Under The Hood: Tim Urban’s TED Talk

A quick Google search on the phrase “Why do I procrastinate” will return more than 200,000 results. From a brief summary of a few typical reasons and quick solutions to a detailed review of the symptoms of procrastination and its psychological causes. None of them is as engaging and impactful as Tim Urban’s TED talk from 2016: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator.

If you are looking for scientific data or formal research, this 14-minute talk is probably not the best resource. Tim Urban describes his personal experience and his insights on what makes him procrastinate. Nothing more and nothing less. And yet, this talk shines above all other resources on the subject. It does not intend to replace the in-depth research or the more detailed articles, but with more than 50 million views, it is safe to say that this is the most popular piece of content on procrastination.

The first reason this talk is so popular is that it touches on a problem many people can connect to. Even if you are not a pathological procrastinator, there are probably some areas in your life where procrastination is your default operation mode. Tim Urban talks about a personal problem, telling his personal story, and yet most of us can easily see ourselves as the protagonist of this text.

But not less important is the fact that Tim Urban manages to take a common problem and shed new light on it. His insights help us understand ourselves better, but not with the help of scientific research or phycological jargon. Tim Urban helps us understand ourselves by simplifying the complex processes running in our minds to the level of a simple and engaging metaphor — a metaphor we can all intuitively understand. By stripping off the subject from its inherent complexity, we are likely to lose a lot of information. We won’t understand all the nuances and the bits and bytes of the subject. It is a tradeoff inherent to any form of abstraction and simplification. But Tim Urban made a conscious decision to favor a simplification that delivers value at the expense of less engaging details.

The Power of a Metaphor

A metaphor is “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract.” When used in a professional context, it has two qualities that complement each other, turning the metaphor into a powerful tool.

The first quality of a metaphor is that it simplifies things. A metaphor is an abstraction (or a representation) of something else. Like any representation, it is not designed to capture all the details and nuances of the subject. Instead, it highlights only specific attributes of the issue and thus simplifies it and makes these aspects more comprehensible. When you use a metaphor, you consciously let go of most of the details and complexities, making the idea you are trying to convey more approachable. But when used wisely, the metaphor has a second essential quality: it turns the aspect you wish to highlight into a vivid, almost tangible, picture.

Tim Urban decided to represent this voice in his mind that convinces him to procrastinate as a monkey. Consider that for a moment. A monkey is perceived by many of us as an animal that shares many attributes with us humans. It is perceived as a more primitive, less sophisticated creature than humans, yet it reassembles us just enough to see ourselves in it. We think of monkeys as impulsive, hectic creatures, driven by simpler things than us. We tend to see monkeys as joyful and playful. It is hard to think of monkeys doing serious, meaningful work. They are also perceived as easily distracted creatures. When something grabs their attention, they will explore it and play with it.

This vivid picture of a monkey does not require any explanation. We know monkeys (or at least we think we do). And so, when Tim Urban says he procrastinate because he has this monkey inside his head, we know exactly what he means. We understand, without the need for too many words, what makes him tick. If you wish to explain the impulsive and primal nature of a vague, complex concept like procrastination, this metaphor is the most effective way to do so. And, of course, it is also funnier and more engaging than any scientific data about parts of your brain that control your impulses.

As excellent as this metaphor is, it cannot explain all the different reasons that make people procrastinate. But that is perfectly OK. In fact, it is not practical to delve into all the various things that affect procrastination in a 14-minute talk. Apart from being less engaging, the area such a theoretical talk will span across is too broad, and as a result, its effectiveness is questionable. Tim Urban made a conscious decision to explore only one aspect of procrastination. And for that aspect, the metaphor he has crafted works perfectly.

Expressing one idea effectively instead of trying to cover the entire area is often a blessed tactic. Of course, it depends on the audience, the medium, and the context, but generally speaking, it is easier to create value by highlighting fewer aspects with brighter lights than trying to cover a wider area and losing the ability to say something meaningful. If you are willing to let go some, or even most, of the details of the subject, using a metaphor can help you create a stronger impact.

When you choose the metaphor wisely, it becomes the most memorable part of your content, and it will continue to resonate in the minds of the audience long after they read your text or listen to your talk.

The Effective Metaphor

Not all metaphors are equal. Crafting the right metaphor is not always trivial, but if you wish to maximize the impact of your metaphor, you should consider a few aspects.

Familiar and Visual

We all know how monkeys look, and we all know (or have a perception of) how monkeys behave. And this makes the metaphor Tim Urban uses highly effective. Simply put, when the metaphor is introduced, it requires almost no explanation. The more familiar the audience is with the thing you use as a metaphor, the less you have to explain it.

You do not want the audience to start wondering about your metaphor. If the metaphor you use is not immediately familiar, it is far less effective. If the audience has to invest their energy and attention to understand the metaphor and why it works, the flow of listening or reading is likely to break. Instead of accelerating the flow of your text, an unfamiliar metaphor might hit the emergency brakes.

One way to ensure you use a familiar and effective metaphor is to verify it triggers a visual image in the audience’s mind. A monkey is a highly visual metaphor. You can see it in your mind (even without the engaging drawings Tim Urban added to his talk), adding a new dimension to the text. Moreover, such a highly visual metaphor will likely create a Renewable Impact. The next time you or someone close to you procrastinate, you will literally see this monkey in your mind. You will remember Tim Urban’s talk if only for this visual image that automatically surfaces whenever you encounter procrastination.

Triggers Instant New Insights

A metaphor highlights some key aspects of the concept you aim to explain while obscuring the others. It puts one aspect in focus while filtering the noise created by other attributes. To craft an effective metaphor, you first have to define what you wish to emphasize and what parts you are willing to let go of.

But if that is the only outcome of using the simplified analogy, you are not fully utilizing the power of a good metaphor. To be effective, a metaphor must shed new light on the subject and help the audience gain new insights almost instantly.

When Tim Urban introduces the monkey inside his head, you immediately get a sense of what goes on in his mind when he impulsively pushes away essential tasks in favor of instant gratification. Instead of describing this mental process in abstract words, this new understanding is already built into the metaphor.

Spans Across the Entire Scope

Since a metaphor highlights only certain aspects of the subject, it is easy to fall into the trap of switching metaphors. If you plan to discuss several aspects of a topic, you might be tempted to use a different metaphor for each. For your audience, this could be very confusing and far less memorable.

The most effective metaphors span across the entire scope of your text. You don’t need to find a metaphor that captures the subject with all its nuances and aspects. This is rarely possible. But you should aim to craft a metaphor that applies to all the elements you will talk about. If you can’t find any, it might indicate that you are trying to squeeze too much into your text. Whether you decide to reduce the scope or settle with a metaphor covering only part of it, avoid switching metaphors when clearly still within the same content.

Tim Urban manages to keep the monkey metaphor alive (and effective) throughout the talk. In fact, as the text progresses, the monkey helps us understand more aspects of what goes on in Tim’s mind with minimal explanations. And this brings us to the last aspect to consider.

Evolving and Playful

A familiar and visual metaphor that spans the entire scope of the text and triggers new insights is excellent and effective. If you manage to craft a metaphor that also evolves and invites the audience to keep playing with it, you have really hit the jackpot.

Tim Urban’s monkey is not a static metaphor. It evolves as the talk progresses, and it does that naturally and effortlessly. When Tim Urban introduces the Panic Monster, we learn about another aspect of the procrastination monkey: something can scare it off. The monkey is no longer just that impulsive creature that takes over. We get to see another side of it. And this new characteristic of the monkey is perfectly aligned with it being a monkey. We can imagine a monkey being scared of something, running away and climbing the highest tree it can find. The metaphor has evolved and added new insights to our understanding of the subject.

But that’s not all. Since this metaphor is so engaging and familiar, we are likely to take it even further. I found myself thinking about other situations that might trigger different behaviors of the monkey — the one inside my head. I took the metaphor Tim Urban has crafted and continued to play with it and evolve it myself. It is an excellent Renewable Impact that creates a continuous relationship with the text and its author.


When you craft an effective metaphor and use it wisely in your text, you can turn a good idea into an unforgettable one.

A good metaphor can be a source of surprise, not only for your audience but also for you. Often, you will gain new and surprising insights on the subject as your craft your metaphor. When you do, you know you have nailed it.

Reflect

Think of a memorable metaphor in a text you have read or listened to and consider what made it effective.

Play

Think of an abstract concept you are highly familiar with. Craft a metaphor that highlights a few aspects of that subject. Consider whether the metaphor promotes new understanding of the subject — something that surprises even you.

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