Last Saturday I had dinner with a couple who have moved into the village recently. They have a bitch working cocker spaniel who has become our dog Ross’ girlfriend, so we already have plenty to talk about. Ben is a doctor, and we found ourselves talking about Myers Briggs – a subject I rarely raise at the dinner table as it tends to generate dirty looks from my wife.
“Ah, you’re a P. That makes you a procrastinator I presume?” he said.
As it happens, he was right, and we went on to compare notes about my open-ended preferably non-deadline-driven P world versus his deadline-focussed, measured and mapped out ideal J world.
As a thank you for dinner he sent me a link to a TED talk I’d not seen before by Tim Urban. It’s called “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator”, and the talk delivers exactly what you might expect it would – a brilliant summary of how a procrastinator works.
I particularly liked the way he visualised this type of brain for us. I recognise it in myself.
The instant gratification monkey is the voice in your head which is able to find reasons for not doing the thing you planned to, and jumping into something (anything in fact) which will give us more short term satisfaction (or so the monkey has us believe).
It causes us to run up against deadlines in a state of stress because we do not allow enough time to do the job properly.
The message in Tim’s TED Talk is an excellent one: if you are a procrastinator you learn that the thing which gets you to do something is called a deadline. As you approach one of these, your guardian angel, which he calls The Panic Monster, suddenly wakes up, and galvanises you into action though a lot of screaming in your head.
Procrastinators gradually learn that the way to lead a slightly more orderly life is to set deadlines for themselves. (Or, as in my case, marry someone who will do it for them).
Here’s his point: the really important things we want to do with our lives (have children, set up my own business, get fit) tend not to have deadlines set against them. As a result, unless we a good at goal and objective setting, the procrastinator can drift through life waiting for things to happen, and not achieving their full potential. I certainly wasted 10 years in corporate land in that mode, and should have set up my own business 10 years before I got round to it.
To ram home his point, he put up his final slide in the talk: a square populated by a large number of little squares (4680 of them, to be precise). That is a way of representing a 90 year life measured in weekly boxes. Imagine how many of those boxes you have already filled in (possibly not particularly productively). The rest lie ahead, but when they’re gone, you’re gone. Think about it.
My daughter has recently decided to resign her job in a leading London PR agency to take a 3 month sabbatical in India, during which she intends to take stock and have a long, slow think about how she wants to productively use her remaining squares. She’s so much braver than me, who also at 27 was on a career path in large corporate world which I was not enjoying particularly, and where I was procrastinating on doing something proactive to change my situation.
I got lucky: 8 years later (400 boxes down the toilet, as it were), I got made redundant, so they stopped my procrastination for me. I woke up with a jolt and sorted myself out.
Moral: if you are a procrastinator, recognise your important ambitions in life (it helps if you write them down), and work out how to set some short term goals which will get you started out towards achieving them. Remember the Chinese proverb: the longest journey starts with one small step.
This is my final message of the year, and it feels like a good moment to ask you to consider a big question over the next few days, when you may find you have more time on your hands than usual.
Are you procrastinating on something important, and if you are, what is it going to take to get you to wake up?
It might be an external force of some sort, but the chances are this can only come from you.
What are you waiting for?