The Instant Gratification Monkey and Non-Linearity

Starting the year off with fun topic… If you’ve never heard of the Instant Gratification Monkey and the other characters from Tim Urban‘s now-classic 2016 Ted talk, you’re in for a treat. Even if you have it’s always good to have a refresh and I have a couple of thoughts that might help put it into more context for you.

Go ahead, the master procrastinator is ready with his story…

Tim Urban’s Instant Gratification Monkey haunts (and entertains!) us all. It may not be Netflix or YouTube, but it may be doing “the small stuff” before the “big stuff” for too long every day (this is called structured procrastination by the way…).

Two types of procrastination

At the end of the video, Tim makes what I think is the most important point: while we all procrastinate, there are actually two types of procrastination – one which is related to deadlines we don’t control and the other which is on big life items that have no deadlines.

Deadlines eventually get the procrastinator in us moving and we’re able to assert control long enough to meet the deadline, or even to do great work. This system is imperfect but it works.

Procrastination around big life issues or challenges with no deadlines has a much more insidious effect. This often affects things like health, big career decisions, relationships, entrepreneurial projects and so on: things that keep working more or less even though they probably need fixing or that simply aren’t getting started.

It’s easier to procrastinate on these things since there is no Panic Monster inducing deadline and (worse) our Panic Monster is continuously waking up to scare us into action for something which does have a deadline. In other words, the Panic Monster is already exhausted. The long term effect is that big life projects don’t get done.

You mentioned nonlinearity?

A compounding problem with putting off many of these items is that they often have nonlinear effects associated with them. A nonlinear effect in this context is something for which the amount of change, impact or cost that occurs isn’t always proportional to the amount of effort put in. Some obvious examples are:

  • Applying a tentative push to a large rock many times won’t move the rock. There is zero effect on the rock. You need single, much larger, push to actually move it.
  • Running and just catching a train might get you to your destination hours earlier than if you had been a 1 minute late. That single minute turned into hours because of the nonlinearity.
  • Having a $1000 of credit card debt at 10% annual interest costs $100 a year forever if all you do is pay the $100 interest each year. In 11 years that’s already more than the original $1000 (which you still owe). A bigger push to pay down the principle is needed so that one day you won’t have to pay anything anymore.
  • Being a fraction of an inch ahead of a defender in Premier League football match that is using VAR and getting called offside while your stunning volley hits the net. (*)

Unfortunately, as humans we are pretty bad at perceiving nonlinearity in our daily lives. Our standard mental model is “put a bit more in, a bit more comes out”, but this is wrong for many of the things we do:

  • The book you’ve been planning to write?
  • The debt you’ve been meaning to pay down?
  • The apology you know you need to give to that family member?
  • The bathroom mirror you’ve been meaning to fix?
  • The dentist’s appointment you know you really need to make?

All these things are examples of things that require a leap of effort and some pain to get done. They all have a “barrier” to get over. Thinking about them doesn’t do it, working yourself up but then not making the call doesn’t do it etc. So they go on creating regular reminders of some pain (and the additional jab of guilt…).

But, they are all the kind of things that once done improve things a little or even a lot for a long time afterward. It feels good to have written that book, to have paid down that debt, made the apology etc. What is even better is that that nagging worry is gone.

The Instant Gratification Monkey meets nonlinearity

Our Instant Gratification Monkey is great at distracting us from getting on a doing some of the things we really should do. It is so ingenious that it might even be using deadline type work to keep you busy (that needs to be done right? It’s not procrastination).

Unfortunately for many non-deadline type things have a low level (or even significant) ongoing personal cost when they are not done. For me personally two things brought this home to me last year:

  • The first was health and fitness. While I wasn’t strictly in a real “danger zone” and I’m not in perfect shape now, I’ve felt out of shape for many years. My basic mental model of this situation was always “I’m a person who is working on being in shape”. I ran, watched what I ate and so on for many years, but this basic situation really didn’t change. It took a real epiphany last year to see that what was needed was a real period of focus to break through some of the negative health issues. This has worked far better than many years of low-level continuous effort. Now there is more work to do but I feel radically better, exercise is way more fun and I feel like I’ve really done this challenge some justice. (**)
  • The second was progress on a personal project. For a few years, a couple of good friends and I have been working on a board game as a side project (we blog about it here). It’s been great fun to have something to work on, but it was always slow to make progress (we all have demanding day jobs). 2019 was the year we finally figured out how to structure work so we could make regular progress. We had a great year, exhibiting the game at Spiel Essen (awesome) and getting really professional prototypes. There is a long way to go but it really feels like progress after a long time stuck in the mud.

The key point in both of these was: the long term goals had no real deadlines, so while I put some effort in, it was never enough to truly make a difference. Now that that’s happened the path forward seems easier.


The Instant Gratification Monkey is in all of us (calm down buddy!). The real challenge is being aware of the monkey and paying particular attention to those big, non-deadline related and, above all, nonlinear things in our lives.

The start of a New Year feels like a great time to think through what low-level annoyances or big challenges we have that deserve more attention than they normally get! Have a great New Year!

Now please stand clear while I put the blog post writing panic monster back in its box….

(*) Actually with VAR the offside call is likely to come 3 minutes later :-).

(**) No doubt I could slip back health-wise so fingers crossed I don’t but at least I know what it feels like to have made a difference.

Photo by Steven Willmott, 2019.

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