“Precrastination” Is a Thing, and It Might Be Worse than Procrastination

published Feb 18, 2020
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It’s Monday morning; you have way more stuff to get through than there is time to do it in. Resisting the temptation to check Facebook one last time, you decide to start getting through your work as fast as possible. After hitting send on that first important email of the day, you congratulate yourself on avoiding procrastination. Soon after, you realize you sent it to the wrong person. If this situation sounds familiar, you might be a victim of procrastination’s evil twin—precrastination.

Advice columns telling us how to beat procrastination abound, but according to new research published in the scientific journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, trying to overcome procrastination by getting through your to-do list as fast as possible might actually be worse. 

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This research, which reviewed a collection of precrastination-related experiments, also concluded that the desire to do things quickly rather than well is far more powerful than initially thought.

The concept of precrastination was discovered in 2014 by accident when David Rosenbaum, a psychology professor at the University of California in Riverside, noticed something strange during an experiment designed to explore how people deal with distance versus weight when carrying objects. During the experiment, university students were asked to carry one of either two buckets down an alley. One bucket was closer to the end of the alley while the other one was closer to where the students started from. 

Rosenbaum expected that the students would naturally choose the bucket closer to the end, as it would result in the shortest carrying distance. Surprisingly, most students decided to pick up the bucket closest to them, even though it meant a longer carrying distance. 

Precrastination is the idea that we sometimes do the seemingly quickest thing rather than the easiest or best thing when it comes to completing tasks. 

When interviewed after the experiment, the participants said that they picked the bucket nearest to them to get the task done as fast as possible. This seemingly strange behavior was also noticed in repeated experiments and gave birth to the idea of precrastination. In essence, precrastination is the idea that we sometimes do the seemingly quickest thing rather than the easiest or best thing when it comes to completing tasks. 

So, why do we precrastinate? Current research shows that precrastination might have something to do with our desire to reduce our mental effort. 

In an experiment conducted in 2019 by researchers at Washington State University, participants were given either both a memorization and an object carrying task, or just the latter. Since the object carrying task required less attention to complete, it was found that participants precrastinated at higher rates when they also had the memorization task. The researchers concluded that this result seems to back up the idea that precrastination is associated with our desire to reduce cognitive effort. 

According to Rosenbaum, “The most interesting finding about precrastination is that it is not simply a reflection of the desire to get instant gratification or grab scarce resources (optimal foraging). Precrastination also reduces cognitive demands.” It looks like we are willing to work harder to get tasks off our to-do list, as long as it means that we get to avoid thinking.

Further research has shown that some animals, such as pigeons, precrastinate too. Also, older people tend to precrastinate less than younger people. So what can you do to avoid precrastination? Speaking to the New York Times, Rosenbaum says that “just being aware of this tendency is very helpful.”

So next time you’re looking at an endless to-do list and are about to decide what to do first, take a moment to ask yourself, “am I precrastinating?” Don’t spend too long thinking about it, though, or you might end up procrastinating.