Are you a procrastinator? That's a trick question--we all are. At least, that's what Tim Urban believes, and he should know. He writes the "Wait But Why" blog, which means he spends more time thinking about procrastination than most anyone else.
In his funny and engaging TED Talk, Urban explains how the worst procrastinators have an Instant Gratification Monkey in their brains that hijacks control and forces the procrastinator to spend hours scrolling over Google Earth Images of India or watching YouTube interviews with Justin Bieber's mother. That monkey keeps the procrastinator from doing the important work that has to get done.
But then something wonderful happens. At least, it may not feel wonderful, but it usually saves the procrastinator from disaster. As a deadline looms with little or no work done, what Urban calls the Panic Monster awakens. The Instant Gratification Monkey, being scared of the Monster, runs away and hides, giving up control over the procrastinator's brain. The procrastinator pulls an all-nighter (two, in the case of Urban's senior thesis) and the job gets done in the nick of time.
When procrastination hurts worst.
That dynamic saves most procrastinators from embarrassing themselves. But as Urban's blog gained popularity, he began hearing from many, many readers who claimed they were procrastinators too, and that the habit was really making them unhappy. It was ruining their lives. And he began to realize when procrastination is most destructive: When there's no deadline involved. Without a drop-dead date to send you into a panic, you can just keep on procrastinating on things that could meaningfully improve your life, if only you ever got around to them.
"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," he notes. "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."
Without deadlines, he notes, you could wind up waiting on items like these forever. Except, of course, that there is no forever in our limited human lives. To illustrate this point, Urban began making visual representations of a 90-year human life in years, months, weeks, and days. Urban is 34. Assuming he himself lives to be 90 and continues to do things with the same frequency he does today, he calculated, he'll read only 300 more books in his life, watch the Red Sox play only 20 more times, and see about nine more U.S. presidents. On the brighter side, if he continues at his current rate, he'll have eaten well over 8,000 Chinese dumplings by the time he's done.
But then he turns to the more serious side. Noting that he spends about ten days a year with his parents and that they are in their 60s, he figures he may have about 300 more days to spend with them -- less than in any one of his childhood years. "When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life," he writes.
You never know.
All of which got me thinking about my mother, who died in September at 91. That's a great age to reach, but for many of those years, her mind had been eaten away by Alzheimer's. It began with subtle personality changes when she was 70 that were only perceptible to my stepfather and me. Over the next 20 years, things got very gradually worse until by the end she could no longer walk, or feed herself, or say much of anything.
Before all of this, she was my closest confidant -- the person with whom I could talk about absolutely anything, and say exactly what I was thinking. The person who understood me best in all the world, because in all the world she was the most like me. But somewhere in those 20 years, I had my last coherent conversation with my mother. I can't tell you what it was about, or what day it was, because at the time, I didn't know it was the last.
That's the thing. We never know where we are in this process, and a lot of the time we wind up with less time to do things, especially the important things that could change our lives, than we think we have.
The most important things we need to do -- like chasing our wildest dreams, or going out to try to find the love we're yearning for, or letting the people we love know how much we love them, or taking the time to notice a beautiful day -- we never have as much time as we think for those things either. Because they have no deadlines we may never do them, unless we start really paying attention now.
Or, as Urban says, "Well, maybe not today. But you know. Sometime soon."