When I was in 6th grade, my dad had signed me up for a math competition. While even the thought of it was dreadful, many other complex parts had come into play during my time studying for it, such as the consequences of procrastination and the psychology of the human brain that somehow failed me, which inevitably led me to fail the math competition as well.
To start, my dad always wanted me to be well-educated in mathematics. This was because my dad was a math enthusiast. He used to live in China, where he graduated with a major in math. Like most of the immigrants at the time, he came to seek job opportunities in the US. So when I first started middle school, I was not at all surprised when my dad had decided to sign me up for a math competition. In retrospect, I was never motivated to really want to do well in the competition for a result that satisfied myself. I was more concerned that the result would ensue a disappointed and angry father. But of course like always, my lazy personality would guarantee a dissatisfying result.
The competition was a 25 question, 40 minute, multiple choice examination that apparently would enhance my math skills greatly. The competition was called the AMC 8. Each year, the Mathematical Association of America would host an AMC 8 competition for middle school students, like me. There was an honor roll for the list of students that made the top 1 percent. These math competitions were extremely beneficial in the future because they are important to colleges that are strict about math scores, such as MIT. Therefore, much was at stake.
My dad had given me some materials to help me study for the math competition. He had given me new thick math books with hundreds of pages, old math tests that had problems just waiting to be solved, and new pencils and erasers that had the fresh fragrance of cedar.
Yet, because of my lazy personality, during the time “studying,” I would never really focus myself on preparing for the competition, and eventually I would always end up playing Minecraft on my computer, or somehow watching a random Ted Talk on YouTube that had no educational purpose at all.
However, as my consciousness slowly grew every day, I realized that the competition was slowly drawing nearer and nearer as well, like a wave that was waiting to engulf me into a pit full of shamefulness and regret. Still, I had the audacity to do nothing about it. Then, one day, my dad came into my room and told me that there were only two weeks left until the competition started. I panicked. I had completely forgotten how close the competition was under my comfortable blanket of solitude and fun. Suddenly, the days didn’t seem so long anymore. I immediately started to rush through the books and tests my dad had given me. For two weeks, in my panicked state, I struggled to learn anything efficiently and often forgot about things I learned just the day before.
When it was time to take the exam, I was both extremely unprepared and extremely nervous. All the questions looked hard, but I managed to tackle a few. Unfortunately, that was the bare minimum for a score that was decent. I looked at the clock just as I finished my 5th question, and there were only 3 minutes left. With so little time, I quickly guessed the rest of the questions and left the examination room feeling guilty and depressed.
I started to think back on why I was even procrastinating when I wanted to do well on the math competition. I biked back home and did some research on the topic. Apparently, there are many theories on procrastination, and they all involve the brain, how it works, and why it doesn’t. One theory that especially held my attention was Tim Urban’s.
According to Tim Urban, everyone has a rational decision-maker in their mind, but in a procrastinator’s mind, there are also two other things that exist -- the “instant gratification monkey” and the “panic monster.” For example, when a procrastinator has to write a 90 page essay that's due in 30 days, the rational decision-maker takes control of the mind in the beginning. But then, when the rational-decision maker decides to do something productive, the monkey doesn’t like that plan, and takes over the control of the whole brain and decides to read the whole Wikipedia page on Rick Rolls.
Then, the monkey decides to go on a YouTube adventure, starting from watching movie scenes from the Lord of the Rings, that eventually end to watching interviews with Elon Musk. After that, the monkey decides to open Google Earth and zoom all the way into Europe, and proceed to scroll all the way until the end of the east coast of Russia to get a better feel of the world. “All of that is going to take a while, so we’re not going to really have room on the schedule for any work today, sorry!” says the monkey to the rational decision-maker.
Tim Urban furthers that the instant gratification monkey has no memory of the past nor thought to the future. It only cares about two things, easy and fun. This eventually goes on endlessly until the panic monster shows up 2 days before the due date. Now, the panic monster is dormant most of the time, but he immediately wakes up when a deadline gets too close or there’s a danger of failure, public embarrassment, career disaster, or any other scary consequences. Most importantly, he’s the only thing the instant gratification monkey is afraid of. The panic monster wakes up and starts losing his mind, and seconds later the whole system is in full chaos. The monkey runs off into a tree and the rational decision-maker takes back the control of the mind, writing the 90 paged essay in only two days. Obviously the story does not end well, similar to mine. By procrastinating, we avoid becoming unhappy or bored because of intricate tasks.
Months later, my dad had received a letter in the mail. My score was below the average and far from being included in the honor roll.
“Aiya, son! What is this?” My dad yelled at me, eyes wide with shock.
“I dunno, I’m sorry, Dad” My head lowered with shame.
“You spent all this time; only to give me this score?” He hollered.
“No,” I whimpered, heart beating fast and trembling. “I spent most of my time playing games and watching Elon Musk.”
After a brief silence, cut by a long sigh, my dad had a long talk with me about how wasting my time was also wasting and ruining my life. I realized how much I could’ve done and accomplished in the months that I decided to waste and procrastinate. In the end, I fell victim to the instant gratification monkey, procrastinating until only two weeks before the competition. However, when the panic monster got in, it was already too late for my procrastinator brain; I had months worth of time to study and work, but decided to do nothing productive and important.