7 Best TED Talks on Procrastination: Tim Urban and Others

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TED—which stands for “technology, entertainment, design”—is a company that posts lectures online with the slogan “ideas worth spreading.”

The TED conference has been held each year since 1990, and while its initial focus was on technology and design, it has since expanded to include lectures on a wide variety of topics, including education, business, and science.

By 2012, TED Talks had been viewed over one billion times around the world. The Ted Talk platform has recently become the go-to resource for watching and sharing ideas. But not all videos are equal in popularity.

In my opinion, some of the best presentations can be useful for increasing your productivity. Specifically, there are some very helpful videos on how to overcome your procrastination.

If you find yourself struggling with getting things done, then I recommend checking out seven of my personal favorite Ted Talks.

1. Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator by Tim Urban

This is my favorite procrastination TED talk. Not only does it accurately describe what it’s like to fight this urge on a day-to-day basis, but it does so in a funny and approachable way.

Tim Urban describes the difference in the brains of procrastinators and non-procrastinators by using the metaphors of a “gratification monkey” and a “rational decision-maker.”

The gratification monkey, who wants instant gratification, can take over the rational decision-maker until a deadline nears and a “panic monster” sends the monkey running.

This metaphor works well when you are considering your procrastination of tasks that are short-term and deadline-based, because there is a set time when you have to get the task accomplished, no matter what the gratification monkey is telling you to do. But this is less effective when thinking about long-term procrastination with no deadlines.

It's that long-term procrastination has made them feel like a spectator, at times, in their own lives. The frustration is not that they couldn't achieve their dreams; it's that they weren't even able to start chasing them.

– Tim Urban

If you are putting off things with no deadlines, such as starting to exercise or going back to school to further your education, there will never be a time when the panic monster is able to step in, meaning the effects of the procrastination will not be contained.

Urban makes the argument that it is because of this kind of procrastination that people end up suffering quietly. This motivating talk will have you questioning what you are procrastinating on in your own life.

2. The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers by Adam Grant

In this TED talk, Adam Grant explains to the audience how he learned to recognize the “originals.” These people are the ones who are the most successful in the end, but who also have the most failures along the way—because they try the most.

If you look across fields, the greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they're the ones who try the most.

– Adam Grant

The key to being an original is to be quick to start but slow to finish. During that period between start and finish, you are giving your brain time to think and be creative. In this way, procrastination can be a virtue for creativity.

To be original, you don’t have to be a “first mover.” In fact, 47% of first movers end up failing, but those who wait and improve upon ideas that have already been put into place only have an 8% rate of failure. It is easier to improve on someone else's idea than to start your own. To be original, you just have to make your idea better.

People who are not original tend to feel a lot of self-doubts that can often be paralyzing. But originals feel idea-doubt, which is energizing and motivating for them to take the initiative and not choose the default option.

Originals realize that the first few drafts of whatever they do will be bad, but they also know that they need to get through a lot of bad ideas to get to that one good idea.

3. This Is What Happens When You Reply to Spam Email by James Veitch

In this TED talk, James Veitch recounts his hilarious experience of engaging with an email spammer. During this exchange, Veitch spent weeks scamming this scammer, making them believe that he was developing a business plan with them to sell gold.

This may seem like a waste of Veitch's time, but he was able to justify his efforts in a way that made sense by saying:

All I'm doing is wasting their time. And I think any time they're spending with me is time they're not spending scamming vulnerable adults out of their savings, right?

– James Veitch

This TED talk is great for a laugh, but there is also an interesting subtext to this story. What is the original scammer thinking during the exchange? Does he believe James is falling for the scam? Or is he just playing along? The human interaction that comes out of this unexpected place can make anyone wonder what kind of life lessons or comedic gold can be hidden in unanticipated places.

4. The World's Most Boring Television…and Why It's Hilariously Addictive by Thomas Hellum

​After gathering a huge following of people by broadcasting a seven-hour train ride, Norwegian television producer Thomas Hellum and his team set out on a 5 ½-day ferry ride along Norway's coast to give viewers more of what they wanted to see: things that are rooted in Norwegian culture that viewers could relate to.

“Slow TV” has no storyline, no script, no drama, and no climax. However, millions of Norwegians tune in to watch these everyday things unfold. Slow TV allows the viewer to come up with the story themselves as they watch the camera roll.

Life is best when it's a bit strange.

– Thomas Hellum

This is an example of something that sounds like it should have been sure to fail when the idea was proposed but ended up being a huge success. While the idea sounded “a bit strange” to producers, it turned out to be a successful project.

This story is surprising and motivating. It goes to show how important it is to represent yourself well when you are trying to make a hard sell and the impact of allowing your audience to get involved in your story. Part of doing this involves slowing down to a pace with purpose and taking ownership over your time. Lastly, it shows how taking a risk can pay off in the end.

5. Why Work Doesn't Happen at Work by Jason Fried

This talk by Jason Fried argues that it is very difficult to be productive in an office setting because of the constant distractions. People need long stretches of uninterrupted time to be creative and do meaningful work, but a typical workday gives employees moments of time to work, not an entire day.

When asking where people really want to go when they need to get something done, Fried found that no one claimed their office to be their most productive place. Rather, they had three different kinds of answers:

  • A place, location, or room
  • A moving object (such as a commute)
  • A specific time

Similar to the phases of sleep, where you have to get through the early phases in order to enter the deep, restorative phases, you have to pass through the early stages of working before you enter a period of “deep work.” If you are interrupted in an early phase, you can't pick up where you left off and continue through the remaining phases—you have to start over.

With this analogy in mind, how is someone expected to get any meaningful work done in the office if they are constantly being distracted?

Meetings and managers are two major problems in businesses today, especially at offices. 

– Jason Fried

Managers often don't want their employees to work from home because they think a home environment introduces distractions, but it is difficult to make that argument when a day in the office involves long meetings and personal interruptions from co-workers.

Distractions at home are voluntary and can be accepted at a proper breaking point in one's work. But distractions in the office are involuntary, and often come when employees are in a deep phase of work—if they can ever get to that point. Managers and meetings are not a possible distraction when working from one's chosen location on their own time.

There are a few things that managers can do to remedy this problem. First, managers can block out a period of time each week or month and ban anyone in the office from talking.

On these “no-talk Thursdays” (or whatever day you choose), employees will be able to have a given amount of uninterrupted time at the office, which will allow them to get their work done.

A second option is to promote passive models of communication, such as email and instant messaging. This would allow employees to welcome distractions on a voluntary basis.

For example, if an employee is working hard to make progress on a project, they have the ability to turn off their email or instant messaging (while they don't necessarily have the ability to close their office door to unexpected visitors).

Finally, managers can cancel meetings. Meetings often waste time and cost companies a lot of money.

This anti-procrastination TED talk motivates viewers to choose their distractions wisely, and time them just right so they can get meaningful work done at their own pace.

6. How to Gain Control of Your Free Time by Laura Vanderkam

This TED talk is about knowing your priorities and stretching your time out to fit everything into your week that you want to fit into it. How you spend your time is a choice, and everyone holds the power to fit their priorities into their time.

We don't build the lives we want by saving time. We build the lives we want, and then time saves itself.

– Laura Vanderkam

Saying “I don’t have time” really means “it’s not a priority.” To make your priorities, make solid goals for the upcoming week or year. Then, break these goals down into tasks, and consider these tasks to be your priorities.

With 168 hours in each week, you can make time for the things that matter to you. Even small moments can hold power in your schedule by using them to do things that bring you joy.

7. How Too Many Rules at Work Keep You From Getting Things Done by Yves Morieux

In this TED talk, Yves Morieux argues that people and organizations are suffering from a chronic lack of productivity because there are too many middlemen and rules in workplaces that prevent people from being successful.

Productivity is the chief catalyst for the success of a society. But productivity has been steadily declining for decades, which has a large impact on society.

When productivity grows 3% each year, each generation's standard of living is doubled. When it grows just 1% each year, it takes three generations for the standards of living to double. This means that instead of being twice as well off as your parents, you are twice as well off as your great grandparents.

Our organizations are wasting human intelligence. They have turned against human efforts. When people don't cooperate, don't blame their mindsets, their mentalities, their personality—look at the work situations.

– Yves Morieux

If you look at the three things it takes to create efficiency, clarity, measurement, and accountability, you can see that they can disturb individual human efforts.

For example, if a company is focused on accountability and making sure that each employee is only responsible for their part, they will end up with a list of people to blame if something goes wrong. Instead, it is important to aim to succeed.

Each human effort contributes to the success of the whole, so individual employees should all have an impact on the entire project. This means, instead of drawing hard lines between each person's jobs, the lines should be fuzzy and overlap with each other.

In other words, companies should focus on cooperation. When employees work together in a collaborative way, they are able to increase their energy and build off of each other's intelligence.

The beauty of cooperation is that it shows the sum of the company is worth more than its parts. But it is important for organizations to make their individual employees better off when they cooperate so employees will want to work in this manner.

It is critical for organizations to look at how their employees work together, not just if it is happening. They must look at how each individual effort is contributing to the success of the whole. When companies work with this collaborative model, they can do more work with fewer resources.

You're not alone in your struggle with procrastination.

If you are struggling with procrastination, hopefully, these videos will be helpful for you.

Whether you are struggling with procrastinating at work or at home, there is something in these procrastination TED talks for everyone. You're certainly not alone in your struggle with the urge to put things off, and one of the worst parts is that we often procrastinate on things that we actually really want to do because putting things off is the easy way to go.

Our advice?

Review each of these seven procrastination TED talk videos. Jot down some notes when you hear something that rings true to you, and try at least one of the strategies that you learned.

And if you get stuck, we have a detailed blog post on 14 different tactics you can use to stop procrastinating.

Hopefully, this will help you get a handle on dealing with procrastination. Or give you some inspiration to make improvements.

Finally, if you want to level up your productivity and time management skills, then watch this free video about the 9 productivity habits you can build at work.

Watch the 7 best TED talks on procrastination and learn how to stop struggling to get things done. #productivitytips #entrepreneurs #productivity #purpose #business #career #tips #planning

1 thought on “7 Best TED Talks on Procrastination: Tim Urban and Others”

  1. Thanks for sharing! These are a great resources as we can all use a little help find the motivation to avoid or overcome procrastination. Watching each of these a few times will likely prove to be super beneficial.

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