Soul Articles

Procrastination - How to Hug Your Hippo

Reading time: approx. 6 minutes

Introducing a New Player to the Procrastination Game

Many of us already met the “Instant Gratification Monkey” introduced in the infamous Ted-Talk by Tim Urban “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator

Getting to know the monkey is very helpful in order to understand procrastination. In short, Urban explains that the monkey takes over the steering wheel of our brain when the “rational decision maker” should be in control and takes us to “fun and easy”- island.
For procrastinators this mode lasts until a deadline comes so close, that the inner “panic monster” hits the alarm button, scares away the monkey and makes way for the “rational decision maker” to finally finish the task. 

This explains a lot of what’s going on when we procrastinate. But what can we actively do about it?

In order to come closer to answering that question, we first need to introduce another crucial player in the procrastination game:

The Hiding Hippo

The "hiding hippo" wants you to hide from your problems and your negative feelings. 

Even if you found a way to keep your monkey entertained by making your work more enjoyable and instantly gratifying, this still doesn’t solve the problem which the hippo brings into the equation: it does not care about fun. All it cares about is for you to hide away from negative feelings and acknowledging difficulties. 

Monkey DomainHippo Domain
Instant GratificationAvoiding Negative Feelings

If you should be working on your project but there is an entertaining chit chat among colleagues that you cannot resist joining, it’s likely that the monkey is at the turning wheel. 

But those moments when you actually sit down in front of your computer, seemingly ready to get some work done but end up blankly staring at the screen or it suddenly appears indispensable to clean your desk  - better yet - the whole room, before getting started: That’s probably the hippo at the steering wheel, not the monkey. 

Let us give you some examples for the hippo taking over the steering wheel of the brain: 

Example 1:
Marc, a shy young software engineer, needs some key information from his colleague Ben to be able to finish his project. Yet Marc is hesitant to talk to Ben because he has a way of being condescending and making Marc feel bad about himself. Now the hippo really doesn’t want Marc to feel this way, grabs the wheel and makes Marc put off asking Ben. The hippo even convinces Marc that the key information really is not essential after all and that it is ok to just work around it. This leads Marc to take much longer to finish the project than he would have otherwise. 

Example 2:

Katelin is an intelligent young woman who has all the necessary skills to write a cum laude PhD thesis on marine biology. Yet somewhere deep down she doesn’t feel like she is cut out for it. Growing up her parents always gave her the feeling that she wasn’t good enough and she has carried this feeling around with her ever since. So whenever she sits down to work on her thesis, this feeling of “I’m not good enough. ” is sitting right there with her. This makes her hippo cringe. The hippo wants to protect Katelin from feeling this way. It also wants to protect Katelin from actual failure just in case her parents have been right about her being useless after all. Consequently the hippo cannot stand it when Katelin is working on her thesis. Eventually it is going to crack, grab the steering wheel and make Katelin distract herself from feeling these awful things. 

The amount of hippo-damage that is created in such ways in organizations - and general life for that matter - is huge. And to some degree this is due to the fact that we are oftentimes not even aware that the hippo has taken control.  

How to end the procrastination game

So now that we know the most important players, what do we do in order to end the procrastination game? 

The answer lies in giving the two lovable misfits what they need!

The whole procrastination problem arises in the first place, because both monkey and hippo are sometimes using very misled strategies in order to get what they want for us.
Let’s take a closer look at what this is:

Player: The MonkeyThe Hippo
What he wants: For us to have funFor us to feel safe, worthy and loved
Favorite Mislead Strategy: Move the attention to something instantly rewarding without regard for meaningfulnessHide away from problems and negative emotions and live in a make-believe wonderland

Let’s talk about the monkey’s business some other time and focus on the hippo for now. In order to get it to hand over the steering wheel, we need to first learn to both understand and appreciate our hippo. 

Appreciate your hippo

Our inner hippo wants to protect us from feeling unsafe, unloved or unworthy . This is a very honorable thing to do because upon reversion this means that the hippo simply wants us to feel safe, loved and worthy. So as it turns out, the hippo is a very warm-hearted fella. It is merely a bit clumsy in the way that he is trying to protect us.

Understand your hippo

Our inner hippos come in many different forms and colors, depending on how we grew up. Surely, if our hippo is very big and concerned, there was a time when it must have played an important role for us and it is important to honor that. We usually acquire our inner hippos during our childhood, when we do not feel fully capable of protecting ourselves and utterly dependent and vulnerable. The hippo jumps in to protect us when it is afraid that we might not be able to cope with the trouble we’re in. It wants us to hide, not feel our pain and live in a fake little make-believe wonderland where everything is safe, warm and fuzzy. 

The helplessness and dependency that we experience to varying degrees as children often dramatically change for the better as we become adults. But the hippo often continues to stick to more or less the same strategy of hiding us away from trouble regardless of that fact that times have changed.

Now that we appreciate and understand our hippo, let us cut to the chase and see what we can do to persuade it to hand back over the steering wheel in 5 steps:

  1. Recognize the hippo

We will never get anywhere while we are still unconscious of the fact that the hippo is at work. When we procrastinate, it is crucial to first take a moment to remind ourselves that this means that the hippo is currently making us hide from something that it doesn’t want us to feel. We can then walk up to the steering wheel of our brain and surely enough we are going to find our hippo there, trying to steer us into the nearest bush. 

2. Hug the hippo 

It is vital to then give our hippo a big hug and meet it with compassion. It deserves it. It has been protecting you in its own twisted way. We can then move along and say “Thank you for having protected me so many times before. I know, you are trying to protect me in this situation too, but I’ve got it from here”.
(Often this will already be enough for the hippo to let go of the wheel and you can jump straight to point 5.)    

3. Ask the hippo what it needs right now

Sometimes the hippo doesn’t hand over the steering wheel so easily. When it is concerned for our safety it can be quite persistent. In those cases, it is time to give the hippo an even bigger hug, maybe rub its belly a little bit and ask the important question: “What do you need right now?”.

4. Be creative in giving the hippo what it needs

The answer to the question “What do you need right now?” is bound to be very different depending on the hippo – as well as the situation at hand. We need to listen carefully and then be creative in giving the hippo what it needs within the range of our possibilities.

Here is what the hippos in our two examples might have needed:

  • Marc's hippo might be content with Marc reminding him of all the projects that he has already successfully accomplished and of how he has every reason to feel competent, before it let’s Marc talk to Ben. 

  • In the case of Katelin, the hippo might need a little more than that. As long as Katelin is feeling like she is not good enough whenever she works on her thesis, the hippo is not going to let her work on it for eight hours a day - for good reason. Her hippo might need Katelin to find strategies to feel more worthy and loved while working on her thesis. This type of issue might be best addressed together with a mental wellbeing professional.

5. Hand the wheel over to the rational decision maker within you

Once the hippo has got what it needs to hand over the steering wheel, you can let your rational decision maker take over and do his thing. 

Author: Maren Jakob (Head of psychology, Soulchat)