Understanding Procrastination and How to Use it to your Advantage

My girlfriend and I are, in many ways, opposites. She’s an optimist while I’m a pessimist. Her palate prefers sweet, whereas mine favours savoury. And she’ll grab at any opportunity to travel the world while I’d rather lounge at home. That’s not to say we don’t dabble in each other’s territory. I’ll admit, sometimes, I gobble down a bunch of Cadbury chocolate, while she opts for hot Cheetos.

That being said, the single most opposing characteristic found between us, something that hasn’t wavered to the other individual’s tendencies, is our habit of procrastination. Or for me, lack thereof.

Monkeys, Monsters, and Decision Makers

One of my favorite analogies that explains the phenomenon of procrastination is accredited to Tim Urban, the author of the site: Wait But Why. In his example, he suggests that procrastination is a three-part act within which, there is a trio of main characters: The Rational Decision Maker, The Instant Gratification Monkey, and The Panic Monster. Since they live in the mind of an individual, who for this example we’ll call Eldon, these personas hold varying degrees of power when influencing their host to take action.

When issued a task, The Rationale Decision Maker—who makes calculated, pragmatic, and forward-thinking decisions—will find itself at odds with the Instant Gratification Monkey. Aptly named, the monkey selfishly makes decisions for its own immediate satisfaction. Unfortunately, in a battle for power, it’s often the monkey’s needs that receive precedence, thus triggering Eldon to put aside his term paper, only to scavenge through YouTube for funny cat videos, play League of Legends, and scour Google for ways to make his glutes look as nice as his roommate’s.

This cycle of instant gratification, or procrastination, continues until the due date for his deliverable is dangerously in sight; which in turn, sanctions the release of the Panic Monster. This character is vital to Eldon’s academic and professional success, as it’s the one thing the monkey is scared of. Therefore, the release of the Panic Monster also represents a power shift back to the Rational Decision Maker who is able to steer Eldon into a 48-hour grind, allowing him to complete his term paper in the most stressful and time-crunched situations.

Let’s Talk Science

As hilarious as it may be, Tim’s analogy is rooted in legitimate scientific research. Our pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that is located right behind your forehead, is more of a recent edition. Its primary role is the governance over executive function; that is, taking in information and making conscious, voluntary decisions. The critical component to this is that data can come in, but it’s ultimately up to the receiver to choose whether or not they want to take action. In Tim’s lingo, this would be your Rational Decision Maker.

A more dated and dominant chunk of our brain can be found in the shape of our limbic system, which unlike the pre-frontal cortex, is heavily automatic in nature. Among many of its responsibilities, this section of our brain drives immediate mood repair. In other words, it’s the Instant Gratification Monkey. The dangerous part about this system is that each time you subjugate to the procrastinative, mood repairing activity, you get a hit of dopamine. As I’ve referenced in my previous posts, dopamine is a chemical that issues a sense of accomplishment, thereby triggering a vicious cycle of procrastination.

Finding the Right Balance

Despite its notorious reputation, procrastination shouldn’t always be seen as an ill habit. Ultimately, like other components of life, it’s all about striking the right balance between planning and procrastination. Specifically, planning a period of procrastination while working on a presentation, business strategy, or even a blog post is one of the hallmark qualities of extraordinary people that Adam Grant calls Originals.

In one of his studies, he asked participants to prepare new business ideas that would be evaluated by a third party on their overall creativity. The subjects were divided into three categories: a group who took to the task immediately after instruction, another group who played a game for approximately ten minutes after which they proceeded to tackle the challenge, and finally, a group that began working near the end of the allocated time frame.

The results revealed that participants who moderately procrastinated showcased 16% more creativity than their counterparts. Essential to this finding, however, is that participants knew the task they’d be taking on prior to procrastinating. Therefore, the time spent dilly-dallying allowed their ideas to incubate, promoted divergent thinking and enabled them to be more creative, and more effective when taking on their task.

I’m sure this is a strategy we’ve all taken advantage of at some point or another. Having writer’s block, getting stuck on a math problem, or not knowing how to best handle a conflict seem to dissipate in a sudden eureka moment after stepping away from the situation. But, having the foresight to allocate time is pivotal to the success of this approach and therefore, the appropriate philosophy to adopt is to start fast but finish slow.

She Was Right…Again

It’s very rare that I get the chance to tell my girlfriend I’m right about something we have opposing stances on. In fact, it’s not even a rarity. Being an amazing boyfriend, I always adhere to the colloquial rule that is: She is always right.

When I began conducting my research for this post, my hypothesis was that procrastination was detrimental to some defined metric for success other than timely completion of a task. The hope here was that for once, I’d get the edge on my girlfriend and prove, using data that I was unequivocally right in my approach compared to her. On a side, these two motives made it much more challenging for me to remain impartial with my research as I was fighting my own confirmation bias.

Alas, I throw my hands in the air because once again, through what I can only attribute to divine ordination, she was right. Procrastination, when used as a tool for the incubation of ideas, is in fact valuable.

Key Takeaway: Your brain is always hosting a tug of war between the decision-making center and the immediate mood repair center; usually the mood repair triumphs resulting in procrastination. For optimal results, start a task early but, finish slowly to permit procrastination to foster creativity.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Procrastination and How to Use it to your Advantage

  1. Hey Salman, this was good and makes complete sense. This explains why, when I procrastinate or have too much on my plate and may be faced with having to do a project last minute, I sometimes find I have completely clarity and can bang the project out! Other times preparing in advance and allowing time for multiple revisions has produced much higher quality work. I suppose it can depend on the task and how much percolation time can also play a role 🙂


    1. You hit the nail on the head! At the end of the day, it is dependant on the task but more importantly, it’s how much procrastination runway you actually give yourself!


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