different kinds of things.

  • These are people who were nurses, bankers, painters, engineers

  • and lots and lots of PhD students.

  • (Laughter)

  • And they were all writing, saying the same thing:

  • "I have this problem too."

  • But what struck me was the contrast between the light tone of the post

  • and the heaviness of these emails.

  • These people were writing with intense frustration

  • about what procrastination had done to their lives,

  • about what this Monkey had done to them.

  • And I thought about this, and I said,

  • well, if the procrastinator's system works, then what's going on?

  • Why are all of these people in such a dark place?